In our last entry, we talked about how to identify independent and dependent clauses. However, the ACT is a little more nuanced than that. Rather than test your ability to identify the types of clauses, the exam tests you on your ability to link clauses together. Knowing which punctuation marks to use is one of the ACT’s most frequent questions.

The first thing you want to do is read the underlined portion and insert a slash between the two clauses. Then, re-read each clause again and determine whether they are independent or dependent. From there, use the following rules to determine what punctuation you need.

If you have: Independent Clause + Independent Clause

  • Create two separate sentences, separated by a period.
  • Split the two clauses with a semicolon ( ; )
  • Split the two clauses with a comma and a FANBOYS word (For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So)

Though there are multiple ways that you can connect two independent clauses together, a comma by itself is not one of them. Think of a comma as a flimsy punctuation point that needs extra support from a FANBOYS word. In contrast, the semicolon and the period are much stronger anchors. Therefore, they don’t need the extra support from FANBOYS words.

If you have: Dependent Clause + Independent Clause

  • When the dependent clause comes first, separate with a comma.
  • When the independent clause comes first, leave it alone and don’t put in any new punctuation.

When we link a dependent clause with an independent clause, the rules become much simpler. The ACT more often constructs sentences with the dependent clause in the beginning, so you should feel comfortable inserting a comma where appropriate. However, be prepared for sentences where the dependent clause comes at the end.

She scored an A+ on the exam even though she didn’t study at all.

B. exam; even though
C. exam, and even though
D. exam even, though

It’s likely your instincts are telling you to separate the two clauses with something. However, if we look to answer choices B, C, and D, all introduce new grammar mistakes. Both B and C are wrong because they are using rules that only apply when connecting two independent clauses together. D is incorrect because the comma breaks the two clauses at an awkward spot. Therefore, the correct answer choice is A.

If you have: Dependent Clause + Dependent Clause

If you find a sentence with two dependent clauses, you’re going to have to tinker around a little more. Every sentence needs at least one independent clause, so you’re going to have to transform one of those clauses. If you truly have two dependent clauses, look for answer choices that differ in their wording and not just in their punctuation.

Though mothers agree on the benefits of a schedule for infants, when they don’t agree on the exact timing of those schedules.

B. infants; when they don’t agree
C. infants, when they don’t agree
D. infants, they don’t agree

Currently, this sentence is made up of two dependent clauses. The first clause opens with the minor conjunction “though” and the second with the relative pronoun “when.” Answer choice B and C don’t only change the punctuation points, making no changes to the working. Punctuation alone will not fix the problem, since you need at least one independent clause for a proper sentence. D changes the second clause into an independent clause, thus correcting the grammar error.

Finally, pay close attention to the parts of the passage that are underlined and those that are not. Remember that if something isn’t underlined, it must be left alone. There will be awkward sentences that you would like to rewrite in your own style. However, if it’s not underlined, you must leave it alone and tinker only with the underlined region.

Amanda spent months researching the origins of the universe, she finally finished her report for astronomy class.

B. Amanda spends months
C. After spending months
D. Amanda spent months;

Again, your instincts may tell you “I have two independent clauses so I need either two new sentences, a semicolon, or a comma and FANBOYS word.” However, notice that only the beginning of the first clause is underlined. The rest of the sentence must remain unchanged. That means we must change the first clause to make it fit in with the rest of the sentence. The only answer choice that correctly does this as C. By staying flexible with our edits and zeroing in on the part of the sentence we can change, we aren’t led astray by distracting answers.

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