In the ACT English section, the most common question category is punctuation, and the most common punctuation that the ACT tests is commas. Therefore, it is imperative that students have a solid understanding of the rules that govern comma usage. Today, we’ll take a look at some of the most common ways the ACT tests commas.
In the majority of cases, the ACT is actually testing your ability to identify and eliminate unnecessary commas. Unless you have a specific reason for including a comma, you should eliminate it. So now let’s discuss the different situations in which commas can be used.
One correct use of commas is to separate the items of a list. If you have a list of three or more items, use commas to separate the items. Here’s an example:
Susie enjoyed playing piano, studying psychology, and hanging out with friends.
Always include a comma before the final item of the list. If you are listing only two things, do not use a comma.
A second way that commas are used is to link a dependent clause to a following independent clause. If you’re unsure of what that means, see our blog posts How to Identify Independent and Dependent Clauses and How to Properly Connect Clauses. Remember that a dependent clause is a part of a sentence that includes a subject and a verb but cannot stand alone. Here’s an example:
After he got home from work, George checked his e-mails.
However, if the order of the clauses is reversed—if an independent clause is followed by a dependent clause—do not use a comma.
Finally, commas can be used to separate non-essential information from the rest of a sentence. If you see two commas surrounding a phrase in a sentence, mentally delete the phrase between the commas and see if the sentence still makes sense. If it does, the commas are probably correct. Here’s an example:
Lebron James, widely considered the greatest basketball player in the world, bought ice cream for his family.
Despite the fact that “widely considered the greatest basketball players in the world” is an accurate description of Lebron James, it is not essential to the sentence; we can delete that portion and the sentence still makes sense. We use two commas to indicate to the reader that this portion of the sentence is non-essential.
If you can’t identify that comma on the ACT falls into one of these three categories, you should probably eliminate it. Let’s take a look at an example of an ACT question:
1. The economic impact of the proposed legislation hinges on both its effect on low-wage earning power as well as varying marginal tax rates.
A. NO CHANGE
B. earning power, as well as, varying marginal
C. earning power, as well as varying marginal
D. earning power as well, as varying marginal
Are we separating three or more items in a list? No. Do we have a dependent clause followed by an independent clause? No. Are we indicating the existence of non-essential information? No. Despite the fact that this is a long sentence, there is no need for a comma, and answer choice A is correct.
In the majority of cases, you’ll be asked to remove unnecessary commas on the ACT English section. Remember the three main categories of proper usage, and when in doubt, leave it out!