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Comma Questions on the ACT

In his book Focus on the ACT, Dr. Chippendale says “when in doubt, leave it out” about commas
However, it’s best to know the right answer so there is no doubt.  You won’t have to play the odds.

Many of the comma questions on the ACT have sentences that do not need commas because no comma rules apply and "no change" is the correct choice.  To recognize that is the case, you need to know the comma rules.  However, you don't need to know all of them.  According to our source Focus on the ACT, you need to know just a few.  The bad news is you need to know the toughest ones to learn as well as some easier ones.

I tackled the rules for nonessential phrases and clauses on another page, so I will just list them here.

Now, it's time for the easier comma rules.

The Rule:  Introductory phrases and clauses are followed by a comma.

Introductory phrases and clauses are called introductory because they precede an independent clause (subject + verb combination that can stand alone because it presents a complete idea).  Consequently, you will often find them at the beginning of sentences.  Of course, when a sentence has two independent clauses, the second independent clause can have its own introductory phrases and clauses, and you need to look in front of it for introductory elements as well.

What phrases and clauses can be introductory?

Prepositional phrases
On a fine morning in July, we caught our limit of striped bass.
In the example, you find two prepositional phrases preceding the independent clause.  That happens a lot since one prepositonal phrase will often modify the object of the preposition that preceded it.  Three and four introductory prepositional phrases are common; however, it just takes one prepositional phrase to have an introductory phrase. More information on prepositional phrases.

Participial phrases
Floating on a gentle breeze, the sparrow circled our barn.
In addition to the nonessential rule, participial phrases can also be an introductory element. It's usually easy to see where it stops and the independent clause begins. The example's -ing ending makes it a present participle and often confused with a gerund phrase, which is never an introductory element.  More information

Adverb clauses
Because he wanted ice cream, he put on his shoes and drove to the store.
Adverb clauses (subordinate clauses that act like adverbs) answer the adverb question when? and new adverb questions why?, and under what circumstances?  For a list of subordinating conjunctions that can begin adverb clauses...more information.

Infinitive phrases that are not nouns
To achieve greatness, you must strive for it.
The word to + a verb creates an infinitive.  This makes them easy to spot. Like all verbals, it can have its own complements (direct and indirect objects, predicate nouns, predicated adjectives) and modifiers.  The tricky thing about infinitive phrases is they act as nouns, adjectives, and adverbs. 

When they are acting as a noun, the introductory rule doesn't apply.  For example:  To achieve greatness is my goal.  Here it's the subject for is, so it isn't introductory. Like all nouns, when an infinitive is acting as a noun, you can replace it with a pronoun, so use the "it test."  It is my goal.  It replaces "To achieve greatness" very nicely, so you know it's a noun here.

The Rule:  Contrasting expressions are set off by commas.

Mr. Roden, not Brad Pitt, is a teacher at LHS, although many swear otherwise.
This example has two contrasting expressions.  Note that the first is an appositive plus the word not, which often spotlights a contrasting expression.  The second is an adverb clause with although signaling a contrasting expression.  Do contrasting expressions have to be appositives and adverb clauses only?  No. 

She likes my cousin, not my brother.
He likes spaghetti, unlike his sister.

The Rule:  Parenthetical expressions, including transitions, are set off by commas.

She, however, was a communist.
Furthermore, she never stood and said the Pledge of Allegiance.
We alerted the FBI: consequently, they arrested and jailed her.

Transitions are a big part of the comma rule questions on the ACT.  You have been to the transitions page and learned all about them.  Are transitions the only parenthetical expression?  No.

You are, we believe, the best magician in town.
Subject and verb combos like we believe that interupt a sentence like this one are said to be parenthetical.  If the sentence were "We believe that you are the best magician in town." no commas would be needed. 

On the ACT, all transitions are parenthetical expressions, but in real life, they aren't sometimes.  See the transitions page for examples.

The Rule:  Nouns of direct address are set off by commas.

I want you to know, Doug, that your car is a dog.
Brother, can you spare a dime?
It is time, old bean, for some polo.

When you address (talk to) someone, the nouns you use, whether it's their real name or a substitute, are called nouns of direct address and are set off by commas.  The tests I took didn't target this rule, but Focus on the ACT says it pops up occasionally, so it's good to know.

The Rule:  Adjectives before a noun that can be transposed (they can switch places) are separated by a comma.  Another test is if the word  and can be used between them.

The peaceful, arid desert of Arizona attracts a surprising number of tourists. 

Since you could also write "the arid, peaceful desert..." or "the peaceful and arid desert...", you must place a comma between these adjectives. 

The adjectives that can't be transposed naturally come at the beginning of any train of adjectives.  Numbers and other adjectives that tell how many (few, all, some, etc.) always come first in a line up making transposing them and an adjective that comes later impossible.    For example:  The five old men played cards.   You can't write "The old five men play cards."  

Factually, the adjectives that tell how many get pushed to the second spot when demonstrative adjectives (this, these, those, that) are used.   Those five young, rambunctious kids are a real challenge.  Those and five have to be where they are, but young and rambunctious can switch places, so they get separated by a comma.

The Rule:  Items in a series are separated by commas.

The items can single words or phrases or clauses—anything.

The exception sometimes tested on the ACT is if all items are separated with a conjunction like and or or, no commas are used.

I like fruit, vegetables, and ice cream. 
I like fruit and vegetables and ice cream.
He tried working for his mom, loafing for his living, and singing for his supper.