Zen and the Art of Commas

When I was in eighth grade, my English teacher, Mrs. Borgman, introduced me to the art of commas. Before entering that class, I thought I was a good writer. When I turned in my first writing assignment that year–a biography of someone I thought of as a hero–I was excited to see what she thought of my craft. Before she handed our papers back, she began talking about one of the best essays she had received, and, as she read excerpts, I realized it was mine. 

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I could feel my ego tangibly inflate as she lauded the writing style, the sentence variation, and the transition statements. I began to feel a bit sorry for all the other students in the class who obviously didn’t have my innate skill. Mrs. Borgman ended her string of praises with what, at the time, seemed like an innocuous phrase: “This paper had a little problem with commas, but other than that, it was great.” Then, we got the essays back. The letter at the top of the page brought my ego crashing back to earth.


And it was in that moment, as I looked at the red circles that appeared throughout the essay, that I realized I didn’t know how to use commas.

One of the biggest grammatical issues our students have to overcome when beginning the exam prep process is learning how to properly use commas–at least in the way the SAT and ACT expect. Students generally receive their last real grammatical instruction somewhere between sixth and eighth grade, so they have bad habits (“Don’t you put a comma whenever you pause?”). Fortunately, the rules are simpler than you might think, and students can master the art of commas on the ACT and SAT.

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Comma Usage and Extra Stuff

First, commas can be used to separate extra information in a sentence. This extra stuff can take the form of a dependent clause, an introductory phrase, or simply an extra bit of description that enhances the sentence but isn’t necessary. 

The lizard basking on a rock in the warm sun was startled by the sound of approaching motorcycles.

This sentence, for example, has a bit of extra information that can be separated off with commas. What might that extra information be?

The lizard, basking on a rock in the warm sun, was startled by the sound of approaching motorcycles. 

As you can see, the extra stuff was “basking on a rock in the warm sun.” If we took that phrase out of the sentence, what remains (“The lizard was startled by the sound of approaching motorcycles”) would be a viable sentence. While the fact that the lizard was sunning itself is interesting, we don’t need that phrase to make a good sentence. Hence, extra stuff.

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This also applies to introductory phrases.

When I was a boy, my parents took me to Disney World.

Here, the introductory phrase “When I was a boy” is the extra stuff. Without it, the remaining sentence, “my parents took me to Disney World,” works on its own.

Grammatical FANBOYS

The second type of comma usage on the SAT and ACT involves FANBOYS. I once asked a student if he knew what the FANBOYS were.

“People who are really into something,” he replied.

True, but not what I was going for. FANBOYS is an acronym for the conjunctions: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. When a comma appears before a FANBOYS–unless it’s in a list, which we’ll get to in a second–it indicates the separation of two complete sentences.

The festival lasted for two hours, and we stayed until the end.

Here are two full sentences separated by a comma+FANBOYS. “The festival lasted for two hours” and “we stayed until the end” would both be complete sentences on their own, so the comma+FANBOYS is appropriate and correct. 

A loaf of bread, a gallon of milk…

Finally, commas on the SAT and ACT can be used to separate items in a list. 

Erin went to the store and bought milk, butter, and bread. 

In a list of more than two elements, we separate those elements with commas. And for those who dislike (or even know about) the Oxford comma, both tests use it, though they generally don’t test specifically on its usage.

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With a bit of practice, commas can become almost second nature. Mrs. Borgman pounded us with comma usage that year in eighth grade, but most students aren’t fortunate enough to have had a tough grammar teacher in school. Fortunately, the Huntington exam prep program can be a great way to not only prepare students for the punctuation they will see on standardized tests but also give them a valuable refresh of all the vital grammar rules they’ll need in their academic writing.

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