When you are revising for punctuation on the SHSAT, the most important guide to remember is that most punctuation errors are from either the wrong punctuation or from too much punctuation. The biggest culprit is the comma! You might feel the need to use a comma every time you see an “and,” “but,” or “or”. But, too much punctuation (along with the wrong punctuation) can lead to bad, unclear writing.
When You Need Commas
You should revise for commas in the same way that you speak—commas are short breaks in speech and writing. Too many breaks (too many commas) lead to broken, disconnected writing. When you are revising ELA content for the SHSAT, a good rule of thumb is to choose the answer that contains the least amount of punctuation. (That is only true for correct responses, of course!) Many writers use too many commas, and the SHSAT writers know this. They will include answer choices that have distracting, unclear punctuation to see if you choose from among these for a correct answer.
To help you select the best use of commas for your revision, here is a list of when it generally makes the best sense to use commas. If your comma doesn’t fall under one of these categories, you’ll probably want to remove the comma to make the passage easier to read.
Addressing a Person. Use a comma after the name of a person who is being directly addressed in the sentence. Example of correct use: Esperanza, when does the play start? Example of incorrect use: Esperanza, told me when the play started.
Conjunctions. Remember that ‘conjunctions’ is the ‘and’ between two ideas. When revising for the SHSAT, you can use a comma after the first idea, and before the conjunction. (Just like that!) You won’t use a comma for just one idea in the sentence. Example of correct use: When revising for the SHSAT, use a comma after the first idea, and before the conjunction. Example of incorrect use: Use a comma, where there is one idea in the sentence.
Equal Adjectives. In American English, we use commas to separate adjectives that are equally important in a sentence. (This is different than in other parts of the world that use English, such as in Great Britain.) Example of correct use: The slippery, dark cavern was the stuff of Nakita’s worst nightmares. Example of incorrect use: The slippery dark cavern was the stuff of Nakita’s worst nightmares.
Lists. Similar to equal adjectives, we use commas when the sentence includes a list of items—and all of the listed words are used with a comma before the ‘and’. Example of correct use: Ron’s ravenous hunger led him to eat pancakes, eggs, toast, avocado, roasted tomatoes, sausage, cereal, oatmeal, blueberries, and even the parsley that adorned the plate. Example of incorrect use: Ron’s ravenous hunger led him to eat pancakes, eggs and toast. (In the U.S., we would place a comma for all listed words before the ‘and’, so this sentence would be revised to read, “Ron’s ravenous hunger led him to eat pancakes, eggs, and toast.)
For the above lists, all of the ideas are singular (pancakes is one idea, eggs is another). But sometimes lists include ideas that need an ‘and’ for the ideas themselves. In those cases, we use semi-colons instead of colons. Example of correct use: The groups assembled were eclectic and included farmers and ranchers; businesspeople and white-collar workers; and educators and students. (These ideas are grouped together by the conjunction ‘and’, but then separated by the semi-colon, that breaks the sentence up into similar groups.) Example of incorrect use: The groups assembled were eclectic and included farmers and ranchers, businesspeople and white-collar workers, and educators and students.
Phrases. We use commas to separate adjectives that are equally important but we also use them to separate a phrase that is not important to the way the sentence is written. Those phrases give us background knowledge that can be separated from the main idea of the sentence. Example of correct use: The widespread poverty infecting large cities in the United States, regardless of what state we are talking about, must be addressed by city, state, and federal authorities. (The main idea of this sentence is that authorities at all levels need to address poverty in cities. The idea that it doesn’t matter what state we are talking about is a smaller, secondary idea that we can set off of the main idea with a comma.) Example of incorrect use: The widespread poverty infecting large cities in the United States regardless of what state we are talking about, must be addressed by city, state, and federal authorities. (The secondary idea is not set apart sufficiently without the comma after ‘United States’.)
Too Few Commas
Although the most common, correct revisions you will see on the SHSAT include too many commas (or use them incorrectly), you will also have to watch out for sentences that do not use enough commas to separate ideas. The most frequent culprits of this that you will face are found in writing about dates (like history) and places (like cities and states).
Dates. You will see a lot of historical narrative on the SHSAT. Make sure when you make revisions that include two important uses of the comma. First, you will separate days of the week from the month and year by commas: The first New York constitution was adopted Sunday, April 20, 1777. Second, you will need to use a comma to separate dates from the rest of the sentence: The June 12, 2018, orientation session will meet in the Retama Auditorium instead of the University Room.
Places. Commas are used to separate cities from states, and to separate states from the rest of the ideas in a sentence. (If you haven’t been in the habit of addressing envelopes, you might need to practice this skill!) Here’s a good example: The NCAA Final Four in 2018 was held in San Antonio, Texas, and thousands descended on the city. You will also use commas to separate a country if it is also used in the sentence: The baseball player spent his minor league days playing in Tokyo, Japan, but he moved to New York City when the Yankees bought his contract.