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The Top 5 Counterintuitive Grammar Rules on the ACT and SAT

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English has quite a few grammar rules that seem to fly in the face of common sense. The ACT and SAT test designers are acutely aware of how confusing certain English grammar rules can be and include some of the most baffling ones to try to trick students. With that in mind, here is my personal list of the top five most counterintuitive grammar rules tested on the ACT English and SAT Writing and Language sections.


  1. Possessive Pronouns


English has an annoying habit of assigning opposite rules to complementary parts of speech. One such example that shows up on the ACT and SAT is possessives. Possessive nouns always take an apostrophe. However, possessive pronouns never take an apostrophe. What makes this even more confusing is that possessive pronouns are frequently homonyms with contractions. The worst offenders in this regard are “its” (possessive) and “it’s” (it is). Because the difference is so subtle, you need to always ask yourself if you are using the correct “its/it’s” for a given situation.


  1. Whole Groups


Nouns that collectively refer to entire groups are technically singular things. We tend to resist this rule when a group is made up of people, especially when speaking casually. Let’s say you are talking with your friends about Atlanta United, the city’s Major League Soccer team. You would probably say:


 Atlanta United made it to the playoffs, but they were eliminated in the first round.


On the ACT and SAT, however, the following would be correct:


Atlanta United made it to the playoffs, but it was eliminated in the first round.


  1. Prepositional Phrases


Phrases that begin with prepositions do not affect subject-verb agreement. The rationale behind this rule is that you can remove any prepositional phrases and still have a complete sentence. For example, “the committee of nations is voting today” is correct because you can delete “of nations” without breaking the independent clause on a grammatical level.


It is easy to get this rule wrong because the prepositional phrase is usually closer to the verb than the simple subject is. As in our example, the ACT and SAT will include subjects and prepositional phrases that disagree in number and will sometimes throw in whole group nouns for good measure. If you find yourself falling for misleading prepositional phrases on a regular basis, make a habit of crossing out such phrases on any subject-verb agreement questions.


  1. Singular Gender Neutral Pronouns


In recent years, it has become increasingly acceptable to use “they” as a singular gender neutral pronoun. Despite this trend, the ACT and SAT insist that you use the more grammatically correct but less progressive “he or she” and “him or her” when you need singular, gender inclusive pronouns. For example:


If a student wishes to do well on the ACT or SAT, he or she must follow certain grammar rules that might seem archaic to him or her.”


  1. Each One and Everyone


Each one and everyone appear plural but are actually singular because they end in “one.” Even when you can omit the “one,” this rule remains in place. In other words “each of us” is grammatically identical to “each one of us” because the “one” is implied or understood.

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