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Ultimate Guide to the ACT: English Section

15 min readaugust 23, 2021

caroline-koffke

Caroline Koffke

Aly Moosa


ACT 🎒

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❓ What are the ACT Sections?

When you sit down to take the ACT exam, you will have 4-5 sections on the test, depending on whether you choose to take the essay section! 📃The sections are:
  1. English (aka the grammar section) 📑
  2. Math 📊
  3. Reading 📚
  4. Science 🧪
  5. Writing/Essay📝 (⚠️OPTIONAL ⚠️)
The ACT starts with the jam-packed English section. Don't worry! In this guide, you'll be prepared to conquer this section.

Resources:

🔢 Logistics and Content of the ACT English Section

In this section, you answer 75 multiple-choice questions in 45 minutes. This section covers 5 passages that have a variety of rhetorical situations. The ACT breaks this section down into 3 categories:
  • Production of Writing: This entails how topics develop through questioning the purpose and whether evidence is relevant to the argument. Also, this category focuses on how the text logically flows.
  • Knowledge of Language: This focuses on how the text's tone and style are consistent with changes in word-choice or phrases.
  • Conventions of Standard English: This mainly focuses on sentence structure and punctuation.

🤩 General Tips for ACT English

You can use these simple tips on any passage you come across:

1. Make Complex Simple 🤷🏽‍♀️

  • Line by Line: There are 75 questions in this entire section. Becoming overwhelmed is normal. Therefore, it's crucial for you to take it line by line.
  • Annotate: Jot down notes in the margin, underline key terms and phrases, circle repetition, and put a question mark at confusing places.

2. Timing ⏰

  • Pace Yourself: You have 45 minutes to do 75 questions. That is about 2 questions per minute.
  • Answer everything: DO NOT leave any question unanswered. You do not get penalized for answering incorrectly. Keep moving along and don't spend too much time on one question.

3. Breathe 🧘🏽‍♀️

  • Stop and Continue: Struggling is normal during this section. When you do, do not continue reading. Stop yourself and breathe.
  • Re-read: Mark questions where you need to re-read or come back to.

☂️ Types of ACT English Questions

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Passages will be on one side while the questions will be on the other. Image from the ACT, Inc.
Even though there are three categories for this section, they are extremely vague and don't provide concrete descriptions for the questions you can expect. However, there are two general types of questions in the English section:
  • 👨🏽‍🔧 Usage & Mechanics
  • 🤔 Rhetorical Skills

👨🏽‍🔧 Usage & Mechanics

Under this umbrella, 3 content types are tested: punctuation, sentence structure, and grammar & usage.

❗Punctuation

These questions constitute about 7-11 questions in the entire section.
Within Sentence Punctuation
NameFunction
:To introduce a list or a reason
;To separate 2 different independent clauses in the same sentence without a conjunction
--To show a break or separation in a sentence, to show emphasis
End of Sentence Punctuation
NameFunction
.To mark the end of a declarative/regular sentence
!To mark the end of an exclamation, to show surprise or excitement
?To mark the end of a question
Commas are used for numerous things:
  • Separating items in a list
  • Punctuating complex sentences
  • Separating transitional phrases from the rest of the sentence
  • Punctuating after conjunctive adverbs
  • Separating appositives and participal phrases
Commas act as pauses, notifying the reader to separate words, phrases, and ideas. However, if you use a comma to connect two independent clauses, you have just created a comma splice. A comma will never replace any end of sentence punctuation or a semicolon.
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This image includes a question about commas and within sentence punctuation. Image from the ACT, Inc.

Answers & Explanations

16.) F—That comma is signaling an appositive, which adds non-essential information to the passage. If anything would be changed, there would be an extra comma after "talkers," disrupting the flow of the passage and eliminating Choices G, H, & J.
17.) C—Here, there is a misunderstanding between a participle phrase and an appositive. The extra comma after "information" may signal an appositive; however, the purpose of the underlined portion is to signal a participial phrase. As a result, we need to remove the additional comma, eliminating Choices A, B, & D. Apostrophes have three uses: to form possessive nouns, to create contractions, and to indicate plurals of letters, numbers, and symbols.
https://firebasestorage.googleapis.com/v0/b/fiveable-92889.appspot.com/o/images%2F-SPdZ3OYDPv63.png?alt=media&token=5eab54f0-671a-4e96-91b7-1421b5c8072e
This image is used for question 58. Image from the ACT, Inc.

Answer and Explanation

G—Earlier in the paragraph, we saw that there was a "bleacher section full of parents," signaling more than one adult. The underlined portion is referencing all of the adults' behavior. Therefore, the correct answer is Choice G.

