How to Use a Dash

How to Use a Dash

Dashes are a form of punctuation that is pretty much guaranteed to show up on both the ACT® English Test and the multiple-choice SAT® Writing Test. Because they tend to be used more frequently in British than in American English, they are typically the least familiar type of punctuation for many students. That said, they are relatively straightforward.

Dashes are tested in three ways. The first is extremely common, the second less common, and the third rare.

 

1) To set off a non-essential clause (2 Dashes = 2 Commas)

In this case, dashes are used exactly like commas to indicate non-essential information that can be removed without affecting the basic meaning of a sentence. If you have one dash, you need the other dash. It cannot be omitted or replaced by a comma or by any other punctuation mark. This is the most important rule regarding dashes that you need to know.

Incorrect: John Lockewhose writings strongly influenced The Declaration of Independence, was one of the most important thinkers of the eighteenth century.

Correct: John Lockewhose writings strongly influenced The Declaration of Independencewas one of the most important thinkers of the eighteenth century.

You can assume that almost every ACT, and most SATs, will contain at least one question testing dashes this way.

 

2) To introduce an explanation or a list (Dash = Colon)

In this case, a full, stand-alone sentence must come before the dash. The information that follows the dash does not have to be a full sentence (although it’s perfectly fine if it is).

Correct: John Locke was one of the most important thinkers of the eighteenth centuryhis writings strongly influenced The Declaration of Independence.

The information after the dash explains why Locke was one of the most important thinkers of the eighteenth century.

 

3) To create a dramatic pause

Finally, dashes can be used to create a break in a thought–they force the reader to stop for a fraction of a second before continuing on to whatever idea comes next. They are used to create a slight sense of drama or suspense.

Grammatically, this use is more or less interchangeable with #2: a full, standalone sentence must come before the dash, but either a sentence or a fragment can follow.

Correct: A number of John Locke’s ideas influenced The Declaration of Independenceparticularly those concerning government, labor, and revolution.

To reiterate, this usage is not tested often, and you should simply be aware that it is acceptable.

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.

 

A. NO CHANGE
B. tasteless, and harmless, and because
C. tasteless and harmless, because
D. tasteless, harmless and because,

(more…)

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…)