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Elizabeth Peterson

SAT Writing: Within-Sentence Punctuation

SAT Writing Punctuation


Isn’t punctuation lovely? Without it, written language would become much more difficult to understand. Those tiny marks between and sometimes inside of words give us the cues for reading emphasis, breaks, tone, and more. Who are these heroes of the written word? Previously, we examined end-of-sentence punctuation on the SAT Writing. Today, let’s examine the common within-sentence punctuation marks and how they are used.


Of all punctuation marks, commas may be the most versatile and the most commonly misused. There are so many ways to use commas that deciding whether to use one or not can be overwhelming. If you tend to get confused when using commas, keep in mind that every comma should serve a purpose, so never place one without a reason. Below is a list of legitimate places to put a comma in your writing.

  • Between independent clauses, but only when paired with a coordinating conjunction (FANBOYS).

Example: The dog raced after the car, but he was left in the dust.

  • After dependent clauses, prepositional phrases, or other descriptive phrases at the beginning of sentences.

Example: On the other hand, the fortune teller had been correct.

  • Surrounding non-essential phrases, such as appositives.

Example: Betsy, a lovely woman, offered to knit us socks.

  • Between elements in a list.

Example: The child ate cotton candy, fried cookies, and ice cream at the fair.

  • Between two adjectives that describe the same noun AND are interchangeable.

Example: My nephew made me a funny, cute card.

  • Separate transitional words/phrases from the rest of the sentence.

Example: However, the judge disagreed.

  • Before or after quotes.

Example: He asked, “Why?” “Because it just makes sense,” she replied.

  • Addressing a person by name.

Example: Peter, would you pass the pepper?


Many people are afraid of using semicolons, but this comma-colon hybrid can be an excellent alternative to a period between independent clauses. If two sentences are talking about the same topic, a semicolon placed between them may improve the flow of ideas from one to the other.

Example: That supermarket is my favorite; it carries all my favorite foods for reasonable prices.

Also, if you are writing a list and the items within the list include commas, separating the items with semicolons prevents confusion between all the commas.

Example: On our trip, we visited Washington, D.C.; Chicago, Illinois; and New York, New York.


Colons can also appear between independent clauses, but should really only be used when the second clause clarifies, or paraphrases the first.

Example: The platypus is a strange animal: it lays eggs and has a bill, but is still considered a mammal.

The other way you can use a colon is after an independent clause that is followed by a list.

Example: We will need the following for our camping trip: a tent, sleeping bags, and hiking boots.


Hyphens appear not just within sentences, but within words themselves. Adjectives can be formed of two or more words connected by hyphens, but these adjectives may only appear before the noun they describe.

Example: The hand-made necklace was made of local turquoise.

Compound numbers written as words must also use hyphens.

Example: He has answered sixty-three math questions so far.

Some of the most common places to see hyphens are after certain prefixes, between prefixes and proper nouns, after single-letter prefixes, and with the suffix -elect.

Example: The all-cotton T-shirt depicted the president-elect.


Apostrophes also appear within words and can be a little tricky to place correctly.

Contractions use apostrophes to stand in for letters that have been removed.

Example: You shouldn’t poke the cat, so don’t do it.

Apostrophes are also essential for indicating possession.

If a noun is singular or is plural but doesn’t end with an s, add ‘s. If it is plural and ends with an s, just add an apostrophe.

Example: Our architect used the PTA members’ ideas in the design for the children’s playground.

Be careful! Several contractions are homophones for possessive pronouns, which do NOT use apostrophes. For example, it’s means it is, while its is a possessive pronoun.


Parentheses surround non-essential elements within sentences.

Wait, you might be thinking, don’t commas do that?

They do, but parentheses are a bit more eye-catching than commas, so they provide some extra emphasis for the phrases they surround. Remember that parentheses always come in pairs.

Example: The road trip (which was all my brother’s idea) was ruined when the car broke down.


Dashes look like long hyphens, but serve a completely different purpose. Like commas and parentheses, dashes set off non-essential elements in sentences. They can be used in pairs, to set off phrases in the middle of sentences, or alone, to set off phrases at the end of sentences. Dashes provide even more emphasis than parentheses, and they do a great job of catching readers’ eyes and drawing attention to certain parts of a sentence.

Example: My friends — Megan, John, and Ricky — offered to help me move.

Example: His face revealed a mix of emotions — confused, yet happy.

Quotation Marks

As their name suggests, quotation marks surround direct quotes. They can be used around an entire sentence or within sentences. Quotation marks always appear in pairs and closing quotation marks must be placed outside a sentence’s end-punctuation.

Example: “I hope to see you again.”

Example: “Four score and seven years ago,” began Lincoln.

About Elizabeth Peterson

Elizabeth holds a degree in Psychology from The College of William & Mary. While there, she volunteered as a tutor and discovered she loved the personal connection she formed with her students. She has now been helping students with test prep and schoolwork as a professional tutor for over six years. When not discussing grammar or reading passages, she can be found trying every drink at her local coffee shop while writing creative short stories and making plans for her next travel adventure!

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