SAT Grammar: 3 Uncommon Types of Punctuation (that commonly appear on the SAT)

Brace yourselves for a thrilling post about… punctuation!

Many students, even strong writers with broad grammar/punctuation knowledge, miss a handful of questions on each SAT Writing test because they are unfamiliar with rules surrounding uncommonly used punctuation.  

Taking 15 minutes to familiarize yourself with these uncommonly understood rules could possibly boost your SAT scores by 20 or more points.  

On some Official SAT tests, more than 5 questions appear that test the rules covered in this post. Depending on your current score, each missed question can be worth up to 10 points.

SAT Writing questions are broken into two main categories:

  1. Grammar / Punctuation
  2. Expression of Ideas

Grammar/Punctuation questions test the rules of language and sentence construction, while Expression of Ideas questions test ability to express thoughts clearly and logically

We tell our students that preparing for the SAT is like playing a game.  The authors of each test writers receive training to write the test a very specific way, and students can expect to see similar questions on every single test.  

If students learn all the main rules about the questions that appear repeatedly on the test, they can score very well.   

In this post, we examine 3 common types of SAT Writing test questions that test uncommonly used punctuation.  Many strong writers rarely use these types of punctuation, but questions testing the following rules often appear several times on a single test.  


1. The Semicolon [ ; ]

A semicolon serves as a period between two closely related sentences.   

For proper usage of a semicolon, there must exist:

  • A complete sentence before the semicolon.
  • A complete sentence after the semicolon.

If either of these rules is broken, then the semicolon is not being properly used.  

Proper Usage

  • I like tennis; you like golf.  
  • The SAT is a long test; it bores me.
  • I am training for a marathon; I’m almost ready.

Improper Usage

  • Although I like tennis; you like golf.  (incomplete sentence before the semicolon)
  • The SAT is a long test; which is very boring. (incomplete sentence after the semicolon)
  • I am training for a marathon; It will take place soon.  (do not capitalize the word after the semicolon)


2. The Colon [ : ]

Most high school students rarely, if ever, use colons in their writing.  Colons are used in a very specific way, which we’ll cover below.

Note: colons and semicolons cannot be used interchangeably.

The SAT Writing section tests 2 main colon rules:

  • A colon comes before a list
  • A colon comes before an explanation

Proper usage of colon before a list:

  • At my job I do the following things: answer the phone, schedule appointments, and organize files.
  • I like tropical fruits: mango, guava, and passionfruit.  
  • There’s only one food I can’t resist: bacon.  (list of one)

Improper usage of a colon before a list:

  • At my job, I: answer the phone, schedule appointments, and organize files.  
  • I like tropical fruits such as: mango, guava, and passionfruit.  
  • I want to eat: mango, guava, and passionfruit.

In all of the list examples above, no colons are necessary to introduce the list.

Proper usage of a colon before an explanation  

  • The new secretary was a poor fit for the job: she couldn’t stay awake at work.
  • If I don’t exercise every single day, I won’t exercise at all: I’m a creature of habit.  
  • This chef is like a magician: he can turn the simplest ingredients into complex culinary creations.     

What comes after the colon can explain, clarify, or illustrate the idea before the colon.  

In these scenarios, the idea before the colon is often a full sentence.   


3. The Dash [ – ]

The dash is extremely versatile.  Students often use dashes informally in writing, but the SAT tests students’ formal understanding of proper dash usage.

The SAT Writing section often tests the following rules:

  • Dashes surround non-essential phrases/clauses
  • Dashes before emphasis, explanation or list (much like a colon)

Proper usage of a dash to surround a non-essential phrase/clause:

  • The man — a scary looking fellow with bloodshot eyes smiled and waved.
  • The packages arrived — nearly 3 weeks after the estimated delivery date — and we no longer had any use for their contents.  

Note that pairs of commas or parentheses can often be substituted for dash pairs.  

Proper usage of a dash before emphasis or explanation, or a list:

  • The little girl finally got what she wanted — a puppy.
  • This year I would like to accomplish some important goals — getting healthy, reading more books, and spending more time with family.   
  • I realized that she was going to be the best athlete I had ever trained — her work ethic was unmatched.  

In the above examples, a colon could be substituted for the dash.  

That’s it!  We hope we found this quick lesson helpful.

Good luck with your studying!


Kevin and Greg



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Greg Wong & Kevin WongGreg Wong and Kevin Wong

Greg and Kevin are brothers and the co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They are Princeton engineering graduates with over 20 years of education experience. They apply their data and research-backed problem solving skills to the test prep and college preparation process. Their unique approach places a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service as key components of college admissions success.