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PSAT/NMSQT Sentence Completions: Gaining Information from Punctuation

Punctuation is your friend when you’re trying to crack a sentence completion because punctuation adds meaning to written expression. On the PSAT/NMSQT, you get the most mileage out of three punctuation marks: the semicolon, the colon, and quotation marks.

Paying attention to punctuation pays off when you hit the passage-based questions, too.

A semicolon (a dot atop a comma) is like the bench that you sit on for a moment while hiking, according to one writer. You rest there and then continue the journey. If you see a semicolon, you probably won’t see a change in meaning.

Instead, the second portion of the sentence (the part that follows the semicolon) is an extension of the first portion. The relation may be implied cause-and-effect or an additional fact. Take a look at these examples:

The committee chair must take attendance; the meeting can’t be held if too many members are absent.
Efforts to locate the puppy were unsuccessful; the searchers vowed to continue the next morning.

In the first sentence, the semicolon indicates why the committee chair has to take attendance — a cause-and-effect relationship. In the second example, the semicolon moves the action forward in time. The searchers failed, but they will be back.

A colon (one dot atop another) may introduce a list, and it may also join two complete sentences when the second sentence explains the meaning of the first. Here are colons in action:

The exhibit contains many controversial artworks: a decaying basket of fruit, a mirror that distorts viewers’ faces, and a defaced portrait of a popular film star.
Timon of Athens was never performed during Shakespeare’s lifetime: The play was unfinished when he died.

The colon introduces the list of artworks in the first example. In the second sentence, the colon offers a reason why the play wasn’t produced.

Quotation marks generally indicate that someone is speaking, but on the PSAT/NMSQT you may also see sanitizing quotation marks, which distance the writer from what she is saying, as in this sentence:

Mark’s mother insisted that we listen attentively to his “music.”

The quotation marks tell you that the sounds Mark produces (squeaky hinges, garbage can lids hitting one another, whatever) aren’t truly music, in the writer’s view.

Keep your eye on the punctuation in Questions 1 and 2.

  1. That variety of plant is _____; however, the berries on the other bush are nutritious and easily digested.

        (A)    unattractive
        (B)    inedible
        (C)    dominant
        (D)    widespread
        (E)    perennial
  2. The children were under strict orders to be _____: They were to mingle with the guests and help everyone feel at home.

        (A)    amenable
        (B)    stern
        (C)    hospitable
        (D)    petulant
        (E)    magnanimous

Now check your answers:

  1. B. inedible

    The semicolon signals that the second half of the sentence continues the topic of the first half. Because the second half is about berries and their value as a food source, the first half has to be about food also. The word however tells you that the sentence, while still on topic, changes direction, so inedible (can’t be eaten) works perfectly.

  2. C. hospitable

    Everything following the colon is a definition of what precedes the colon — the orders the children received. They’re supposed to mingle (mix in socially) and make the guests comfortable, so hospitable (welcoming) is perfect. Before you go, take a moment to learn some vocabulary: amenable is “open to, willing to go along with,” and stern is “strict.” Petulant is “irritable,” and magnanimous is “generous.”

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