🙀 Strategy for Punctuation Questions

Punctuation questions are fast to answer correctly and incorrectly. Keep these things in mind the next time you face one:
  • Effect: Each punctuation mark has a different function. It's imperative for you to recognize what is in question.
  • Alternatives: You are not a test taker; you're an editor. You must think of different ways to revise and edit one question. Which one would be the most elegant?
By keeping these things in mind, you'll be able to tackle any punctuation question that comes your way.

🗣️ Grammar & Usage

These questions constitute about 11-15 questions in the entire section.
Pronoun and subject-verb agreement are prevalent in this section.
Questions involving pronouns tend to focus on the relationship of the pronoun and what it is taking the place of. If you can explicitly tell the antecedent of a pronoun, then use the pronoun. Otherwise, use the noun instead of the pronoun.
Possessive pronouns don't have apostrophes, but pronoun contractions do.
    Examples of possessive pronouns your, their, its
    Examples of pronoun contractions you're, they're, it's
https://firebasestorage.googleapis.com/v0/b/fiveable-92889.appspot.com/o/images%2F-8g3oIrKGGZ2d.png?alt=media&token=d0b69a54-3a29-40dd-8c29-4a63a55bc818
This image includes a question about pronoun agreement. Image from the ACT, Inc.

Answer & Explanation

G—If you only read up to the underlined portion, then you might believe that Choice H is correct. However, if you keep reading, it says "what they're," signaling that a plural noun is being replaced. However, it's unclear what that plural noun is. Therefore, Choice G is the only correct answer.
***SOS, the contractions picture WILL NOT upload, idk what is happening***

Answer & Explanation

Adjectives describe nouns and pronouns. They typically answer questions such as "what" and "what kind?"
  • Examples of adjectives
  • nice, beautiful, poor, destitute, young, old, high, low
Adverbs describe adjectives, verbs, and even other adverbs. They typically answer questions such as "how" and "how much?"
  • Examples of adverbs
  • very, a lot, quickly, softly, loudly
Comparative modifiers are used to compare one thing to another.
Usually the word is followed by "than." One-syllable words have "-er" added to the end.
  • Examples of one-syllable modifications
    Fast becomes faster.
    Smooth becomes smoother.
Add an adverb before certain two-syllable modifiers and before most of the longer modifiers
  • Examples of two-syllable modifications
    Generous becomes more generous.
    Loud becomes more loud.
Irregular modifiers take the comparative form by becoming another word entirely
  • Examples of irregular modifications Good and well become better. Bad and badly become worse.
Superlative modifiers are used to compare to one or many items. They are often followed by the word "of".
Add "–est" after most of the one-syllable modifiers and after certain two-syllable modifiers.
  • Examples of one-syllable superlative modifications
    Happy becomes happiest.
    Big becomes biggest.
Add an adverb before certain two-syllable modifiers and before most of the longer modifiers.
  • Examples of two-word syllable superlative modifications
    Generous becomes most generous.
    Loud becomes most loud.
Irregular modifiers take the superlative form by becoming another word entirely.
  • Example of irregular superlative modifications Good and well become best. Bad and badly become worst.
Idioms are present in two ways: prepositional idioms and idioms with gerunds & infinitives.
Preposition idioms test whether you are able to recognize if something "sounds right" by correcting prepositions in phrases.
  • Examples of prepositional idioms
  • outraged by, suspicious of, wonder about
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This image contains a question about prepositional idioms. Image from the ACT, Inc.

Answer & Explanation

F—The sentence talks about administrative responsibility related to public education. Since the sentence talks about the relationship within public education, the proper answer would be Choice F. It is also the most "correct sounding" answer.
Gerunds are verbs that act as nouns and end in "-ing." Infinitives are verbs used as nouns and are constructed by using the word "to" plus a verb.
  • Examples of idioms with gerunds & infinitives
    • as being, in graduating, to leave
https://firebasestorage.googleapis.com/v0/b/fiveable-92889.appspot.com/o/images%2F-KWh1qtNxKuds.png?alt=media&token=3ccfad87-3f05-480b-89cb-539ccab76aa7
This image contains a question about idioms with gerunds. Image from the ACT, Inc.

Answer & Explanation

C—The sentence needs to end with a period as shown above. However, all of the answer choices other than Choice C prompt the reader to expect additional information, which is incorrect.

🙀 Strategy for Grammar & Usage Questions

Grammar & usage questions tend to be tricky if you don't keep these things in mind:
  • Utilize, don't memorize: You must be able to justify and detect grammatical mistakes in the passage. However, if you only memorize the rules, you'll have trouble and start doubting yourself.
  • Breathe: To say that these questions are tricky is an understatement. You must take it line by line and pay attention. One word can change the placement and purpose of a phrase or clause.

