The Correct Use of Lists and Parallelism on the SAT

If you’ve been reading our articles, you already know that there are only so many techniques and tricks that the SAT can use to make questions difficult.  On the writing multiple-choice section, there about only a dozen grammar and style rules that you need to know in order to get a perfect Writing score.  On the SAT, it is particularly important to pay attention to one specific punctuation mark:  the comma.

The comma can play many roles and functions on an SAT Writing question and is therefore a bit of a chameleon.  Think of the classic Culture Club song “Karma Chameleon”, but the hook is “comma comma comma chameleon…”  That’s what comes to mind when thinking about how commas are used on the SAT.  When you come across a comma on the SAT, you should pay particular attention to how it’s used and what role it’s playing.  Often times, a comma can help you find where an error in a sentence might be.  In another blog post, we talked about how a comma can be misused in a “comma splice” and how you can identify and correct the error.

Another “role” that a comma can play is to separate lists of nouns or participial phrases.  Here are some examples:

Colleen really likes dinosaurs and she especially fancies triceratops, stegosaurus, and pterodactyl.

Brian’s recent iron-man competition involved swimming in the ocean, riding a bicycle, and running a marathon.

The key on the SAT for this type of comma usage is to recognize when there is a list of similar things being separated by the commas and to make sure that the items are “in parallel.”  This simply means that the items in the list have to follow the same structure and be consistent in how they are written.  Here are some examples of improper ways that lists are constructed where the items are NOT in parallel:

Colleen really likes dinosaurs and she especially fancies triceratops, stegosaurus, and collecting pictures of pterodactyl.

The list in this sentence is not in parallel because the pattern is [noun], [noun], [participial phrase].  The sentence would be in parallel only if all three elements in the list were in the same structure.  Here’s another incorrect usage of parallelism:

Brian’s recent iron-man competition involved a swim in the ocean, riding a bicycle, and running a marathon. 

Can you spot the odd one out in the list?  It’s “a swim in the ocean” since the two other elements start with the –ing form of the verb.

Now you should be able to easily use commas to spot lists on SAT Writing sentences and know how to make sure that they are in parallel!

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Jason Sun is the Director of College Prep for Veritas Prep. When he’s not in the office, he can be found competing in swing dance competitions or defending his title as a table tennis champion.