When do two commas NOT signal a non-essential clause?

When do two commas NOT signal a non-essential clause?

Note: I’m addressing this issue in part because a colleague informed me that it’s popped up in regards to my books on Reddit. If anyone comes across those questions, feel free to direct people here.

Among the simplest and most straightforward grammatical rules students studying for the SAT or ACT often learn is two commas are often used to signal non-essential information: words, phrases, and clauses that are not central to the essential meaning of a sentence, and that can be crossed out without affecting its basic grammatical structure.

The problem, of course, is that commas can be tested in many ways, and that two commas can be present in a given section for numerous reasons. Now, much of the time, two commas in an underlined section will in fact signal non-essential information, but if you’re aiming for a very high Writing/English score on the SAT or ACT, you also need to understand when this is not the case. (To read about information that is non-essential click here.) (more…)

Read until you get to the period (how to avoid a common careless error)

Read until you get to the period (how to avoid a common careless error)

Not to long ago (5/30/18), I happened to post the following Question of the Day on Facebook:


It wasn’t that long ago that putting food in liquid nitrogen was something you’d only see in a high school science class, but it’s also becoming a mainstay of modernist cooking. It’s odorless, tasteless, and harmless because it’s so cold (–320.44°F to be exact), it boils at room temperature and evaporates out of your food as it rapidly chills it.


B. tasteless, and harmless, and because
C. tasteless and harmless, because
D. tasteless, harmless and because,


The exception to the “no verb after whom” rule

The exception to the “no verb after whom” rule

Note: this exception is addressed in the 4th edition of The Ultimate Guide to SAT® Grammar and the 3rd edition of The Complete Guide to ACT® English, but it is not covered in earlier versions.


Both SAT Writing and ACT English focus test two specific aspects of the who vs. whom rule.


1) Who, not whom, should be placed before a verb.


Incorrect: Alexander Fleming was the scientist whom discovered penicillin.

Correct: Alexander Fleming was the scientist who discovered penicillin. (more…)

What is a clause?

What is a clause?

“Clause” is one of those terms that gets thrown around a lot in discussion about grammar. It’s one of those words that students often hear but whose meaning they tend not to be 100% sure of.

It’s certainly possible to study for the SAT®/ACT®/GMAT® without knowing the exact definition of a clause, but understanding what clauses are and how they work can make things a whole lot easier. (more…)

The trickiest SAT/ACT transition questions

The trickiest SAT/ACT transition questions

When transition questions are discussed in regard to SAT Writing/ACT English, they tend to be covered in two main forms. 

The first way involves a transition placed after a comma in the middle of a sentence. 

Version #1: The Spanish conquest of the Aztecs in 1519 brought the fragrant vanilla flower—and its companion, cacao—to Europe. Vanilla was cultivated in botanical gardens in France and England, but growers were unable to collect its glorious seeds.   (more…)

My top ACT English strategy tip

Just to be clear, this is a post about strategy — if you don’t know the actual grammar, or you have difficulty understanding when to use different types of transitions, it won’t save you. And if you fall into that category and are looking to do some last minute cramming, you should probably start with my complete SAT and ACT grammar rules.

But assuming you have a reasonable grasp of the actual content and do not regularly run out of time, this is the most important piece of advice I can offer you. It might not sound like much, but it can have very significant consequences; I’ve seen it affect students’ English scores by as many as three points.

So here goes: after you’ve finished an ACT English passage, stop and take a brief break (anywhere from 10-30 seconds) before you begin the next passage. Make yourself stop before every new passage, regardless of whether you feel tired, and even if you’re a feeling slightly concerned about time.

I realize that given the time constraints of the test, that might sound like very counter-intuitive advice, so here’s why:

I’ve looked at a lot of ACT score reports over the past eight or so years, and after seeing certain number of them, I started to noticed something interesting. Often, a student would miss at most a couple of English questions during the first half of the section, but during the second half, there would be a sharp drop-off in performance. In addition, there was frequently a cluster of incorrect answers right around #70, regardless of whether the student was running out of time.

After some puzzling over this oh-so-intriguing phenomenon, I had a light bulb moment. There was nothing inherently more difficult about passages 3-5, I realized; students were just getting tired. And when the end was in sight, their focus would disappear, and they would crash and burn.

Spending that length of time staring at all those tiny commas and semicolons and colons and periods could make anyone a little cuckoo, regardless of how well they knew the test.

Eventually, I came up with what seemed to be a reasonable solution: I asked students to start taking breaks between passages. Very short breaks, mind you, but breaks nonetheless.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I encountered some pushback. Students felt that they were on a roll, that they would lose time, that they didn’t want to interrupt something that seemed to be working.

Those were entirely understandable objections. The problem was that when these students crashed straight through from question #1 to question #75, they always, always lost just a few extra points unnecessarily.

So I insisted: they had to force themselves to stop for even a few seconds, even if they didn’t feel tired. What’s more, they had to do it before every single passage — no skipping. The goal was to do everything possible to prevent the fatigue from accumulating to the point where it would start to affect their scores.

And it worked. Even if students resisted at first, they came around pretty easily once they saw that taking regular breaks got them from the consistent 29-30 range to the consistent 32-33 range.

Again, to reiterate: there is virtually no way to answer all 75 questions in an ACT English section without accumulating some degree of mental fatigue.

Even if you’re not aware that your brain is getting tired, trust me, it is. The change will be subtle at first, so subtle you probably won’t even be aware of it, but it will happen. Your reaction times will get a fraction of a second slower, and you will have to focus harder just to understand what each question is asking. You will also be more likely to miss key information that you would have noticed easily 30 minutes earlier. 

If, on the other hand, you take a breather between passages, some of that mental clutter tends to dissipate. You’ll not only end the English section in better shape than you would have otherwise, but you’ll have more energy left for the rest of the exam. 

So please, do yourself a favor. Stop for just a couple of seconds and let your mind reset. The ACT is a marathon, not a sprint, and you need to pace yourself accordingly. Close your eyes, look out the window, meditate… whatever. Just allow yourself that tiny mental break. It may seem like such a small thing, but it can have big consequences.