5 Most Important ACT English Concepts to Know.


5 Most Important Concepts You MUST Know to Ace ACT English

5 Most Important ACT English Concepts to Know.

If you are preparing for the ACT English section and feeling overwhelmed, we completely understand. There are so many questions, so little time, and a bunch of underlined sections of text. What is this section even asking?

While the questions themselves aren’t usually difficult, this confusion is the whole point.

If you want to excel on the ACT English section, you must understand how it is organized. If you are not familiar with that information, check out our post about exactly what is tested on ACT English. Once you know the basics and learn how to approach it, you will find that the ACT English section is surprisingly easy.

There are 5 main points you need to understand about ACT English:

  • ACT English is not the same as high school English
  • The ACT tests only seven or eight different concepts
  • You always need a plan
  • You can use the format to your advantage
  • Don’t rush – rushing will hurt your score


Let’s discuss each point in more detail.

#1. ACT English Is Not the Same as High School English

5 Most Important ACT English Concepts to Know.

Many students believe that since they speak English, ACT English should be simple. That is not exactly correct. The ACT English section has its own logic which is why even students who normally excel in writing and grammar in school struggle with ACT English. The ACT will sometimes consider incorrect the sentences that your teacher would find acceptable; conversely, the ACT will consider correct those sentences that your teacher would not allow.


Answers that Sound Right but Are Actually Wrong


A common strategy for ACT English is to “listen” for errors and pick the answer that “sounds” right. This approach will work to weed out the obvious errors, but beware because the test will use this strategy against you. There are many questions about constructions that we commonly misuse in spoken English – they may sound right, but are actually wrong.


Take “Should of”, “Could of”, or “Would of”, for example:


Incorrect:        If she wanted to attend the concert, she should of bought a ticket.

Correct:           If she wanted to attend the concert, she should have bought a ticket.


Although contractions such as should’ve, could’ve, and would’ve sound almost identical to should of, could of, and would of, it is grammatically correct to use the word have, not of.


I do not recommend “listening” for errors, but if you plan to do so (and even if you don’t) make sure to study the mistakes we commonly make when speaking: pronouns, subject-verb agreement, word choice, and commas.


Unfamiliar Grammar Rules


The ACT English section contains unique grammar rules, many of which will be either completely new to you, or contradict what you’ve been taught at school. The most important advice for ACT English is to take the test on its own terms.


At school students are expected to use very formal and elaborate English for essays and assignments, so students assume that the ACT should be the same way. A common mistake many students make is assuming that the correct answer is the most formal or wordy one. For example:





This question has two tasks: find the most detailed answer that “maintains the style and tone of the essay.” Choices A and B can be eliminated because neither provides specific detail. If you are looking for the most specific and wordy answer, D can look as a great choice. You have to remember though that while the ACT is sometimes unnecessarily wordy, the answer choices you are expected to select are usually concise. This makes C the correct answer – it summarizes the details of option D in a succinct way.


#2. Bad news: You Do Have To Deal with Strange ACT Rules; Good news: There Aren’t Too Many Questions About Those Rules

5 Most Important ACT English Concepts to Know.

At this point you may be wondering: if you don’t need to know the English rules you learned in your high school class on the ACT, then what do you need to know? Well, the answer to this question is that you must know the rules the ACT considers important as well as how those rules are tested on the ACT.


Lucky for you, these types of questions are very limited, which makes this type of question super easy to study for. There are three possible categories that contain these types of questions: Production of Writing (POW), Knowledge of Language (KLA) and Conventions of Standard English (CSE). Your total English score is the sum of subscores in these three areas.  If you want to know the details of all concepts you need to know – take a look at this complete guide to ACT grammar rules.


Remember: the ACT tests concepts in context, so it is MUCH more important to know how to find and correct errors than to know the names of terms or the reasons behind errors.


Let’s talk about what each category consists of:


Production of Writing


Production and Writing (POW) tests knowledge and skills related to topic development (i.e. your ability to recognize and follow the passage’s topic and focus) and organization of the passage.


Topic Recognition questions

To do well on the topic recognition questions, you will need to:

  • Determine whether certain sentences should be added or deleted
  • Identify the purpose of a word or phrase
  • Decide whether the author has met his or her goal in describing a topic
  • Choose a word or phrase to accomplish a specific purpose, such as convey a mood, tone, or attitude


Organization questions test your ability to:

  • Choose appropriate transition words by identifying relationship between two clauses (before and after) the transition word
  • Understand the paragraph’s logic and determine the most logical place for a sentence
  • Choose a fitting introduction or conclusion to a paragraph or passage
  • Rearrange paragraphs within a passage to achieve the most logical flow of ideas


Here’s a transition question example:



In order to answer this type of questions, you have to read on to understand what the rest of the passage is talking about. 2-3 sentences should give you enough information to determine what sentence would serve as the best transition. When you read, you would notice that the passage describes Mary Jones’ labor activist activities and how she got a nickname “Mother Jones.” Looking back at the answers, there is only one choice that mentions both of those things and that makes C the right answer.

Knowledge of Language


Knowledge of Language (KLA) tests the skills that are needed to express information clearly and concisely in written English. To navigate these types of questions you will have to be able to:

  • Revise unclear or confusing writing
  • Recognize and delete redundant words or phrases
  • Match the style and tone of the passage
  • Combine sentences through the use of conjunctions


Here is an example of a KLA question:



Source: ACT Test


The only answer choice that presents visual imagery is D.


