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3 Things to Know About ACT English

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ACT English can be a difficult section for students to wrap their heads around. Even those skilled with grammar and writing are often baffled by the English section’s preference for borderline-obsolete grammar rules and painstakingly-literal guided rhetoric questions. The good news is that what ACT English is and is not allowed to test you on is much more limited than it might at first seem. We’ve covered several ways in which you can “unlock” the English section in the past, but here are three more important things to know before you take the test.


Note that while most of these apply to the SAT Writing and Language section as well, that exam does include some concepts that don’t appear on ACT English. In addition, the current SAT is much newer than the ACT, so we don’t know if or how the College Board might modify Writing and Language in the future.


Concepts Covered are Nitpicky but Limited

ACT English spends a disproportionate amount of time quizzing students on nitpicky grammar rules that most high school and college teachers would neither catch nor care about in a “real world” writing assignment. This insistence on adhering pedantically to obscure grammar rules can be a pain until you realize that the number of these rules that appear on the ACT is actually quite limited. Pages 4-6 of the Official ACT Prep Guide 2016-2017 list all of the “rules” you need to know for the English section. Once you have mastered these concepts, you will be fluent in all of the underlying skills you need for ACT English.


You Can Make the Test Format Work for You

Each question on the ACT can have only one correct answer. You can use this fact to your advantage to quickly eliminate wrong answer choices, especially on grammar and punctuation questions. If a choice is wrong for “reason X,” any other answers that are grammatically equivalent must also be wrong. Here is an example:


Jane went to the movies, Charlie stayed home.


This sentence has two independent clauses, so placing a comma after “movies” creates a comma splice. On the ACT, you can only use a semicolon (;), comma + conjunction (,and/,or/,but), or a period at this point. So not only would this sentence be wrong, but the following revisions would also automatically be wrong:


“…movies Charlie…” (run-on sentence)


“…movies but Charlie” (conjunction without a comma)


No New Types of Questions

While ACT, Inc. has modified the other sections of the ACT to varying degrees over the years, the English section has not changed substantially since the creation of the test. Any “new” questions that you might see will merely be variations of old types of questions. For instance, questions that ask whether a sentence should be inserted at point A, B, C, or D are simply a redressing of “inserted before/after sentence number X” questions. Other new questions are even more transparent. An “author’s/writer’s purpose” question is just an “author’s/writer’s goal” question with a single word changed. You don’t have to take the ACT a large number of times to be exposed to all of the types of questions that might appear on the English section either. Simply complete a couple of official practice tests and you will see every type of question that can appear on the real ACT English section.

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