An American and an Englishman walk into an essay, both holding punctuation. Wanting to be useful, they head for a sentence that happens to end with a quotation. The Englishman, noticing where the American stands, says, “My dear chap, whatever are you doing inside the quotation marks? Scurry along to another sentence, and for goodness sake, place yourself properly at the end of it.” The American laughs and replies, “My good man, it’s you who are mixed up. Quit flapping in the breeze and get yourself inside some quotation marks so you don’t freeze to death.”
This ridiculous anecdote demonstrates an important point about conventions of writing: they are just that, conventional. Like handshakes, or fist bumps. The English put their periods outside the quotation marks, Americans put them inside. There is no good reason for doing it one way or the other except to fit in with your countrymen.
The ACT, even more so than the SAT, loves conventions of punctuation. This is good news and bad news for test takers. The bad news is that some of the conventions that appear in ACT questions cannot be reasoned out – you simply must know the American convention. The good news is that if you learn these conventions before taking the test, you’re good to go.
There are, however, some conventions appearing in ACT questions that can be reasoned out. Imagine our American and our Englishman walk into the following sentence, both holding a question mark: “My teenage son became uncharacteristically pleasant this last week, especially on the day that he asked me, ‘Dad, can I borrow your car for the prom?’” Now, the Englishman and American will find something to bicker about here, namely the order of the double vs. the single quotation mark (the American likes this sentence how it is). They will heartily agree, however, to stack their question marks, one atop the other, inside the quotation marks. The reason for this placement of the question mark is logical, not conventional: what the boy says is a question – what the father says is a statement. The placement of the question mark must indicate to the reader that only what is inside the quotation marks (the boys words) is a question.
Have you ever thought about the correct way to punctuate a list of cities and states (Raleigh, North Carolina; Claxton, Georgia; Seattle, Washington) or how to properly use a colon to introduce a list? Probably not. But the ACT will expect you to know these conventions of punctuation.
If you are studying for the ACT, be sure you learn punctuation conventions. And if you are looking for ACT prep, be sure you choose someone who knows what will be on the test and how to explain it to you (like us here at Moore’s Test Prep!).