🏗️ Sentence Structure

These constitute about 15-19 questions in this section.
A subordinate clause—also known as a dependent clause—can not stand on its own.
An independent clause can stand on its own.
Table of Sentence/Phrase Connectors/Separators
NameFunction
.To separate two unrelated sentences, making 2 separate sentences
;To separate two somewhat related sentences to make 1 sentence
, + coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so)To connect two sentences that are related
; + subordinating conjunction/conunction adverb + ,To connect two sentences that are related, but where one sentence is more important than another
, + gerund (verb ending with -ing)To show that two sentences are related in somewhat of a causual relationship
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This image contains a question about sentence connectors. Image from the ACT, Inc.

Answer & Explanations

B—Before you tackle the answer choices, you must understand what an em dash is. It can replace a comma, but a comma does not always replace an em dash. Also, look at both sides of the em dash—are they both independent clauses? In this case, yes, they are. Therefore, a comma cannot combine two independent clauses, making Choice B the correct answer. Misplaced modifiers are present for attention to detail. Certain phrases will be in the wrong places; however, you must notice and correct them accordingly. You may get a statement like "Aaron turned off the blender, watching the news on YouTube," you have to move the action to just follow the noun it modifies, or move the noun just before the action it does. For example, the correct version of the above is, "Aaron, watching the news on YouTube, turned off the blender."
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This image contains a question about misplaced modifiers. Image from the ACT, Inc.

Answer & Explanation

C—You must identify awkward phrasing wherever the modifier is. The only place where it's unacceptable is Choice C.
Inappropriate shifts in construction ask you to make sure that pronoun and verbs agree in tense and number. Singular nouns go with singular verbs and pronouns and likewise for plurals. Check within that sentence or nearby sentences to detect verb shifts, but this won't work 100% of the time.

🙀 Strategy for Sentence Structure Questions

You must pay attention to every small detail when tackling these questions. Here's a list of tips to help you conquer these questions:
  • Context: It's important to understand how the sentence overall is structured. You may have to read a sentence before and after to help you answer the question.
  • Consistency: These questions test consistency. Look for patterns in how sentences are structured throughout the passage.

🤔Rhetorical Skills

Under this umbrella 3 rhetorical areas are tested: strategy, organization, and style.

🧠 ACT Strategy

These constitute around 11-15 questions in this section.
Within this section, you will add, revise, or delete sentences to fix grammatical mistakes or maintain the flow of the excerpt, justifying how a sentence fits with the purpose, audience, and focus of a paragraph or the essay as a whole.
https://firebasestorage.googleapis.com/v0/b/fiveable-92889.appspot.com/o/images%2F-WOjCxMBygUbu.png?alt=media&token=2c3ae0b1-d4dc-4980-b743-d79ec933f317
This image is used for question 53. Image from the ACT, Inc.

Answer & Explanation

B—It's important for you to look at the sentences before and after to understand the logical flow of the passage. If the sentence was deleted, then we wouldn't have known that Houdini was a skeptic of the supernatural. However, it doesn't say tell the reasons why but helps the reader understand the next couple of sentences in the passage.

🙀 Strategy for Strategy Questions

You must use the correct strategy to win this battle (see what I did there?).
  • Value: Each line was carefully written with a form of value. You must be able to determine what value is added and whether it's relevant.
  • Main idea: What is the main point being told in this passage? How are these edits helping this point being told?

🗓️ Organization

Questions can ask about opening, transitional, and closing phrases or statements that may add or deter from the focus of the paragraph.
https://firebasestorage.googleapis.com/v0/b/fiveable-92889.appspot.com/o/images%2F-8FG26GBmrT0M.png?alt=media&token=46bb01cb-1866-4834-bf3a-aa09dbabbfff
This is a question about transitional phrases. Image from the ACT, Inc.

Answer & Explanation

A—Transitional phrases are used to smoothly move from one point to the next. In this passage, a process is being described. Choice B is contradictory and doesn't match the focus of the paragraph. Choice C is elaborating on an idea with an example, but the next point isn't an example of the preceding sentence.
You will look at the order and focus of sentences or paragraphs to make sure the ideas logically flow.
***these images both messed up and I can't fix them***
https://firebasestorage.googleapis.com/v0/b/fiveable-92889.appspot.com/o/images%2F-iEXhdQns7M84.png?alt=media&token=e99040e7-cbaf-4adb-95bd-c07ea1a2c251

Answer & Explanation

B—The parent doubts that T-ball is organized according to the parents. To amplify this effect, Choice B is the correct answer.

🙀 Strategy for Organization Questions

Keep your thoughts organized and these tips in mind when answering these questions:
  • Structure: Every passage has a unique structure. When you answer these questions, you must maintain the structure of the passage.
  • Flow: Everything must logically flow from phrases to whole paragraphs. Ask yourself: does this create any awkwardness in the passage?

