Commas and parentheses: when can you double up?

This is another one of those finicky little rules that have the potential to show up on the SAT and ACT. It’s an annoying one because it involves not one but two kinds of punctuation, in this case commas and parentheses (which aren’t tested all that frequently), but it’s not overly tricky to apply. In fact, if you look back at the previous sentence, you’ll see that I just used it.

Here’s whole rule:

It is never ok to use a comma before an open parenthesis, but it IS sometimes ok to use a comma after a close parenthesis.

In other words, the construction below is always incorrect:

Incorrect: The Caribbean Sea contains some of the world’s most stunning coral reefs, (which are home to thousands of species of marine life) but many of them are in danger because of overfishing and pollution.

It also means that you cannot do the following:

Incorrect: The Caribbean Sea contains some of the world’s most stunning coral reefs, (which are home to thousands of species of marine life), but many of them are in danger because of overfishing and pollution.

Why? Because two commas = two parentheses. Either type of punctuation can be used to set off a non-essential clause, but it is redundant to use both.

On the other hand, this is perfectly fine:

Correct: The Caribbean Sea contains some of the world’s most stunning coral reefs (which are home to thousands of species of marine life), but many of them are in danger because of overfishing and pollution.

In this case, the comma after the close-parenthesis is acceptable because a comma would be necessary if the parentheses were eliminated. In that case, we would be left with two complete sentences joined by the coordinating conjunction but — a construction that requires a comma.

Correct: The Caribbean Sea contains some of the world’s most stunning coral reefs, but many of them are in danger because of overfishing and pollution.

How to answer add/delete/revise questions on the SAT and ACT

The ACT English section tests both reading and writing skills simultaneously, and it is necessary to change your approach based on the type of question you are being asked. While grammar questions require you to recall specific rules, rhetoric questions require you to apply specific concepts about how paragraphs and essays work: what makes an effective transition (what is the logical relationship between two ideas?); how a paragraph is most logically developed; and what constitutes relevant vs. irrelevant information.

Unlike grammar questions, rhetoric questions can be absolutely, perfectly grammatically correct yet still be wrong. You can’t be fooled by how they sound — you actually have to think (yes, think!) about whether they go along with the main idea of the passage or paragraph in question.

In short, they’re reading questions, not writing questions. And because this is the case, you have to treat them like reading questions.

That means going back to the passage, figuring out the gist of the section you’re being asked to deal with, and figuring out what sort of information would be relevant.

One of the biggest mistakes I consistently see people make on rhetoric questions is to start by looking at the answers and assuming they’ll remember the content well enough to sort everything out rather than going back to the passage and working out the answer for themselves beforehand.

When most people read the passages as they’re working through the questions, though, they’re usually only really paying attention to grammar rather than content. They’re not thinking about main ideas and supporting information but rather about whether that comma in #27 was really supposed to be there. So when they’re asked to insert/delete information, they don’t really have the full context for it.

Remember: the readings on the English section are pretty simple. It’s usually not too hard to figure out their main idea and thus whether a particular sentence or part of a sentence should be used to support it. Yes, it may take a whole 30 seconds, but that’s time better spent actually figuring out the answer than staring at two options and trying to decide between them. So to sum up:

1) Read the question and identify exactly what you’re being asked to insert or delete.

2) Go back to the passage and read as much as you need to figure out the main idea of the passage or paragraph. For questions that ask about the passage as a whole, check the title: it’s there to tell you what the passage is about. For questions that ask you about the middle of a paragraph, read the topic sentence. Conversely, if you’re asked to insert the first sentence of a paragraph, jump ahead and read the middle of the paragraph.

3) Ask yourself whether the information in question is relevant to that topic and why/why not.

4) Look at the answers. The right one should pretty much pop out at you.

When is a noun not a noun?

When is a noun not a noun?

Answer: when it’s an adjective.

One of the ACT’s favorite ways to play with you is to take words that normally act like nouns — often professions such as author, architect, scientist, etc. — and use them as adjectives. This might not seem like much of a big deal, or even something you’d really need to pay attention to, except that it actually involves something the ACT absolutely loves to test: commas.

Consider the following: You probably wouldn’t write something like “I.M. Pei is a celebrated, architect.” Even if you don’t know that “famous” is an adjective and that “architect” is a noun, you can probably feel that the comma is wrong there; there’s no natural break in the sentence.

But what about this?

Glass is perhaps the building material most often associated with celebrated architect, I.M. Pei.

Suddenly that comma seems like it could be ok. Perhaps you learned that you always put a comma before a person’s name.

Well, sometimes you do, but sometimes you don’t. And this is one of those cases in which you don’t.

The reason is that “architect,” in this case,” is being used to describe I.M. Pei. Even though “architect” looks like a noun, it’s acting as an adjective here. And since adjectives should never be separated from the nouns they describe by a comma, you do not need to place one between “architect” and “I.M. Pei.”

“But” or “yet” between adjectives = no comma

One of the ACT’s preferred tricks is to give you a sentence that looks like the following:

Mark Twain’s novel Huckleberry Finn is one of the most controversial, yet beloved books in all of American literature.

B. controversial; yet beloved
C. controversial, yet beloved,
D. controversial yet beloved

Because controversial and beloved are both adjectives, you do not need a comma between them. The answer is therefore D.

You can also think of the rule this way: comma + but/yet = period.

When you plug a period into the sentence, you get nonsense: Mark Twain’s novel Huckleberry Finn is one of the most controversial. Beloved books in all of American literature.

If a period doesn’t work, neither does “comma + but/yet.”

Shortcut: paragraph “main function”

The wording of “main function” questions can be very misleading: after all, they inevitably ask about the main function of a paragraph in relation to the passage as a whole. The thing is, though, you don’t really have to really have to deal with the entire passage when trying to answer them. You don’t even have to deal with the entire paragraph that’s being asked about.

In general, you really only have to deal with a few key sentences: most often, the answer will be found in the first two sentences of the paragraph in question, although in some cases you may need to back up and read the last sentence of the previous paragraph.

As always, you should pay special attention to any major transition words (but, however, furthermore, etc.) or “interesting” forms of punctuation (semicolons, colons, quotation marks)  that indicate the relationship between the preceding idea and the current idea.

To reiterate: The first sentence of the paragraph referred to in the question will often not give you the necessary information, so it’s important that you read the first two sentences. Normally the ACT asks about paragraphs that shift the focus from one idea to another, so be particularly on the lookout for anything that suggests contradiction.

Let’s look at an example:

2017/2018 practice test, section 3, question #16:

One of the main purposes of the last paragraph is to state that the:

F. gashes in the rift valley continue to increase in width.
G. seafloor of Atlantic has cooled.

H. entire Atlantic seafloor has issued from the gashes in the rift valley.
J. volcanoes on Earth’s dry land have created the newest, youngest pieces of Atlantic seafloor.

Strategy: The first thing we’re going to do is read the first two sentences of the last paragraph. We do not need to consider any other information.

Yet, what had seemed so foreign to scientists is an integral part of earth’s very being, for at the ridge our own planet gives birth. The floor of the rift valley is torn; from the gashes has sprung the seafloor underlying all of Atlantic.

It’s important to stress here that we don’t even need to know what’s going on in the passage to determine the function of the last paragraph. The paragraph itself provides all the information we need.

The first sentence doesn’t offer a lot of help, but the second sentence is key (note the semicolon). It tells us that the seafloor of the entire Atlantic has sprung from the floor of the rift valley, which is exactly what H says.