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ACT English Test Format Strategies

In this lesson, we’re going to provide a reference sheet of strategies for “unlocking” the format of the ACT English section. These format-specific strategies will help you to understand what the various types of questions on the English section are really asking for.

Note: These strategies are not a substitute for a working understanding of the fundamentals of English grammar, punctuation, and rhetoric. On the contrary, you will need a solid grounding in these fundamentals to get the most out the test format strategies below. A full list of English concepts covered on the exam can be found in the front of the official ACT prep guide.

General Rules

These rules apply to every type of question on the ACT English section. Most are also applicable to other sections of the ACT to at least some degree:

  • 1 correct answer per question

  • All types of questions follow a consistent set of rules

  • Grammatically/rhetorically equivalent answers are treated as if they are the same answer

  • No contested/disputed usage

  • No naming/defining terms

  • Intended meaning doesn’t count, only literal meaning

  • Shorter, simpler, and more specific are better

Unlocking Grammar and Punctuation Questions

The limitations of the multiple choice format create certain quirks that you can exploit to make answering questions much easier. For grammar and punctuation questions, these include:

  • Learn to recognize patterns in (wrong) answer choices.

  • 2 or more choices that use equivalent grammar/punctuation must all be wrong.

  • If you see an error in one wrong choice, at least one other choice probably has the same type of error.

Special Rules for Grammar and Punctuation Questions

ACT English has a handful of important “special rules” that you should memorize and practice. These rules are either rarely-used in everyday writing or are taken especially literally by the test:

  • Prepositional phrases do not affect subject-verb agreement.

  • Only use a semicolon [;] to join 2 independent clauses.

  • Only use a colon [:] to join clauses when the 2nd clause describes/explains the 1st.

  • Nonrestrictive phrases framed by commas/dashes must be able to be deleted without “breaking” the grammar of the sentence.

  • When given multiple versions of the same clause or sentence and NO stated prompt, pick the answer choice with a noun or pronoun at or near the beginning.

  • Modifiers always apply to the noun(s) they are closest to.

Unlocking Rhetoric Questions

As with grammar and punctuation, the multiple choice format results in a specific set of “writing style” rules:

  • A question with a stated prompt is looking for the answer that provides a specific example of what the prompt is asking for.

  • Adding/deleting: Only add/keep a sentence if it elaborates on exactly what the passage is talking about at that point. Watch out for wrong answers that are broadly on topic.

  • When a question asks “what would be lost” if you deleted certain words, “strike out” those words and reread the sentence. Take the change in meaning very literally.

Precision Word Choice

A Rhetoric question asking for the most precise word to complete a sentence will have its own set of rules you can exploit:

Words will have similar meanings but different uses.

Cross out any wrong words that you do know immediately.

Use context clues, associations, morphemes, and the words you do know to work around words you don’t know.

Sentence/Paragraph Placement

In the real word, a well-written essay will follow certain guidelines of organization and flow. The ACT treats these guidelines as absolutes:

Events/ideas must be in chronological order.

An idea must be “named” before can be talked about.

Once the passage moves on to a new topic, it can’t come back to an earlier one.

Writer’s Goal Questions

Writer’s goal” questions can be difficult to answer without a clear strategy. With the right approach, however, answering these questions become much easier. We’ve covered this approach in detail before, but here is the short version:

Look at the explanation 1st then see if it makes sense for that choice to be a Y or N.

Eliminate choices that aren’t supported by or accurate to the passage.

Eliminate choices that do not directly answer the question in the prompt

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