SAT Tip of the Week: Can You Answer These 3 Comma Questions?

SAT Tip of the Week - FullConsidering how ubiquitous a piece of punctuation the comma is, it is surprisingly misunderstood. The comma has a number of uses that are described quite thoroughly here, but the most common comma errors on the SAT are comma splices, omission of commas when used with a conjunction to combine two independent clauses, and misuse of commas with the word ‘which’.

Let us take a quick look at each to make sure that we understand how each is used.

Firstly, let me define an ‘independent clause’. This is simply a clause with a subject and a verb that could stand alone as a sentence. I’ll use this term interchangeably with ‘complete sentence’.

Let’s look at our first example:

“A comma splice is used to combine two complete sentences without the aid of a conjunction, using a comma in this way is improper.”

In the example sentence above, we see that two complete sentences (independent clauses) are joined by only a comma. This is called a comma splice and is a very common error on the SAT. There are a number of ways to fix this problem, but the three most common methods are adding a conjunction, changing the comma to a semi-colon, or combining the two sentences into one. Here are some example answer choices:

A) A comma splice is used to combine two complete sentences without the aid of a conjunction, using a comma in this way is considered improper.

B) A comma splice is used to combine two complete sentences without the aid of a conjunction, and so using a comma in this way is considered improper.

C) A comma splice is used to combine two complete sentences without the aid of a conjunction; and using a comma in this way is considered improper.

D) A comma splice is used to combine two complete sentences without the aid of a conjunction, but using a comma in this way is considered improper.

E) A comma splice is used to combine two complete sentences without the aid of a conjunction, the use of which is improper.

Only answer choice (D) fixes the comma splice and does not create a new error, either by adding too many conjunctions, as in (B) and (C), or by creating an improper second clause, as in (E).

Let’s take a look at another example:

“As with a comma splice, omission of a comma can also incorrectly join two sentences but they may appear correctly joined at first glance.”

In our example sentence we have an omission error. This can similarly be fixed by adding a comma, combining the sentences, or replacing the conjunction with a semi-colon.

A) As with a comma splice, omission of a comma can also incorrectly join two sentences but they may appear correctly joined at first glance.

B) As with a comma splice, omission of a comma can also incorrectly join two sentences, they may appear correctly joined at first glance.

C) With the omission of a comma, as with a comma splice, two sentences can be incorrectly joined while appearing to be combined correctly.

D) As with a comma splice, omission of a comma can also incorrectly join two sentences, however, they may appear correctly joined at first glance.

E) As to a comma splice, omission of a comma can also incorrectly join two sentences, but it may appear correctly joined at first glance.

In choices (A), (B), and (D) either a comma is absent, or a conjunction capable of combining two independent clauses is absent (‘however, is not a strong enough conjunction to join two independent clauses). Answer choice (E) has an idiomatic error with “As to a comma splice” and a number error in “but it may appear”. Answer choice (C) combines the two clauses into one sentence and also makes the sentence sound a little more parallel by using the construction “With…as with…”.

Our final example is a comma error with the word ‘which.’

“When the word ‘which’ is used to describe something different than the subject of the sentence, the sentence needs a comma which marks the change of subject.”

In the example above, the comma necessary to show a change of subject between the independent and subordinate clauses has been omitted. We need a comma there in order for the sentence to function.

A) When the word ‘which’ is used to describe something different than the subject of the sentence, the sentence needs a comma which marks the change of subject.

B) When the word ‘which’ is used to describe something different than the subject of the sentence, the sentence needs a comma, which marks the change of subject.

C) When the word ‘which’ is used to describe something different than the subject of the sentence, the sentence needs a comma, and it marks the change of subject

D) When the word ‘which’ is used to describe something different than the subject of the sentence, the sentence needs a comma because of marking the change of subject

E) When the word ‘which’ is used to describe something different than the subject of the sentence, the sentence needs a comma, being that is marks the change of subject

In these example answers, only answer choice (B) adds a comma, maintains the original construction with the word “which”, and does not add some awkward phrasing to the sentence, so (B) is the correct answer.

Though commas can be tricky to understand fully, these are the main comma errors to be found on the SAT. If students can get a handle on what an independent clause is and when two such clauses are being combined, the comma problem should be simple as syrup. Happy studying!

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David Greenslade is a Veritas Prep SAT instructor based in New York. His passion for education began while tutoring students in underrepresented areas during his time at the University of North Carolina. After receiving a degree in Biology, he studied language in China and then moved to New York where he teaches SAT prep and participates in improv comedy. Read more of his articles here, including How I Scored in the 99th Percentile and How to Effectively Study for the SAT.

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