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Course: SAT > Unit 11

Lesson 3: Writing: Grammar

Writing: Nonessential Elements — Video Lesson

David works through a Nonessential Elements question on the SAT Writing and Language test. Created by David Rheinstrom.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] We're looking at question 36 here from a passage about job sharing. Let's give it a look-see, shall we? As the demand for flexible working options in today's marketplace has grown, job sharing, an arrangement in which one full-time job is split between two employees, has become more common. Okay, and our options here are: A, no change. So a comma after sharing. B, a dash after sharing. C, a semicolon after sharing. And D, a colon after sharing. So this is some kind of punctuation question but I noticed something as I was reading the sentence. That middle bit, an arrangement in which one full-time job is split between two employees, is a definition for job sharing. That definition could be called an aside. The technical term for it is an appositive. But my point is that this phrase isn't strictly necessary for the sentence to work. We could just read that sentence as: As the demand for flexible working options in today's marketplace has grown, job sharing has become more common. And that means that we're looking at a nonessential element. We are being asked to punctuate a nonessential element of a sentence. You'll see one to two questions like this on test day. Nonessential elements in the middle of sentences must be separated from the rest of the sentence with paired punctuation. We can set these phrases off with two commas, two dashes, or with open and closed parentheses. Let's look at an example. Chicken-of-the-woods a type of mushroom really does taste a lot like chicken! You see what's weird about this? It's not the same as a run-on sentence but it has that same kind of breathless weirdness to it. To my eyes, this sentence cries out to be punctuated. This nonessential element comes in the middle of a sentence. So we need to set it off, to bracket it on both sides with paired punctuation marks. Let's try a couple of commas here. Chicken-of-the-woods, a type of mushroom, really does taste like chicken! And sometimes you'll see nonessential phrases at the beginning or the end of a sentence. And for those you would use only a single comma or a dash. Let's look at an example of that. A type of mushroom, comma, chicken-of-the-woods really does taste like chicken. Now, we've got a few top tips for questions like these. Top tip: be consistent. If a nonessential element opens with a dash, it needs to end with a dash. If it opens with a comma, it needs to end with a comma. And the same thing is true for parentheses. You wouldn't end a parenthetical phrase with a dash or a comma. You need to stay consistent and use a closed parenthesis at the end. Top tip: don't pair up semicolons or colons. Commas, parentheses and dashes are the only marks to use when separating out a nonessential element. Colons and semicolons aren't used in pairs and they aren't used to separate nonessential elements. Let's head back to the question. And if you like, take this moment to pause the video and do this question on your own. All right, let's do it. So first I have to recognize that I'm dealing with a nonessential phrase in the middle of a longer sentence. One way to do that is to always keep an eye on the subject and the main verb of sentences as I read them. In this case, it's job sharing has become. That's my subject, that's my verb. And this stuff in the middle is nonessential. Once I realize that I should be looking for paired punctuation to set it off from the rest of the sentence. And this phrase already has a dash at one end. And so for sure I know I need a dash at the beginning. And so I know for sure that the answer is B. On test day, I'd pat myself on the back for recognizing the question type and applying the relevant rule. And I'd move on. Time is of the essence. But for the sake of completeness, I'll show you why the other choices are wrong. So choice C uses a semicolon and choice D uses a colon, and neither of these can be right for two reasons. First, we know from our top tips that we can't use semicolons or colons to set off nonessential elements. But even if we didn't recognize that we were dealing with a nonessential element here, we'd cross them off if we remember our rules about semicolons and colons. They need an independent clause before them. And 'as the demand for flexible working options 'in today's marketplace has grown, job sharing' couldn't work as a complete sentence. It's not an independent clause. So C is out, and D is out. And choice A, no change, starts a nonessential phrase with a comma and ends it with a dash. And given that that's not properly paired punctuation we can knock that out too. So your strategy here is going to be: one, be consistent. Don't change up the punctuation in the middle of the nonessential element. Match punctuation marks, and you'll be golden. And two, don't use colons and semicolons to set off nonessential elements. Good luck out there, friends. You've got this!