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Chris Lele

Advanced Punctuation on the New SAT

One area in which I’ve noticed most students—even some of the best ones—feel uncomfortable is with advanced punctuation. By advanced punctuation I mean semicolons, colons, parenthesis, and em-dashes (notice how these are used in the first sentence), and how these punctuation marks are meant to coordinate ideas between different clauses.

While the old SAT touched on this, the new SAT revels in it, having at least one such question per passage. And while the old SAT lets you get away with some educated guessing, on the new SAT you really have to know your advanced punctuation.

Advanced Punctuation on the Redesigned SAT: Practice

Let’s begin with a relatively straightforward example.

Say you want to connect the two clauses. Which punctuation mark should you use?

There was one thing he wanted more than anything else in life, a best friend.


B) in life: a

C) in life; a

D) in life a

The problem here is that a comma sets up an adjectival phrase. In other words the phrase that follows life should be describing life. Clearly, “life” is not his best friend. The follow sentence illustrates how a comma correctly connects an adjectival phrase to a specific noun:

Correct: He wants to live in the downtown, restaurants flanking his every step.

Here, “restaurants…step” describes the downtown area. But with the first sentence we have something very different going on. We need a punctuation mark that serves as an announcement: hey, I have something big to tell you, so here it is. And that is the colon. So what is the thing—that one thing—that he wanted more than anything else?

Correct: There was one thing he wanted more than anything else in life: a best friend.

You might ask, why didn’t we use a semicolon? Well, a semicolon is meant to separate two clauses that, by themselves, could function as sentences.

Correct: He wanted someone whom he could talk to whenever he was down; he wanted a best friend.

Notice that the two parts (“He wanted someone whom he could talk to whenever he was down”) and (“He wanted a best friend”) are each stand alone sentences. The reason we are even combining them in the first place, instead of leaving them as independent sentences, is that the ideas contained in both clauses are very closely related. A semicolon, in a way, illuminates this connection. To illustrate this compare the following:

Version #1

He wanted someone whom he could talk to whenever he was down. He wanted a best friend.

Version #2

He wanted someone whom he could talk to whenever he was down; he wanted a best friend.

Now, the new SAT would never have you pick between version #1 and #2, since the difference is a little too subtle. The same could be said about a colon in place of the semicolon. Technically, the colon could work, but it is not as stylistically clean as the semicolon. Again, the SAT is not testing that level of subtlety; it is testing your ability to understand the difference between the comma and the semicolon, the comma and the colon, and in some cases the semicolon and colon.

For these “some cases”, a quick rule to help you know the difference between a semicolon and a colon is that a semicolon must always form an independent clause.  Returning the very first sentence, it is wrong to say the following:

There was one thing he wanted more than anything else in life; a best friend.

Notice how “a best friend” is not a sentence/independent clause.

As for em-dashes and parenthesis, I’ll be covering them in a future post. For now, let’s see if you can tell the difference between semicolons, colons, and commas. The following three examples are ordered from easiest to most difficult.

The Brooklyn Museum features an item that might, for the first time ever, be the star of the show. Since its inception nearly 100 year ago, this accessory has been part of the limelight but has always been attached to the human body—whether in flight, in pivot, or in mid-stride. I’m talking about the lowly sneaker, which finally has the limelight all to itself in the exhibit “The Rise of Sneaker Culture”.

I should be honest: upon walking into the exhibit I did not expect much. After all, how edifying can one Air Jordan sneaker encased in a wall possibly be? But the exhibit offers much more than an endless procession of athletic shoes; it provides context for the way the game has both been played and evolved.



B) honest, upon

C) honest, upon,

D) honest; upon,


The very first shoe I saw, an original Chuck Taylor All Stars from 1927, hardly allayed my fears that the exhibit would underwhelm me. After all, the shoe, which is still produced today with very little variations in look and design, is so common that you don’t have to walk very far before you see a person sporting a pair. But when I read the placard beneath the shoe, I learned that a Chuck Taylor, a professional basketball player, had influenced both the design and feel of the shoe. He held basketball clinics throughout the country, in which he was able to test out new designs and modifications to the shoe that ultimately led to the sneaker I beheld; a piece of history, its rubber sole worn down over the decades.


B) beheld: it was a piece

C) beheld, a piece

D) beheld: a piece

At the time, Wyoming was not a state, a condition that actually made it easier for the federal government to turn the land associated with Yellowstone into a national park. Nonetheless, had it not been for the efforts of Ferdinand V. Hayden, Yellowstone may not have become what we know today. Hayden was worried that Yellowstone could easily become like Niagara Falls, which was overridden with tourism, he felt that only the national government could help preserve the land so that it was consistent with his vision.



B) tourism: this he felt

C) tourism; he felt

D) tourism, feeling



1. A

2. D

3. C

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About Chris Lele

Chris Lele is the GRE and SAT Curriculum Manager (and vocabulary wizard) at Magoosh Online Test Prep. In his time at Magoosh, he has inspired countless students across the globe, turning what is otherwise a daunting experience into an opportunity for learning, growth, and fun. Some of his students have even gone on to get near perfect scores. Chris is also very popular on the internet. His GRE channel on YouTube has over 10 million views. You can read Chris's awesome blog posts on the Magoosh GRE blog and High School blog! You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook!

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