ACT English

A Complete Explanation of the ACT English Test

When preparing and studying for the ACT English and Writing portions of the exam, it is important to remember that the test is not like your English class in high school.

The other essential thing to remember is that the ACT follows a set of rules that were the conventions of standard English in the middle of the 20th century. So even if an answer sounds correct with how you write or speak today, you must follow the rules set by the ACT and understand the types of questions you’ll be answering in order to succeed.

Let’s take a closer look at the English section of the ACT.

ACT English format

When taking the ACT, you will always start with the English portion. The English section is 45 minutes in length. You will answer 75 total questions broken into five sets with a passage and 15 questions.

Unlike other subjects on the ACT, the English passages have a range of topics and do not follow any order of difficulty.

Time management for ACT English questions

The biggest enemy for the English section is time. The best strategy is to read each passage and stop when you get to an underlined selection. Answer the question associated with the highlighted part and then continue reading the rest of the passage.

Remember, you do not have to summarize or retain anything you read on the ACT, so don’t try to understand what you are reading. Instead, use the passages to guide you to the correct answers.

Similar to guessing in ACT Math, each question on the ACT English test can only have one correct answer. So, it is common to see parts of the passage restated in the right answer choice.

If your goal ACT English score is a 36, know that you must answer all 75 questions in the allotted time and can only miss about 3 or 4. For this to be possible, you will need to focus your practice on being efficient with recognizing the different ACT question types and patterns.

Answering questions correctly on the ACT English test

There are three basic categories of questions for ACT English:

1) Reading comprehension or rhetorical skills

2) Grammar/Style/Punctuation or usage/mechanics

3) A combination of the first two categories

Here are some examples of question styles and ACT English question tips to get to the correct answer.  

ACT English question types and strategies

Questions that ask which answer best accomplishes a specific goal: Think about which answer most effectively shows the idea asked by the prompt.  

Questions that ask which answer provides the most relevant information: Think about which choice does not add extra information not found in the passage.

Questions that ask which choice is the best conclusion from the passage: Think about which answer focuses on the main idea or even the title of the passage.

Questions that ask which choice is the best introduction for a paragraph: Think about the topics or other sentences in the paragraph. If more than one answer mentions concepts in the section, the correct answer will be the one that says more ideas.

Questions that ask which answer provides the most specific information: Think about the question and make sure you are answering how it wants you to be specific. The wrong answers will all show detail in the wrong way.

Questions that ask for the best transition from one part of the passage to another: Think about which choice pairs together something from before the transition with something after the transition without adding extra information.

Questions that ask where a paragraph or sentence should go within the passage: Think about which answer puts everything into a logical order. The ACT wants to have context clues as close together as possible in the selections.

Questions that ask about vocabulary: Do not memorize hundreds of words! Think about which choice would best replace the original word in the most precise and relevant way. Use clues from before and after the original word to eliminate wrong answers.

Questions that ask if a phrase or sentence should be deleted from the paragraph: Think about how that will change the passage, if at all. Remember not to use judgment in selecting the answer but consider if the edit fits what the question wants.

Questions will ask if a phrase should be included or excluded in the passage: The answer choices will follow a pattern of “yes, yes, no, no” or something similar with two opposite words. Think about the reasoning for each choice and not the yes or no part of the answer.

How to study effectively for ACT English

When thinking about how to study for the ACT, especially the English section, make sure you set aside time to learn the rules used by the ACT.

Only practicing questions and never reviewing the right and wrong answers will not help you prevent the same mistake in the future. If you are confused about the reasoning behind the correct answer, consider taking ACT lessons with a tutor.

No matter what type of ACT prep you do, knowing the patterns with each question will allow you to work through each of the 75 questions and put all your hard work to good use.

An ACT tutor will help you practice each type of question so that you do not have to seek out each one yourself.

Rules to remember for ACT English

Using your knowledge of language, make sure you remember these key rules when answering questions on the ACT English test:

Pronouns, nouns, and verbs

When you see a pronoun on the ACT, it must agree in number with the noun, singular or plural.

You can use personal pronouns to replace a noun referring to a person.  

Just like nouns, verbs need to agree in number with the subject in the sentence. Verbs in a sentence should describe the actions of the noun in the same time frame.  

Make sure verb tense makes logical sense. The correct answer will not allow events to happen both in the past and future within one sentence.  

Do not confuse possessive pronouns with contractions, such as mistaking “your” (possessive) for “you’re (contraction).” To avoid these pitfalls, say the contraction with both words in the sentence. So, you would read “you’re” as “you are.” Then, when you read both terms, you can tell if it sounds correct or not.

If the possessive ends with an ‘s,’ then only add the apostrophe to pluralize. Example: cats become cats’. For all other nouns, you need to add an apostrophe ‘s’ to make it plural. Example: cat becomes cat’s. Possessive pronouns “their,” “whose,” and “its” do not have apostrophes.

Conjunctions

Words that generally appear together in a sentence are called correlative conjunctions. Some examples of these include both/and, either/or, and neither/nor.

Mixing these conjunctions up makes an answer incorrect, so watch for words that do not belong together.

Who vs whom

Know when to use “who” and “whom.”

When you describe something or someone doing an action, use “who.”

When you describe something or someone being acted upon, use “whom.”

Some people find it helpful to turn the statement into a question, then answer it. Others remember that “who” matches up with he, she, or they, and “whom” matches up with him, her, or them.

Comparisons

The answers to comparison questions on the ACT will only be correct when comparing the same kinds of things.

For example, you cannot compare a distance with a time, as they do not measure the same thing.

Semicolons

Semicolons can be used in two ways on the ACT:

  • To separate two sets of words that could be by themselves, or
  • To separate items written in a super series

Commas

The most used form of punctuation on the ACT English test is the comma. But be careful using them too often.

A good rule of thumb with commas is to avoid using one unless there is an actual reason to use it. Here are correct usages of commas:

  • Use commas when dividing items in a list of three or more things. Include the comma before the word “and” in the list. (“I enjoy reading, studying, learning, and listening.”)
  • Use a comma between dependent and independent clauses.
  • Use commas to set a phrase apart from the rest of its sentence. This surrounds the words with commas and means they could be removed if needed and not change the sentence’s meaning. (The same can be done with dashes; make sure to use the same punctuation at the beginning and end of the phrase.)

Homophones

Homophones are words that sound the same but have different spellings and meanings. Unlike other types of questions, there’s no trick to answering questions that involve homophones. The only way to get the correct answer is to memorize the spellings of homophones in the English language  

Test prep with an ACT tutor

There’s a lot of information to learn and remember for the English portion of the ACT. Therefore, it is essential to review your practice questions and learn from your mistakes alongside an expert. Studying with an ACT tutor can help you concentrate on the areas you need help with and remind you of the concepts you are doing correctly.

You should practice and work through your problem areas in the ACT English section with your tutor, no matter your goal score. Make sure to build in time to review and figure out correct explanations so that you learn the rules and patterns of the ACT.

And practice real ACT questions in as close to possible test conditions! This will help you work through frustrations that may arise on test day when you have a passage that does not interest you or you must write an essay about a lackluster topic.

Good luck on test day!

Remember to have a positive attitude while preparing for your exam and take it all the way to test day. When preparing, make sure to spend time understanding ACT English question types, common mistakes, and all the English language rules the exam requires. Success on your ACT is closer than you think!

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