High school students read a vast amount of high quality literature over their years of schooling. In that time, you might have noticed respected authors making grammar and punctuation choices that would appall any ACT or SAT test taker. You’re not alone! It’s a well known fact that famous authors bend the rules of proper English for stylistic effect.
When you’re taking the tests, focus on the rules you learn in class and in tutoring. Even though you have seen an author use English in a beautiful way, they may also be using it incorrectly by test standards. Let’s take a look at a few “set in stone” ACT/SAT rules and the famous authors who utterly ignored them:
Rule: Never use a comma splice.
A comma splice uses a single comma to separate two independent clauses. This is never correct on the ACT & SAT (or in your academic courses).
Rule Breaker: Charles Dickens
Example: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” (A Tale of Two Cities)
Rule: Precision and Concision.
Standardized tests are almost always asking for the shortest, most direct way of saying something, wanting you to cut out any occurrences of repetitive words or information.
Rule Breaker: JD Salinger
Example: “It rained on his lousy tombstone, and it rained on the grass on his stomach. It rained all over the place.” (The Catcher in the Rye)
Rule: Subject-Verb Agreement.
Your subject and verb always need to agree in number (matching respective singular and plural forms).
Rule Breaker: Shel Silverstein
Example: “There’s too many kids in this tub
There’s too many elbows to scrub
I just washed a behind that I’m sure wasn’t mine,
There’s too many kids in this tub.” (A Light in the Attic)
Rule: Complete Sentences.
The ACT and SAT require all sentences to be complete, including a subject, predicate, and any completing information.
Rule Breaker: Madeleine L’Engle
Example: “IT was a brain. A disembodied brain. An oversized brain, just enough larger than normal to be completely revolting and terrifying. A living brain. A brain that pulsed and quivered, that seized and commanded. No wonder the brain was called IT.” (A Wrinkle in Time)
Dashes have two uses. Either you can use a pair of dashes to surround an interjection in the middle of a sentence or you can use one towards the end of your sentence to indicate clarification or tonal shift.
Rule Destroyer: Emily Dickinson
Example: “Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.” (“Because I could not stop for Death”)
Whether reading for school or pleasure, you can enjoy the fascinating and exciting ways authors break the rules. These decisions affect style, tone, and genre. Just remember that an author needs to know the rules properly in order to break them beautifully.