👷🏽 Style

Keeping writing style, tone, clarity in mind, you may have to eliminate ambiguity, wordiness, and redundant material, clarifying vague or awkward material.
https://firebasestorage.googleapis.com/v0/b/fiveable-92889.appspot.com/o/images%2F-vlaSU6VjpSFj.png?alt=media&token=cf0ed702-f43a-4e28-a296-b3dc16fda63f
This image contains a question about clarifying vague material. Image from the ACT, Inc.

Answer & Explanation

G—The most specific description would be hexagonal. Thus, Choice G is correct.

🙀 Strategy for Style Questions

It's all about the style 😎. The author's style must be maintained throughout the passage.
  • Value: Each line was carefully written with a form of value. You must be able to determine what value is added and whether it's relevant.
  • Flow: Everything must logically flow from phrases to whole paragraphs. Ask yourself: does this create any awkwardness in the passage?

📜 ACT Grammar Practice Passage

Notes from Underground
A lot of people hate to ride the New York City subways, but I love them because 1) I like to get places fast. A musician balancing a cello case, two Buddhist monks in saffron robes, and a group of stockbrokers in crisp, 2) charcoal gray suits get on at Wall Street. A passenger placidly sews while the subway train flings and jolts. A teenager 3.) whose holding a shoebox containing a kitten as tiny as a gingersnap smiles 4.) even if a line of girls in frilly white communion dresses file by. About three and a half million people a day ride the 5.) subways I think maybe 6.) I might possibly have met them all.
Sometimes a Salvation Army volunteer boards the subway train with sandwiches and juice to give to the needy. “Put your pride to the side!” the volunteer shouts, and I’ve seen many people put out their hands. 7.) The speaker also raises money. 8.) Its impossible to predict which people will dig into their pockets or 9.) if they were to open their purses, and I’ve stopped trying to guess.
Last week some fellow passengers and I watched an elderly man with a portable chessboard 10.) playing chess against himself. Just yesterday I sat across the aisle 11.) with a woman who was composing music 12.) in pink-tinted glasses in a notebook. She tapped her foot as she reviewed what she’d written and then stopped tapping and jotted more notes as the train 13.) hurtled along.
Today is my mother’s birthday. I decided to surprise her with lilac blooms from my backyard, so this morning, carrying a shopping bag full of the flowers, I boarded a crowded “E” train and rode it to the very last stop in the Bronx. Strangers smiled and took pains not to crush the flowers, even when the train jerked to a halt. 14 I got off at an elevated station and, lifting the splendid bouquet, rushed down to my mother, feeling delighted that I’d brought the blooms all the way from Brooklyn on the subway train.
1. At this point, the writer wants to provide one reason why she likes to ride the subways. Which choice is most relevant to the information provided in this first paragraph?
A. NO CHANGE
B. I never know what I’ll see there.
C. they are so much cheaper than taxis.
D. they are places of enormous quiet and calm.
2.
F. NO CHANGE
G. charcoal gray suits,
H. charcoal, gray suits
J. charcoal gray, suits
3.
A. NO CHANGE
B. thats
C. as
D. who’s
4.
F. NO CHANGE G. as H. whereas J. such that
5.
A. NO CHANGE B. subways, and C. subways, which D. subways actually
6.
F. NO CHANGE G. perhaps I’ve H. I’ve possibly J. I’ve 7.
A. NO CHANGE B. Therefore, the C. In conclusion, the D. In other words, the
8.
F. NO CHANGE G. It’s H. Its’ J. That’s
9.
A. NO CHANGE B. would have opened C. open D. might be opening
10. Which of the following alternatives to the underlined portion would NOT be acceptable? F. who played G. as he played H. played J. who was playing
11.
A. NO CHANGE B. to C. at D. from
12. The best placement for the underlined portion would be: F. where it is now. G. after the word woman. H. after the word was. J. after the word composing.
13. Which choice most effectively emphasizes the rapid speed of the train? A. NO CHANGE B. continued on its way. C. moved on down the tracks. D. proceeded toward the next stop. 14. If the writer were to delete the preceding sentence, this paragraph would primarily lose a statement that: F. provides physical descriptions of people on the subway train. G. supports the opening sentence of the essay. H. provides evidence that people can be friendly on the subway train. J. gives an explanation for the narrator’s actions.

Solutions

  1. B
  2. F
  3. D
  4. G
  5. B
  6. J
  7. A
  8. G
  9. C
  10. H
  11. D
  12. G
  13. A
  14. H
  15. C

🎉 Wrap Up

And that's it! You have successfully acquired the skills to ace this section. Make sure to keep on practicing and using the strategies stated in this guide. For more specific ACT English practice, check out this article on word choice or get some extra ACT Practice on grammar conventions! If you need extra ACT help overall, check out this list of awesome resources we've compiled to assist you strive for that 36! You got this 🥳.

Resources:

Need more ACT practice?

Fiveable has you covered! Check out these articles that tell you all you need to know about each ACT Subject!

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