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While taking a practice ACT test, I came across a confusing grammar problem. The sentences given in the passage are as follows:

"Many people believe that language is the domain of human beings. However, cats have developed an intricate language not for each other, but for the human beings who have adopted them as pets."

The bolded text would best be replaced by:

  1. NO CHANGE
  2. developed, an intricate language
  3. developed an intricate language,
  4. developed; an intricate language

The answer is very obviously not 2 or 4. The supposedly correct answer is 1. NO CHANGE, but I do not understand why answer 3 is not correct. A pair of commas is used to set aside information that adds to the sentence, but is not necessary for the sentence to be understood.

The book where I came across this problem states that there is no need for a pause, thus making answer choice 1 the correct answer. Why, then, do I feel like the sentence flows better with a comma before "not"?

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These things (the 'right answers') are often dependent on the examiners' book of sub-sub-sub rules.

Here, I'd say that not for each other, but for the human beings who have adopted them as pets is a sizeable (though quite valid) deviation from the previous subject-matter 'domain of human beings. However, cats have developed an intricate language ...' and as such is better set off by compartmentalising punctuation. I'd actually use a dash here, as the change in semantic focus is appreciable:

"Many people believe that language is the domain of human beings. However, cats have developed an intricate language – not for each other, but for the human beings who have adopted them as pets."

So I agree with you that the test could be improved (I'd 'accept' either version 3 or, with misgivings, 1 here). Sadly, it's what you're stuck with. We have no such arbitrary constraints here.

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    Very informative insight. What you said about the "right answers" being subjective is true and is also what concerns me most about these standardized tests. I am worried I will receive a score that is underrepresentative of my understanding of English grammar. – user155812 Jun 13 '14 at 7:42
  • Stick with their 'rules' until you've passed, then see what other authorities, authors ... prefer. Choose ones you think make the most sense. But stick with the prevailing fashion when it comes to which side of the road to drive on. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 13 '14 at 7:53
  • I agree with the dash, but it's the preceding sentence that makes this right. The main thrust of the second sentence is that "cats have developed a language" (because it's this that contrasts with the notion that only humans have), and so for me the rest of the sentence is best set off as you say. If the preceding sentence had been something like "Dogs can communicate with each other", then the thrust of the second sentence would have been the way that cat-speak differs from dog-speak rather than the fact that they have a language at all, and then I wouldn't want the comma/dash. – Rupe Jun 13 '14 at 9:41
  • This question just came up in the review queue (owing to a late answer from a new user) and I jumped to this page to make the very argument you do in favor of breaking out "not for each other ..." with an em dash. Now I don't have to. It's always a pleasure to find myself in agreement with someone who knows what he's talking about. – Sven Yargs Mar 10 '16 at 0:58
  • Cats are experts with pawses. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 10 '16 at 12:20
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The reason why a comma after language would be out of place is that it would break up the sentence in the wrong way. Not for each other, if separated off by commas would be a separate parenthesis rather than being read, as it should be, together with but for the human beings....

I agree with Edwin that it is possible to improve the sentence, though it does recall the anecdote of [insert your favourite writer] agonising over a page, removing one comma and inserting another, and considering that a good morning's work. The question asked, however, is not "How would you best punctuate this sentence?" but "Which of these options is the best?"

  • +1 Now I see it - damn cats and their buts always in an awkward place. – Frank Jun 13 '14 at 10:58
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The reason why the answer is A and not C is because "not" (like all FANBOY conjunctions) takes a comma before it only when it connects two independent clauses (e.g. clauses that could be sentences on their own). While "However, cats have developed an intricate language" is an independent clause, "for each other, but for human beings who have adopted them as pets" is a dependent clause.

When connecting an independent and dependent clause using a FANBOY, do not use a comma before the FANBOY.

-ACT tutor

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    Um, "for each other, but for human beings who have adopted them as pets" is a clause?  I don't think so.  (I guess "who have adopted them as pets" is a dependent clause.) – Scott Mar 10 '16 at 0:25
  • The rule that this ACT question seeks to enforce against inadequately tutored ACT test takers has, as far as I can tell, no basis in grammar. At most it is a punctuation convention—and punctuation conventions frequently exist in areas that consist entirely of shades of gray. One might, for example, argue that both the comma after other and the comma after language are discretionary. It's disappointing when standardized tests treat choices that are as irrelevant to sense as these appear to be as matters of clear right or wrong. – Sven Yargs Aug 25 '16 at 18:00
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I had a friend who failed a written driver's test, and the state trooper was explaining his errors. One question read,"What is the meaning of 'Do not pass, when there is a solid yellow line is on your lane? The right answer was, Do not pass. My friend, a mathematician explained to the trooper that he was mixing up language and metalanguage, which did not help his cause. I think the people who wrote the ACT test have made the same error, but let's see how the sentence reads their way:

"Many people believe that language is the domain of human beings. However, cats have developed NO CHANGE not for each other, but for the human beings ..."

Put bluntly, you're right; they're wrong. Even if someone is somewhat uncomfortable with replacement 3, it is surely better than the other choices.

  • This answer needs clarification. Are you saying option 1 can't be right because it bears more than one interpretation? – MetaEd Aug 25 '16 at 21:00
  • I'm saying that the bolded text would not be best replaced by NO CHANGE. Notice that leaving the bolded text unchanged was not one of the student's four choices, because he had to replace the bolded text. Similarly, "Do not pass, when there is a solid yellow line in your lane" does not mean "Do not pass;" it means "IF THERE IS A SOLID YELLOW LINE IN YOUR LANE, do not pass." By the way,"bolded text" is strange, especially in the context of instructions in a test about English. – Airymouse Aug 25 '16 at 22:18
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    I see what you're saying. But choosing option 1 actually means you believe the unchanged text is correct. This interpretation is corroborated by ACT's instructions in the test books: If you think the original version is best, choose "NO CHANGE". – MetaEd Aug 25 '16 at 22:31

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