No semicolon before “and” or “but”

Shortcut: semicolon + and/but = wrong 

If you see an answer choice on either the SAT or the ACT that places a semicolon before the word and or but, cross out that answer immediately and move on.

Why? Because a semicolon is grammatically identical to a period, and you shouldn’t start a sentence with and or but.

The slightly longer explanation: In real life, semicolon usage is a little more flexible, and the choice to use when can sometimes be more a matter of clarity/style than one of grammar. It is generally considered acceptable to place a semicolon before and or but in order to break up a very long sentence, especially when there are already multiple commas/clauses.

For example:

Pamela Meyer, a certified fraud examiner, author, and entrepreneur, became interested in the science of deception at at business school workshop during which a professor detailed his findings on behaviors associated with lying; and she subsequently worked with a team of researchers to survey and analyze existing research on deception from academics, experts, law enforcement, the military, espionage and psychology.

In the above sentence, either a comma or a semicolon could be used before and. In this case, however, the sentence is so long and contains so many different parts that the semicolon is a logical choice to create stronger break between the parts.

Why not just use a period? Well, because a semicolon implies a stronger connection between the clauses than a period would; it keeps the sentence going rather than marking a full break between thoughts. Again, this is a matter of style, not grammar.

The SAT and the ACT, however, are not interested in these details. Rather, their goal is to check whether you understand the most common version of the rule. Anything beyond that would simply be too ambiguous.

Commas with names and titles, simplified

I’ve recently received a handful of questions asking for clarification about rule governing the use of commas with names and titles. Of all the comma rules tested on the ACT, this is probably the subtlest.

The good news is that questions testing this rule don’t show up very often; the bad news is that if you don’t know the rule, these questions can be very tricky to answer.

The other piece of good news, however, is that when names/titles that appear in the middle of a sentence (i.e. not as the first or last words) these questions can be answered using a simple shortcut. Luckily, almost all of the questions testing this rule fall into that category.

The first thing to know is that there are generally only two correct options: two commas, one before and one after the name/title, or no commas at all.

While a comma after the title may be correct on rare occasions (which don’t concern us here), a comma only before a name or title is wrong. If you learned in school that you should automatically put a comma before someone’s name, I’m very sorry to inform you that your teacher was mistaken.

For example:

Perhaps we shouldn’t give up on paper books just yet. One in particular, called

The Drinkable Book, might be a lifesaver. The hardcover with sturdy pages infused

with bacteria-killing silver nanoparticles is a patent-pending water purification system.

The creative mind behind the technology is chemistry student, Theresa Dankovich

of McGill University in Montreal.


B. student Theresa Dankovich,

C. student, Theresa Dankovich,

D. student Theresa Dankovich


Because our only two possible answers are two commas and no commas, C and D are our only possibilities.

Now, we’re going to work from the two-commas option. Why? Because two commas = non-essential clause, a clause that can be removed without affecting the meaning (grammatical and logical) of the sentence. The simplest way to test out whether the commas are necessary is to remove the clause from the sentence:

Crossed out: The creative mind behind the technology is chemistry student…of McGill University in Montreal.

No, this does not make sense. If the sentence does not make sense in context without the name, then no commas are necessary.

Got that? No sense = no commas. That eliminates C, leaving D as the correct answer.


Now try something harder:

On August 17th, the spacecraft, Cassini will make one last close flyby of Saturn’s

pockmarked moon Dione to search for direct evidence that the moon is geologically

alive and active. Cassini, a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency

and the Italian Space Agency, has been studying the Saturn system since 2004, and

its grand mission will come to a close in 2017, after the spacecraft makes a series of

dives through the space between the planet and its rings.

(adapted from


B. spacecraft Cassini,

C. spacecraft, Cassini,

D. spacecraft Cassini


The easiest way to approach this question is to cross the name out and read the sentence without it.

Crossed out: On August 17th, the spacecraft…will make one last close flyby of Saturn’s pockmarked moon Dione to search for direct evidence that the moon is geologically alive and active.

Now be very, very careful. The sentence still makes grammatical sense, but we no longer know which spacecraft the sentence is referring to. The reference to Cassini in the following sentence no longer makes sense. The name is therefore essential, meaning that no commas should be used.

Again, no sense = no commas.

Don’t forget to flip back a page on ACT English

I think we can probably all agree here that whatever the strengths of the ACT English section may be, formatting is most definitely not one of them. When there are five or six spaces — or even half a page — between lines, it’s almost impossible not to sometimes lose track of where paragraphs begin and end. Since I started tutoring the ACT in 2008, I’ve spent who knows how much time explaining just where the sentence is supposed to be inserted, or which paragraph a little numbered box is actually referring to. Sooner or later, almost every ACT student of mine has missed a question simply because they couldn’t figure what they were supposed to fix where.

Beyond the most obvious instances of formatting-related mistakes, though, I’ve noticed some subtler errors. One problem that seems to come up again and again involves…page turns. When I work through the same tests with enough people, I inevitably start to notice that almost everyone gets certain questions wrong, usually for the same reasons.

A couple of tests that I regularly use have questions that bridge two pages — that is, the sentence that a question asks about begins at the bottom of one page and ends at the top of the next page. Sometimes, it’s a very long sentence, which means it’s easy to lose track of.

And very often, my students answer those questions incorrectly because they’ve only read the information on the page containing the underlined portion or numbered box.They either didn’t want to make the effort to back up a page and read from the beginning of the sentence (relatively rare) or, more frequently, were so focused on the underlined portion of the sentence that they didn’t realize it actually began on the previous page.

