No Drama Guide To Commas

Updated: Feb 7

Today we're going to discuss the quickest way to make large gains in your ACT score. Punctuation is something you can learn quickly, easily practice, and see immediate results. We’ll start with how to use commas in the English test.

To begin, let’s go over a few definitions you should know, but might not remember.

1) Independent Clause: a clause ( a group of words containing a noun and a verb) that can stand alone as a complete sentence. Hence why it is called “independent”.

Eg: “I went running.” is an independent clause because it can stand alone as a sentence.

2) Dependent Clause: a clause that can’t stand alone as a sentence. Thus, it is called “dependent” because it depends on something else to make sense.

Eg. “but I went running” is dependent because it can’t stand alone as a sentence and requires additional information to make sense.

3) Conjunction: a word that is used to connect words, clauses, or sentences. In this guide, we'll often refer to FANBOYS (For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So) because they are the most common conjunctions you will see on the test.

Eg. “I was going to clean my room, but I went running.”

Now, it’s important as you read these topics and attempt to answer the associated practice problems that you approach it with two mindsets. First, you should only be using punctuation when called for. If the sentence in question does not match the formats provided below then it doesn’t need punctuation. This leads us to our next mindset: sentences need to be clear and concise. Your number one priority should be to choose the clearest possible answer followed by the most concise of those answers. You can remember this by remembering the ACT is THICC with 2 c’s: Clear & Concise.

As a rule of thumb, do NOT use any punctuation unless they meet these rules. This is what the ACT tests you on. They do not test "natural pauses" or "well I thought it should go there because I went too long without using one". Those are not punctuation rules. They will lead you to punctuation anarchy. Follow these rules and watch your score jump like a Wisconsin Badger in Camp Randall.

Once upon a time, a teacher told me to put a comma in sentences where I felt a natural pause. The problem? When you talk as fast as I do without breathing there are no natural pauses so you end up with ridiculously long run-on sentences like this one and you don’t want that at all because this is not the proper way to punctuate your sentence. Alternatively, you, might have a, sentence, that looks like, this, because, someone feels, pauses all, over, the place. DO NOT DO EITHER OF THESE THINGS.

Comma Meme

Introductory Phrase

Use a comma if there is an introductory phrase that starts the sentence. Introductory phrases introduce the sentence. They set the stage for the main portion of the sentence. In this way, it is helpful to consider them as "by the way" phrases. They add context but are not necessary for the sentence to be complete.

Examples (introductory phrases are in italics):

a. Before the game, Leslie drank coffee to stay alert.

b. To increase his chances of winning, Tom Brady deflated the footballs.

c. Basking calmly, Thomas relaxed on the beach.


1) As an Eagle Scout David always came prepared.


b. an, Eagle Scout David always

c. an Eagle Scout, David always

d. an Eagle Scout David always,

2) After working with Des Moines Learning Center I raised my ACT score 5 points.


b. Des Moines Learning, Center I raised my ACT score

c. Des Moines Learning Center I raised my ACT score,

d. Des Moines Learning Center, I raised my ACT score

Answers: 1)C 2)D


1) If you remove “As an Eagle Scout”, the remaining clause “David always came prepared" is an independent clause. Therefore, C is the correct answer.

2) If you remove “After working with Des Moines Learning Center”, the remaining clause “I raised my ACT score 5 points” can stand on its own as a sentence. Therefore, D is the correct answer.

Nonessential Phrase (additional information)

Use commas if there are words or phrases that are relevant or add context but are nonessential to the sentence. To determine if a word or phrase is nonessential, remove it from the sentence. If the remaining clause is independent, can stand on its own, then the word or phrase is additional, nonessential information and needs to be separated by commas on either side.

As a general rule:

, additional/nonessential word or phrase,


a. Fong’s Crab Rangoon pizza, the best in town, makes my mouth water.

b. Sigh No More, Mumford’s first studio album, still slaps.

c. Abby, who loves swimming so much you’d think she had gills, just set a new pool record.


1) My sister Rachel, a future doctor has some crazy stories from medical school.


b. sister, Rachel, a future doctor, has

c. sister Rachel, a future doctor has

d. sister Rachel, a future doctor, has

2) Harper, our office dog, loves when students give her treats after their tutoring sessions


b. Harper our office dog

c. Harper, our office dog

d. Harper our office dog,

Answers: 1)D 2)A


1) “My sister Rachel has some crazy stories from medical school” is a complete sentence. “A future doctor” acts as additional information to give the reader a better idea of who we were talking about.

2) The phrase “an Australian Shephard mix” provides additional detail about Harper, the office dog. The rest of the sentence can stand alone with it removed. Thus, it is nonessential to the rest of the sentence and needs commas before “an” and after “mix”.

