Punctuation as Separators: A Tricky ACT Question

You may recall this question from the 2015-2016 ACT booklet:

In the mountains, Quezada found shards of pots, and an occasional complete pot, painted with intricate red and black designs.

Which of the following alternatives to the underlined portion would NOT be acceptable?

F. pots—along with an occasional complete pot—
G. pots, along with an occasional complete pot,
H. pots, (and an occasional complete pot)
J. pots (and an occasional complete pot)

To fully understand this question, you must know how punctuation can be used as separators.

Commas, dashes, and parentheses can all be used to set off segments of a sentence. The following examples are all correct:

  • Jeremy upset Mr. Davidson, the most renowned conductor in the nation, by missing orchestra rehearsal.
  • Jeremy upset Mr. Davidson—the most renowned conductor in the nation—by missing orchestra rehearsal.
  • Jeremy upset Mr. Davidson (the most renowned conductor in the nation) by missing orchestra rehearsal.

Now whether you use commas, dashes, or parentheses to set a phrase off depends on other punctuation rules, writing style, and the context of the sentence. We won’t talk about these other factors here, but you can rest assured that you’ll never have to pick one over the other when they’re all correct.

Instead, the ACT will ask you to pick out grammatically incorrect answers as in the official example above.

The rule you must know is this:

Only one set of separators may be used to set off a phrase and the type of separator must be consistent.

So for example, the following sentence would be incorrect because the type of separator is inconsistent:

Jeremy upset Mr. Davidson—the most renowned conductor in the nation, by missing orchestra rehearsal.

And in our official ACT example, H is incorrect because it uses both a comma and a parenthesis to initiate the separation. The comma should be taken out so that there’s just one set of parentheses.

Notice that the other answer choices stick to one set of separators and don’t add any further punctuation. Choice F uses a set of dashes, choice G uses a set of commas, and choice J uses a set of parentheses.


Did you like this post? Then you’ll like my ACT English book even more.

 
 
 

2 thoughts on “Punctuation as Separators: A Tricky ACT Question

  1. Thanks for helpful tips & practice!
    but, OOPs, in one of your sample tests you have Ang Lee as Korean!! He’s Taiwanese…

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