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Commas and FANBOYS On the SAT Writing & ACT English Section

This is Part I of a series on the use of commas on the SAT / ACT. Tune in for future articles.


Commas are everywhere on the SAT Writing / ACT English section, and it's imperative to understand how to use them. I find that my students often try to feel their way through comma questions, and half the time they're wrong.


For that reason, I plan on publishing a series of articles addressing the various ways commas can arise on the SAT / ACT, and when it's correct to use them. This way, you'll be prepared when you take the test itself.


Commas and FANBOYS

If you read my articles regularly, you already know what FANBOYS are.


FANBOYS: 'for', 'and', 'nor', 'but', 'or', 'yet', 'so'.


In order to understand today's principle, we also need to understand the meaning of something called an 'independent clause.' An independent clause is a phrase which makes up only part of a sentence, but could stand as a sentence by itself. That is, it has a subject and predicate (verb), and expresses a complete thought.


Examples of an independent clause:

  • 'James and Marie went to the game.'

  • 'Ella loves chips.'

  • 'We called our friends yesterday.'



Examples of a non-independent clause:

  • 'Books, snacks, and some blankets'

  • 'While Max was looking in the box'

  • 'Which is why she was running.'


Now that we've understood the fundamentals, let's delineate today's (very simple) principle:


When a FANBOYS separates two independent clauses, there's a comma before the FANBOYS.


When a FANBOYS doesn't separates two independent clauses, there's NO comma before the FANBOYS.


Let's look at an example:


1) Shirley bought one glass of orange juice and one glass of mango juice.

2) Shirley bought a glass of orange juice, and Jay bought a glass of mango juice.


In Sentence (1), 'Shirley bought one glass of orange juice' is an independent clause, but 'one glass of mango juice' is not. (It's missing a subject and verb.) For that reason, there no comma before the FANBOYS 'and'.


In Sentence (2), 'Shirley bought a glass of orange juice' and 'Jay bought a mango juice' are both independent clauses. In keeping with our principle, there's a comma before the FANBOYS 'and.'



Now that we've clarified the principle, let's look at some examples.


Examples

Example #1

'Robert went to the park , he saw a duck there.'


Question #1

A) NO CHANGE

B) park; and he saw a duck there.

C) park and he saw a duck there.

D) park, and he saw a duck there.


(Note for those unfamiliar with how SAT Writing & Literature / ACT English questions are presented: All, or, part of a sentence in the passage is underlined. Of the answer options, you're meant to pick the answer option which, when inserted in place of the underlined section, would make for the highest quality English. On the ACT English section, there will be a question before the options: 'Choose the best answer.' The SAT simply presents the options, without a question beforehand.)


Note that the two clauses in the sentence - 'Robert went to the park' and 'he saw a duck there' are both independent clauses. As such, if the comma remains, there must be a linking word between them. (See here for more details.)


Options C) and D) both add a linking word, 'and.' However, 'and' is a FANBOYS, and since both clauses in this sentence are independent, this necessitates a comma as well. Option D) is correct.


(Option B is incorrect because of the inappropriate use of the semicolon. For a more detailed explanation on the correct use of semicolons on the SAT / ACT, please see here.



Example #2

'He gave it up, for the children.'


Question #2

A) NO CHANGE B) up, it was for the children

C) up for the children

D) up; for the children


'For' is a FANBOYS. That means we need to check the clauses preceding and following it.


'He gave it up' is an independent clause, but 'the children' is not. If we wish to retain the FANBOYS 'for', we need to relinquish the comma. The answer is C).


Example #3

'The boy wandered about the chamber, and looked for the key.'


Question #3

A) NO CHANGE

B) chamber: looked for the key.

C) chamber; and looked for the key.

D) chamber and looked for the key.


'And' is a FANBOYS. Therefore, we have to look at the two clauses in this sentence.


'The boy wandered about the chamber' is an independent clause. 'Looked for the key' is not. Ergo, if we wish to keep the FANBOYS 'and', we need to get rid of the comma. The answer is D).



Punctuation Questions on the SAT / ACT

There's a variety of question types on the SAT Writing / ACT English section. One of these is punctuation questions, which focus (unsurprisingly) on punctuation, rather than on writing quality, logical cohesion, or general grammar.


Punctuation questions can be identified simply by glancing at the answer options. If there's a profusion of commas, colons and semicolons, and not a great variety of words, it's a punctuation question.


When you have such this question type with a FANBOYS, always follow the same procedure! Check the clause before and after the FANBOYS. If they're both independent, there should be a comma before the FANBOYS. If one clause or both isn't independent, there shouldn't be a comma.


Note that there are various way to render a single sentence grammatically correct. For example, two independent clauses can be combined with a semicolon, instead of with a comma and a FANBOYS. As a consequence, the above procedure is not an answer guarantee.


Nevertheless, it will point you in the right direction. The principle in this article is a great start to a foundation which can deliver you a (hopefully) perfect score in the SAT Writing or ACT English section.


For more tips and methods, or to get help personally tailored to your needs, consider working with me. I've helped people from all over the world get into their dream school. Studying privately with a skilled teacher is the best way to increase your test score, and in coaching you, I adopt my methods specifically to your personality, schedule, and learning style.


Happy learning,

Tova