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ACT Punctuation Tips and Rules | Tricky Punctuation

To better ace the ACT English test, here are some handy ACT punctuation tips and rules about three pesky marks that trip students up: colons, semicolons, and dashes.

Besides punctuation, here’s a handy list of ACT vocabulary works to review that’ll reduce any chances of surprise.

Three Tricky Punctuation Marks On The ACT

On the ACT English test, the comma is the most important punctuation mark to pay attention to regarding questions.

In addition to commas, you need to familiarize your understanding of colons, semicolons, and dashes. These punctuation marks often confuse students with their usage on test day. Here’s a brief look at each one to help practice before test day.


The semicolon is the most heavily tested one of these three marks.

The good news is the main rule with semicolon usage is easy: every semicolon must have an independent clause on either side of it. That’s it.

For clarity, an independent clause is a statement which can function as a complete sentence. To be really technical, an independent clause is a group of words that contains both a subject and a verb, while expressing a complete thought.

Here are a couple examples of what an independent clause looks like.

  • Because it was snowing, I put on my boots.
  • Football games are fun to watch even if you aren’t a huge fan of the game.

The clauses “I put on my boots” and “Football games are fun to watch” are independent clauses because they state complete thoughts.

Here’s an example of a sentence in need of a semicolon:

  • New athletes often don’t see the value of practice, they complete their drills out of necessity rather than wanting to get better.

Both statements act as complete thoughts, with neither one dependent on the other. Because only a comma connects them, this sentence is a comma splice. The correct sentence replaces the comma with a semicolon.


Colons are often misused, but the good news is that you can learn the rules.

Most of those who commit colon errors were never taught that colons have specific grammar rules just like the semicolon does. Here are the main things that colons do:

  • They introduce elements that logically follow, basically effects or consequences
    • There was one thing stopping me from trying out for the team: pure fear.
  • They introduce list elements:
    • I have three items in my backpack: books, lunch, and homework.
  • They set up quotes:
    • George W. Bush summed up his entire presidential career in a phrase: “They misunderestimated me.”

Take notice that the clause precedeing the colon must be independent. It needs to completely operate on its own without what follows the actual colon. What follows the colon adds further context to the statement.


First of all, dashes are not hyphens.

They look similar; however, hyphens connect specific compound words. Dashes don’t function that way. Here are some rules of what dashes can do:

  • Interrupt sentences with attention-grabbing phrases (the clause before the dash must be independent):
    • Make sure the clause that precedes the dash is independent.
    • “Time spent in the military can change your outlook–especially if you have been to war.”
  • Offset interrupting elements within sentences (essentially acting in the same capacity as a comma):
    • It was apparent to her–after hours of contemplation–that she had made the wrong choice.
  • Introduction explanations in a similar manner as colons do (again, the clause before the dash must be independent):
    • Sarah was patient, but persistent, with her dog–she taught him to eventually roll over on command.

The dash essentially gives your sentence a dramatic pause when it needs to provide emphasis. Unlike the colon and semicolon, the dash is pretty flexible in its usage. You should have the least amount of trouble dealing with it on the test.

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Prep Expert

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