On the ACT, there are three ‘English-related’ sections: English, Reading and Writing. As you prepare for the test, you should keep a few things in mind that will help you get a higher score.
Let’s look at the English section today. This section involves a lot of passage correction. There are five passages, each accompanied by a sequence of multiple choice questions. You’ll have 45 minutes to address the 75 questions. That means you have to move fast!
The types of questions can be broken down into three categories.
- Punctuation: These questions test your knowledge of internal and end punctuation, with focus on the relationship of punctuation to meaning.
- Grammar and Usage: These test your understanding of subject and verb agreement, pronoun and antecedent relationships, and relationships between modifiers and the word modified. They also test your knowledge of verb formation and formation of comparative and superlative adjectives and adverbs.
- Sentence Structure: These are concerned with relationships between and among clauses, placement of modifiers, and shifts in construction.
With so much ground to cover, where do you begin? Below are ten areas that you can focus on to be prepared for the English section of the ACT.
1. The concise choice is the “best” choice: There are often questions in which multiple options seem correct. If there are no new grammar errors introduced, the shortest answer choice is often the correct choice. Although an answer might not be grammatically incorrect, it might be redundant or wordy. For example, if something is said to be “happy and joyful”, it’s redundant and not the best choice. The writing should be simple and to the point.
2. Semicolons: A semicolon can be used to join two independent clauses when the second clause restates the first or when the two clauses are of equal emphasis.
I don’t know if I studied enough; I should review more.
They can also be used to join two independent clauses when the second clause begins with a conjunctive adverb (however, therefore, etc.) or a transition (in fact, for example, etc.).
I know I am ready for this test; in fact, I could take it right now!
3. Commas: There are many uses for commas, but let’s just look at the main ones. First, they’re used to separate words and word groups in a simple series of three or more items.
We ate pasta, bread, and cheese.
Commas are used to separate two adjectives when the adjectives are interchangeable.
The small, black car is affordable.
Use a comma when starting a sentence with a dependent clause (a clause that cannot stand on its own).
When I arrived, the dinner was ready.
Use commas to set off nonessential parts of the sentence.
The dog, wanting to find his bone, went outside.
4. Subject and object pronouns: When a noun is used in relation to a verb, it can be either a subject or an object. Subjects “do” verbs and objects have verbs “done” to them. For example, “The car hit me.” Who is doing the hitting? The car. So the car is the subject. Who is receiving the hit? Me. So “me” is the object.
When we replace the object or the subject with a pronoun, it’s important to know if it’s a subject or object—this will determine what type of pronoun we use. The below chart tells you which to choose depending on what type of noun is being “replaced” by a pronoun:
One problem is that some of us have been incorrectly told, for example, that “John and I” is correct; we may have been told that we shouldn’t say “John and me.” Of course, this is not true! It depends on the relationship of the nouns to the verb. For example, let’s look at this:
Ella gave the cookies to John and me.
Ella did not give them to “John and I”. After all, we would never say, “Ella gave the cookies to I.” Right? That’s because the pronoun is receiving the action of being given cookies. On the other hand, let’s look at this example:
John and I gave her the cookies.
In this situation, “John and I” are the subjects so it’s “I” instead of “me”. The object is now Ella, so we use the object pronoun “her”. Ella is receiving the action–she is now the object of the verb.
This also applies to the use of “who” and “whom”. When we have a question about the subject, we use “who”:
Who hit me?
The “who” is doing the verb, hitting. Now, let’s say I did the hitting but I don’t know who I hit:
Whom did I hit?
Remember that the “M pronouns”—including “whom”—are objects that receive the action: Me, hiM, theM, whoM. Remember that the pronouns with “M” are objects, and you’ll ace it!
5. Verb tense: There are six basic verb tenses, two for each time period:
Simple Present: They sing.
Present Perfect: They have sung.
Simple Past: They sang.
Past Perfect: They had sung.
Future: They will sing.
Future Perfect: They will have sung.
The choice with the consistent tense use is the correct choice. If we’re talking about the past, stay in the past:
I told him that I had been there before.
If we’re talking about the future, stay in the future:
I will notify them that they will be in that room.
6. Number agreement: The English section often includes long sentences in which the main subject and the verb are separated by lots of words or clauses. If you identify the subject of each sentence and make sure the verb matches it, you will do well.
Nouns and verbs are both parts of speech with number. We write them differently if they refer to just one thing or multiple things. For example, “One cat climbs fast” but “Two cats climb fast.”
Number agreement simply means that the noun and the verb have the same number (singular or plural). Be on the lookout for modifiers and words in between the subject and the verb that might throw you off:
The writing in those poems is wonderful.
Notice that it’s “is” because the subject is “writing” not “poems”.
7. Logical flow and strategy: The English section will ask you to determine the order and focus of sentences or paragraphs. You will also be asked about adding, revising, or deleting sentences as well as how a sentence aligns with the purpose and focus of a paragraph or the passage as a whole.
8. Commonly confused words:
- There, their, they’re
- Through, thorough, threw
- Have vs. of (could’ve = could have)
- Accept vs except
- Affect vs effect
- Eminent vs imminent
- Hole vs whole
- Then, than
- Already, all ready
- Beside, besides
- Further, farther
- Who, whom, whose, who’s
9. Fragments: A complete sentence needs a subject and a verb in a complete main clause. This is NOT a complete sentence:
This is a complete sentence:
That was a good movie.
If it lacks a verb, it’s a fragment.
10. Parallel structure: In parallel construction, the phrases or items must be in the same form. This can be tested with a few parts of speech: nouns, verbs, prepositions, etc.
For example, we should have “I like eating, sleeping, and reading.” It would be incorrect to write, “I like eating, to sleep, and reading.” The “to sleep” is not parallel to the verb format of the other two items.
Those ten areas are among the “favorites” for the ACT English section—you’re likely to see them on the test. Now, here are some final tips to leave you with:
- Everything not underlined is taken as fact. Everything underlined is under question.
- Don’t worry about looking for errors in the passage; focus on the parts being questioned.
- Read the questions, and then look over surrounding sentences for context.
- Ask yourself:
- Does this sentence contribute to the topic? Is it new information or is it merely rephrasing the same information?
- Is the style and tone consistent with the rest of the passage?
- Do the paragraphs transition well and are they consistent with the others?
Stay tuned for tips on the Reading section of the test!