How to Do Well on ACT English

The ACT English test requires students to play the role of editor, correcting grammar errors and improving the flow of five less than perfect passages.

ACT English Format and Content

Students are given 45 minutes to answer 75 multiple-choice questions, which are divided evenly among the five passages. Essentially, in order to master the English test, students need to learn 23 discrete rules, which cover two main types of questions: grammar and rhetorical skills. Grammar questions test the classic rules of Standard written English. The most frequent topics tested are punctuation (15% of questions), illogical connectors (8% of questions), redundancy (7% of questions), and improper verb tense (6% of questions). Rhetorical skills questions test students’ ability to comprehend the flow and function of a passage. The most frequent topics tested are adding or deleting information (8% of questions) and effective wording (8% of questions). Pay special attention to the topics in the course book that are marked by stars, as these are the most frequent concepts tested on ACT English.

Questions on the English test are presented in two forms: underlined questions, which refer to a specific part of a passage and boxed and overall questions, which refer to larger samples of the passage or the passage as a whole. Boxed and overall questions are often rhetorical and are typically more time-consuming.

As students make their way through the passages, they should answer the questions along the way but some questions, such as the boxed and overall questions, will be more complicated and may require a more in depth understanding of the passage. These questions should be circled and revisited later.

ACT English Strategy

In general, the most effective step by step method for tackling underline questions on the English test is as follows: First, read the portion of the passage in question and listen for a mistake. Second, if there is an error you can identify, give your own correction. Next, quickly scan the answer choices. If your answer shows up, choose it and move on. If not, or if you were unable to come up with an answer choice, try to determine what grammar topic is being tested from the answer options. Test each answer choice in the context of the passage and cross out those that do not work. Finally, plug in the remaining choices and choose the answer that sounds best.

Let’s look at an example of an underlined question:

In 1980, scientist John Smith and his son, geologist Steve Smith announced a startling discovery.


B. son, geologist Steve Smith,

C. son geologist, Steve Smith,

D. son geologist Steve Smith,

When a student reads this sentence to himself, an error may not be blatantly apparent; however, the sentence sounds a bit off, even though a student may not be able to explain why or provide a solution. Scanning the answer options, it is clear that this question is testing comma placement, the single most frequent punctuation error on the English test. Each of the answer options has a comma in a different location. The next step is to go through each answer choice, exaggerating the pauses denoted by the commas. This is the easiest way to determine comma placement.

Choice A: The sentence as it is: In 1980, scientist John Smith and his son, geologist Steve Smith announced a startling discovery, makes it sound as if only Steve Smith announced the discovery. In fact, it was both he and his father. We can eliminate A.

Choice B: In 1980, scientist John Smith and his son, geologist Steve Smith, announced a startling discovery. These pauses sound comfortable and the sentence now states that both men announced the discovery. Let’s keep choice B.

Choice C: In 1980, scientist John Smith and his son geologist, Steven Smith, announced a startling discovery. In this case, “his son geologist” sounds jumbled. We can eliminate C.

Choice D: In 1980, scientist John Smith and his son geologist Steve Smith, announced a startling discovery. Here we have “his son geologist” again. Eliminate D. We’ve now eliminated all choices but one.

B is our answer.

Often, students get hung up on an answer choice because it sounds wrong but they can’t articulate or explain why it’s wrong and they are hesitant to select it. In the example we just looked at, it would be nice if the student could explain that choice B is correct because it correctly places the commas around the appositive in the sentence; however, this is not necessary. The brain functions with a very sophisticated grammatical system, mostly at the subconscious level. If an answer choice sounds wrong, it is probably wrong. Select that answer and move on.