Comma Rules on the SAT and ACT: What to Do with Names

By James Rodkey

(ACT, SAT, ESOL, Latin, BMAT, GRE, TSA tutor at The Edge Learning Center)

Commas are the most frequently appearing punctuation mark on the SAT and ACT, so knowing the rules for their usage is necessary for a good SAT Writing and Language or ACT English score. A frequent point of confusion around comma usage is the question of what to do with proper names in sentences.

For example, the following sentence should not contain any commas:

  • Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf gave a press conference this morning about new policy initiatives.

This next example, however, does need commas around the same name:

  • Only one public official, Tom Wolf, provided a complete list of policy recommendations.

So, what’s the difference? The important take-away here is that proper names have nothing to do with comma placement. (I’m not sure where students get the idea that names have their own rules, but in my experience many students do have this conception.)

There’s one comma rule operating in both of the sentences above, and it’s the rule regarding essential or nonessential information (sometimes also called restrictive or non-restrictive). In the first example, the subject of the sentence is the entire noun phrase “Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf”. If we put commas around Tom Wolf, like this—“Pennsylvania governor, Tom Wolf, gave a press conference…”—we imply that Tom Wolf is nonessential information. That means the sentence should work fine without that information, but it clearly doesn’t—“Pennsylvania governor gave a press conference…” seems to be missing something.

The second sentence is different. The commas around Tom Wolf in this example indicate that the name is nonessential information. If we remove it from the sentence, there’s no problem: “Only one public official provided a complete list…” is a perfectly fine sentence.

Here’s an example from an SAT exam that contains commas and a name:

Let’s parse this entire sentence rather than just figure out the best multiple-choice answer to the question. The first part of the sentence, “More experiments are necessary to demonstrate the viability of vertical farms”, is an independent clause, a complete thought by itself. The comma after “farms” begins a relative clause; the comma is necessary here because the clause is nonessential information.

Then we have the “which” clause itself, which also contains nonessential information. Notice that there’s a comma in the sentence that we can’t change—the one after “University”. Since what comes after that comma is not a clause, that comma is almost certainly separating nonessential information within the “which” clause. We just need to find the beginning of the phrase that ends with “University”. In this case, it’s the word “professor”, so there should be a comma before that word. The phrase “professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University” is nonessential information describing Dickson Despommier, the subject of the “which” clause.

The correct answer, then, must be B, because it correctly places a comma at the beginning of the nonessential information that ends at “University”. Note that we didn’t need to pay any special attention to the fact that the sentence contained a name: the comma rules pertaining to essential or nonessential information were the only important consideration here.

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