Compound Sentences

A compound sentence is when 2 independent clauses are joined with a conjunction. For the ACT you’ll need to remember your FANBOYS. When using a comma in this situation, the comma should come after the first independent clause and before the FANBOY. If you see an independent clause with a FANBOY and dependent clause there should be no comma. The format is as follows:

Independent clause, FANBOY independent clause

Independent clause FANBOY dependent clause (no comma)


1) I’m thinking of getting Tasty Tacos for dinner, but I just had a burrito for lunch yesterday.

2) Andy loves tutoring, so he opened Des Moines Learning Center to provide tutoring and test prep to Central Iowa students.


1) Meghan thinks she’s a 90s kid, yet she wasn’t born until 2000.


b. she’s a 90s kid yet, she wasn’t born

c. she’s a 90s kid yet she wasn’t born

d. she’s a 90s kid, yet, she wasn’t born

2) Aaron went to Dartmouth, and loved living in New Hampshire.


b. Dartmouth and he loved living in

c. Dartmouth, and he loved living in

d. Dartmouth and, he loved living in,

Answers: 1)A 2)B


1) “Meghan thinks she’s a 90s kid” and “She wasn’t born until 2000” are both independent clauses capable of standing on their own. Since they are joined with “yet” there needs to be a comma after “kid”.

2) “Aaron went to Dartmouth” is an independent clause, but “loved living in New Hampshire” is a dependent clause. Therefore, despite the FANBOY, there is no comma required.

Lists or Series

You probably already know this one. This is your moment!

NOTE: The ACT, like Vampire Weekend, does not care about the Oxford Comma. What is the Oxford Comma you might ask? It is the last comma in a list right before and/or. The necessity of this comma is not agreed upon in the English community.


1) I went to the grocery store to get popcorn, candy, and soda for our movie night.

2) I want to visit the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, and Germany on my Euro trip next year.

3) Hot Rod is the greatest movie of all time followed by The Graduate, The Godfather, and Toy Story.


1) My favorite siblings are Erin Austin, and Meghan.


b. are, Erin, Austin, and Meghan

c. are Erin, Austin and, Meghan

d. are Erin, Austin, and Meghan

Answer: 1) D


1) Of the options available, only option D includes a comma behind Erin without another comma in an incorrect place.

Adjectives In a Series

This is an interesting case when multiple adjectives modify the same noun. If you can say the word and between the adjectives or if you can reverse the order of the adjectives then you need to put a comma between the adjectives. If more than 2 adjectives are modifying the same noun then apply the same test above to each pair of consecutive adjectives. If you can't say the word and between them or reverse the order of the adjectives then you can omit the comma.


The following need commas.

1) The large, red barn fell over in the storm last night.

2) My teacher gives me difficult, tedious problems to prepare me for the ACT.

The following do not need commas.

1) Billy lives in an old brick house.

2) My favorite teacher wears an old gray sweater every Friday.


1) At the gala there was a long, cool woman in a black, dress.


b. long, cool, woman in a black dress.

c. long cool woman in a black dress.

d. long, cool woman in a black dress.

2) I found an expensive, long green couch at a garage sale.


b. expensive long green couch

c. expensive, long, green couch

d. expensive long, green couch

Answers: 1)A 2)C


1) If you look, “long and cool” still makes sense so there needs to be a comma after long. Both words describe woman so there shouldn’t be a comma between cool and woman.

2) To test this question we need to analyze each pair of consecutive adjectives.

“expensive and long” sounds correct

“long and green” sounds correct

Therefore, we need commas after both expensive and long.

Verbal Phrases

If a verbal phrase, especially a gerund phrase, is at the end of the sentence and refers to the whole sentence then it needs to be separated by a comma. Think of these as by the way or nonessential phrases that are just at the end of the sentence. If you’re wondering what a gerund is, you’re not alone. It’s a verb ending in -ing, so a gerund phrase is a phrase including a verb that ends in -ing. To test if the phrase refers to the entire sentence, see if you can change the order of the two without changing the meaning of the sentence.


1) Trey played well, considering he didn’t sleep at all last night.

2) Elizabeth scored highly on her assessment, reinforcing the words of her parents.


1) Every student aced the exam confirming the teacher’s suspicions.


b. exam confirming, the teacher’s

c. exam confirming the teacher’s,

d. exam, confirming the teacher’s

Answer: 1)D


1) “Confirming the teacher’s suspicions” refers to the entire sentence ahead of it. Therefore, a comma is needed to separate the two.

There you have it, everything you need to know about commas and how to use them for the ACT. Stay tuned for upcoming posts in the series on Math, Reading, and Science as well as future posts on punctuation. Check out your local tutoring or test prep center. Des Moines area students can book a free assessment here or call us at 515-216-0983 to schedule. We also offer tutoring and test prep for the surrounding areas like Ames, Norwalk, Newton, Boone, Grimes, Clive, West Des Moines, Waukee, Urbandale, Ankeny, Johnston, Dallas Center, Van Meter, and more. We hope this helps and look forward to seeing you succeed! Subscribe to keep up to date for all your tutoring and test prep needs. To get more of this content in person and delivered in a method catered to your learning style, book your first appointment with us today.