Ironically, focusing on the question so hard caused them to overlook the larger context and miss the very information that they needed to answer the question. Had the entire sentence been located on a single page, they would likely have read from the start of it; but because it was split up, they simply didn’t notice that they weren’t reading from the beginning.

The moral of the story? Always, always back up and read from the beginning of the sentence, actively identifying where that place is. The capitalized letter at the beginning of a word is a giveaway, and no, I’m not being sarcastic. Sometimes you have to be that literal.

Recently, I’ve started seeing the same problem with paragraphs and rhetoric questions, specifically adding/delete sentences questions. In order to determine whether information should be added or deleted — that is, whether it’s relevant to a paragraph — it is first necessary to know what that paragraph is about. What part of the paragraph tells you most directly what it’s going to be about? Often, the first (topic) sentence or couple of sentences.

When the first sentence is on the previous page, however, it’s suddenly a lot less intuitive to read that spot. And when lines are separated by multiple spaces, making only a few lines of text appear much longer, it is possible to not even realize that a paragraph begins on the previous page. Again, the best way to guard against this problem is to back up and consciously search for the indented line that always signal the beginning of a paragraph, keeping in mind that it may be on the previous page.

Working this way might seem like an inordinate amount of effort — one more little detail to think about, on top of everything else — but it can actually save you time and energy in the long run. Instead of trying to puzzle out an answer that you don’t have sufficient information to determine, flipping back a page and getting the full picture can actually make finding the answer much more straightforward.

It’ s not you — it’s the test (or: if you don’t understand it, it probably doesn’t make sense)

It’ s not you — it’s the test (or: if you don’t understand it, it probably doesn’t make sense)

Much as I’ve tried to cut back on tutoring to work on my seemingly endless SAT book revisions, I somehow haven’t been able to escape entirely. In fact, I somehow ended up with no fewer than five (!) students taking the ACT this Saturday. It’s therefore entirely unsurprising that I’ve had the same set of conversations repeatedly over the last couple of weeks. (It’s also entirely unsurprising that I can no longer remember which conversation I’ve had with whom and am therefore reduced to constantly asking the student in front of me whether we’ve already discussed a particular rule, or whether I actually gave the explanation to someone. Although actually I’ve been doing that for a while now.)

Perhaps not unexpectedly at this point in the year, almost all of my students were “second rounders” — people who had worked with other tutors, for months in some cases, before finding their way to me. And that meant that there was the inevitable psychological baggage that accumulates when someone has already taken the test a couple of times without reaching their goals. As a result, I’ve been paying just as much attention to how people work through the test. When I work with a student who actually does have most of the skills they need but can’t quite seem to apply them when it counts, that’s basically a given.

It’s interesting — I’ve never really bought into a lot of the whole “test anxiety” thing, but more and more, I find myself dealing with the psychological aspects of test taking. (But rest assured, I don’t talk about scented candles or relaxation exercises).

Anyway, over the last few weeks, I’ve found myself paying an awful lot of attention to just what people who are scoring in the mid-20s on ACT English and trying to get to 30+ do when they sit down with a test. I’m pretty good at managing the psychological games that people play with themselves, particularly when they involve second-guessing, but I’ve never spent so much time thinking about those games specifically in terms of ACT English before.

Well, there’s a first time for everything.

If there’s one salient feature that characterizes the ACT English test, it’s probably the straightforward, almost folksy Midwestern style. There’s an occasional question that really makes you think, but for the most part, what you see is what you get. A lot of wrong answers are really wrong, almost to the point of absurdity.

As I worked with my ACT students, I noticed something interesting: when the original version of a sentence (that is, the version in the passage) didn’t make sense, the student would get confused and reread the sentence or section of the passage again. And when they still didn’t understand, they’d reread it again. And sometimes a third time.

The issue wasn’t so much that they were running out of time, but rather that they were wasting huge amounts of energy trying to make sense of things that couldn’t be made sense out of because they thought they were missing something. Then they were getting confused and panicking and second-guessing themselves.

So although it might sound obvious, I think this bears saying: if you are working through an ACT English section and find that you just cannot make sense out of a phrase or sentence in the passage, that version of the phrase or sentence is wrong. Do not try to wrap your head around it by reading it again and again. You can’t make sense out of it because it doesn’t make sense. In other words, it’s not you — it’s the test.

Even if you don’t know what the right answer is, you do know what the answer is not: NO CHANGE. Pick up your pencil, put a line through A or F, and start plugging in the other options.

You might not know quite what you’re looking for, but at least that way you’re doing something constructive, not just freaking yourself out.

Worry about when you DO need a comma, not when you don’t

I think it’s fair to say that the ACT really, really likes to test commas. I’ve never done a statistical analysis, but I’d wager that it’s around 15-20%.

But while the ACT does test commas in many different ways, the reality is that you don’t have to know every last rule governing comma usage. As long as you know the major ways in which commas are used correctly, you can probably identify when a comma is not being used correctly.

So that said, here are the contexts tested on the ACT that require you to absolutely, conclusively use a comma:

1) Before a FANBOYS (coordinating) conjunction when joining two independent clauses

Example: London is a very old city, and it contains buildings from many different eras.

2) To set off a non-essential clause that can be removed from a sentence

Example: London, which is a very old city, contains buildings from many different eras.

3) Between items in a list

Example: London contains buildings from time periods including the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Victorian era. The third comma is optional, by the way. Since the sentence is correct both with and without it, you’ll never be tested on that particular usage.

4) To separate multiple adjectives whose order could be reversed

Example: London contains many interesting, eclectic neighborhoods, OR London contains many eclectic, interesting neighborhoods.

When you see a comma, ask yourself whether it’s being used in one of the above ways. If it isn’t, you can be relatively certain that you should choose an answer that doesn’t include it.