What do I need to study for the ACT English Test? – Part I

In the ACT English section, the majority of your score comes from grammar, and a good number of questions will test your reasoning ability in building effective paragraphs and transitions.

Let’s review the official stats:

The ACT English Test has 75 questions to be answered in 45 minutes. That gives you about 36 seconds per question. As you might guess at this point, mastering the timing is a huge step toward success on the ACT.

Of those 75 questions, 40 come from usage/mechanics topics (punctuation, grammar and usage, and sentence structure) and the other 35 test rhetorical skills (strategy, organization, and style). Check out the ACT website for more information about official naming and statistics on how frequently each topic appears.

A. Usage and Mechanics (53%)

1. Sentence Structure (24%)

Knowledge of dependent (subordinate) and independent clauses will form a backbone in your grammatical thinking that every other topic herein relies upon. An independent clause must contain a subject and a verb, and it cannot contain a conjunction. Independent clauses can exist on their own, with a capital letter at the beginning and a period at the end. Dependent clauses, on the other hand, are those that lack a subject, lack a verb, or have a subject and a verb and also a conjunction. They cannot exist on their own – meaning, they cannot be separated from an independent clause by a period or semi-colon.

Run-on / fused sentences and comma splices are two types of errors you’ll encounter if the sentence isn’t properly constructed into independent and dependent clauses. Run-on sentences lack proper punctuation between clauses and comma splices insert unnecessary commas into the middle of a clause.

Parallelism refers to a sentence’s overall structure, or to lists of words or even comparisons within the sentence. While sentences could appear fundamentally grammatically ‘correct’ when unparallel, this is an error and must always be fixed. “I love to swim, hike, and fishing.” << Incorrect. There are three verbs in the list, to swim (infinitive), to hike (infinitive) and fishing (gerund). There are two possible correct versions, either “I love to swim, hike, and fish,” or “I love swimming, hiking, and fishing.” Can you think of what parallelism in a comparison should and shouldn’t look like?

2. Punctuation (13%)

The ACT loves punctuation (commas, semicolons, colons, parentheses, and em dashes), probably a lot more than you do.

Indirectly, the punctuation questions on the ACT test knowledge of independent and dependent clause constructions, therefore requiring you to be able to determine what the subject and verb are, and how they are connected.

The apostrophe

Commas serve a variety of functions, including offseting dependent clauses, delineating lists, and distinguishing between restrictive and nonrestrictive appositives. That last use gets my vote for “most esoteric thing tested on the ACT” and is, essentially, the difference in comma usage between “Our neighbor Bill prefers cupcakes” and “His wife, Donna, prefers pecans”. More on that in a later post.

The semicolon ( ; ), often deployed as a comma by unsure test-takers, is more appropriately included in the period, semicolon, and colon group. Semicolons have a nearly identical function as periods, in that they separate independent clauses from each other. Colons, on the ACT, do nearly the same.

In real life, colons are thought of as the markers of a list or example. You should know the following about colons: they look similar to semicolons, and on the ACT they act like a semicolon.

Finally, we have the em dash  – not to be confused with the en dash, which is otherwise known as a hyphen! – and the parentheses. At its most challenging points, the ACT English Test will require you to understand that em dashes, parentheses, and em dashed can generally be interchanged grammatically, so long as you interchange them in pairs! Using dashes versus commas or parentheses could change the tone and meaning of the sentence, though the ACT won’t test you on this.

3. Grammar and Usage (16%) 

A varied topic, grammar and usage includes all the detailed, nitpicky things that dictate how words within a sentence can relate to one another. Many students are able to do reasonably well in this section using intuition and what “sounds right”, but it can be challenging to identify errors quickly without knowing exactly what is tested.

Verbs are a big player in the ACT English Test. First, verbs must agree with their subjects. For example, it is not “the dog are brown” but “the dog is brown”. This is straightforward if and only if you can easily identify subjects and verbs in context. Verbs are defined in primary school as words that ‘show an action’, but let’s expand on that definition by thinking about how a verb fits into a sentence: a verb is a word that will change its appearance based on the subject (case) and timing (tense) of the sentence. “Is” might not seem like a very exciting action, but it is a verb. “It is” becomes “It was” in the past tense or “I am” when the subject changes. (Is/are/am and their past tense equivalents all derive from “to be”.)

So, in nearly every sentence on the ACT, you’ll have to identify the verb and its subject. Gerunds (words ending in -ing) may trip you up. Get to know them so they don’t stop you from succeeding.

Subjects, in primary school, are “what the sentence is about”. But this is not a very rigorous definition. << I’d say the preceding sentence is about definitions, but in fact the grammatical subject is “this”. For ACT purposes, you can define the subject as the noun that will change if the verb’s case (1st/2nd/3rd person) or tense (past/present/future) is changed.

Similar to the matching game between subject and verb, you’ll also have to play a matching game between pronouns and their antecedents. An antecedent is the specific noun that a pronoun refers back to. For example, “The doctor is writing in his chart. He looks bored.” The pronoun is “he”, which is referring to the “doctor” without stating that directly. In addition, some pronouns do not necessarily have a specific noun to refer back to, but they might be used improperly anyways. “None of the children want to go to sleep,” is the correct usage of the indefinite pronoun “none”, but “Nobody of the children want to go to sleep” leaves a lot to be desired. For more info about all the types of pronouns out there, investigate the Grammar Monster’s info here.

Modifiers appear more frequently and in more confusing light on the SAT, but they still stand between you and a top score on the ACT. A modifier is a piece of info similar to an appositive that adds a layer of detail to a sentence without changing any meaning. Remember this: the unstated subject of the modifier MUST be the subject of the sentence. “Running from the police, the shirt of the thief got caught on a fence.” is incorrect, whereas “Running from the police, the thief got his shirt caught on a fence.” This first clause, running from the police, adds meaning to the sentence without changing it. What is the unstated subject of ‘running from the police’? Who or what is running from the police? The thief! If the thief is running from the police, that must be the subject of the sentence.

Comparative and superlative adjectives and adverbs also appear on the ACT English Test, and test-takers must understand the difference between adjectives (‘quick’) and adverbs (‘quickly’).

That concludes the (very brief) overview of the usage and mechanics topics tested on the ACT.

In Part II, we will look at the other major group of ACT English questions, which focus on how sentences fit together and give each other meaning.

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