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ACT English “NOT Acceptable” Questions

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In this week’s lesson, we’re going to focus on how to answer a specific type of question on the ACT English section: the “NOT acceptable” question. This type of question differs from others in that it does not ask you what the single correct answer would be. Instead, “NOT acceptable” questions require you to pick out the grammatically incorrect answer from a series of possible replacements for an underlined section of text.


A typical “NOT acceptable” question looks like the following:


I went to the bank to deposit my paycheck. However, I had to use the ATM because the bank was closed.


Which of the following alternatives to the underlined portion would NOT be acceptable?

  1. paycheck; however,
  2. paycheck; however
  3. paycheck, but
  4. paycheck; unfortunately,


As you can see, all of the alternatives are very similar. Indeed the “NOT acceptable” choice for this question involves a single punctuation error. Some of you might have already identified this error. However, if you’re having difficulty picking it out, follow these steps.


  1. Assume the underlined portion is correct

The underlined portion found in the sentence will always be grammatically correct. Therefore, you should use this as your “model” for what is and is not an acceptable replacement. Note that the underlined portion involves the joining of two independent clauses. These clauses are correctly separated into two complete sentences by the use of a period and a capital letter. Also note that the second sentence begins with “however,” a transitional word that helps express contrast. Finally, note that the transition is correctly followed by a comma.


  1. Examine one point in the alternatives

Pick a point where the alternatives differ from the original text, and check that point for errors. All of the alternatives have a different punctuation mark where the period is in the original text, so let’s start there. First, we note that choices A and B have swapped out the period for a semi-colon. This is a correct way to join independent clauses, so let’s look at C and D. Choice C has a comma followed by the contrast conjunction “but.” Once again, this is grammatically correct. Choice D uses a different contrast transition but is otherwise identical to choice A. Because of this, we treat choices A and D as if they ARE identical, at least for now.


  1. Repeat the process with other points

When you can’t find an error at the first point, compare the alternatives to the original at another point. (We’ll only need to do this one more time for our sample question, but you might need to repeat the process multiple times for some of the more complicated “NOT acceptable” questions on the real ACT.) There’s really only one other point to examine for this question: the very end of each choice. Remember that you when you join two clauses with a transition, you must follow the transition with a comma. On the other hand, when you use a conjunction to join clauses, you must not follow the conjunction with a comma unless the conjunction itself is immediately followed by a nonrestrictive clause.


By following these rules, we can see that A, C, and D check out. Only choice B has a comma error after the final word. It should have a comma following “however,” but it does not. Thus, we can safely say that choice is B is the one alternative that “would NOT be acceptable.”








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