Conventions of Standard English Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation


Conventions of Standard English Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation (CSE) test such as:

  • Punctuation (or deciding where there should or should not be a comma or other punctuation such as colons, semi-colons, apostrophes, and dashes)
  • Grammar and usage (including verb agreement, pronoun agreement, subject-verb agreement, verb tense, and usage of adjectives and adverbs)
  • Sentence structure (recognize and correct run-on sentences, comma splices, sentence fragments, misplaced or dangling modifiers, and parallelism)


To do well on the ACT English section, you have to know the ACT grammar rules and practice to understand how to find the errors. In addition, while considering the answer choices, remember that:


  1. All prose should be as clear as possible – this means that if you find an answer that looks correct, but seems ambiguous, it’s probably not the right choice.
  2. You must answer the question you are being asked – this means that you should not bring in any outside knowledge about the topic of the passage and answer the questions on each passage’s own merits. One of the most common mistakes comes from choosing an answer choice that is too broad or too narrow for the question being asked.


Drill yourself with ACT practice passages that can be found in the Official ACT Prep Guide and/or online.


Because the ACT is standardized, there is a limit to the number of types of questions that can be asked. That means that although this section contains 75 questions, there are really only 7 or 8 concepts tested in different ways. You can improve your score significantly, if you can learn to recognize how the same type of question can be asked in 3-4 different ways.


Now that you know what to expect on ACT English section, let’s talk about strategies you can use to succeed on this test.


#3. Always Have a Plan

5 Most Important ACT English Concepts to Know.

The format of the ACT test is so different from the tests you take in school that it is easy to get overwhelmed, approach the passages haphazardly, and look at each underlined word or phrase individually. DO NOT DO THIS! The ACT English section is designed to test grammar in context of full sentences; therefore, looking at underlined portions will cause you to choose the wrong answer.


Instead, you should avoid this randomness by having a reliable strategy that works for YOU and that you have used consistently in practice. Different things work for different people, so whatever your strategy is you must remember one fundamental principle: regardless of where in the sentence the underlined section appears, you MUST read to the end of the sentence. If you do not do this, you will hurt your score – A LOT.



The Best Strategy for Approaching ACT English Passages


Every student has his or her own favorite strategy of approaching the ACT English passages; however, in my experience, I have found that the best strategy for minimizing potential for misunderstanding context is to read each paragraph and then go back and answer all the questions about that paragraph. Let’s look at an example to see how this would actually work:


Source: ACT Test


In this example, you would read the entire first paragraph – until the red line and then answer the questions with red circles. If you look at question number 26, you will notice that it’s asking you to choose a sentence that “most effectively introduces the information that follows.” By reading the paragraph before answering questions, you will have a much easier time answering this type of big picture question. Next, notice that questions 27 and 28 are from the same sentence. To answer both correctly, you need to look at the underlined phrases and determine if they are interdependent, i.e. whether the answer to one question will affect the answer to the other one.

Once you’ve answered all of the red-circled questions, repeat the process for the next (green) paragraph, and so on.



Do You Struggle with Time? Here’s a Strategy for You – Sentence by Sentence Approach.


Source: ACT Test

Although the above strategy is ideal in terms of getting the full contextual picture, if you find that you are constantly running out of time with more than a couple of questions left, you may need to consider a strategy where you put most of your focus on the underlined sections.


In this strategy, you read only the sentences that contain underlined sections (you still need to read the whole sentence), answer individual questions as you go and leave the “big picture” questions for the end. For example, 26 is a big picture question, so you leave it to the end. You skip the first question, and go straight to the sentence that contains questions 27 and 28. Skip the sentence that follows because it doesn’t have any underlined portions. Next, read the sentence and answer questions 29, followed by question 30. Skip the sentences in the rest of the second paragraph. Go back and answer question 26.


This strategy can work, but I would not recommend it if you are shooting for a score higher than 25.


The answers in this example are: 26 G; 27 D; 28 H, 29 A, 30 G


There are other approaches, such as:


  • Answer as you go – you read every sentence and stop to answer questions at every underlined section.
  • Passage first – you read or skim the entire passage and then go back and answer each question.



#4. Use Structure of the Test to Your Advantage

5 Most Important ACT English Concepts to Know.

Once you become familiar with your favorite approach to reading, you need to learn how to recognize the different types of English questions. The best way to do that is to read, practice, and analyze as many real ACT questions as possible. Consider how you can use the multiple-choice format of the test to your advantage.



Strategy: Determine How the Answer Choices Are Different From Each Other


Imagine a scenario where you come to an underlined portion and don’t see anything wrong. Should you just mark A as the correct answer and more on? Not necessarily. Just because you don’t immediately recognize the error, doesn’t mean that the underlined potion is correct.


Look at the answers. What are the differences between them? Do you know what type of questions you are dealing with? Here are some examples:



Just by looking at the answer choices, we can tell that this is a punctuation question. Look back at the sentence and determine what factors would influence the correct punctuation here. Is this a case of subject-verb agreement, or maybe the sentence needs to separate two clauses, and in that case, if the first clause is dependent, then you would need a colon, but if both clauses are independent, the semi-colon would be the correct choice.


Here’s a trickier set of answers.



Looking at this set of answers, we notice that all of the choices are different types of transitions. In order to pick the correct option, you have to go back to the part of the sentence before the transition and the part right after the transition and see how they relate. Is the second one an example, a continuer, or a contradictor of the first, i.e. does it provide an example, add a fact, or refute the information presented in the first part of the sentence?

Strategy: Don’t Fall in Love with Your Own Answer


We have talked about what to do when you are not sure of the correct answer, but what if you immediately know what is wrong with a sentence and how to fix it? For the most part, this is a best-case scenario; however, you should still read the entire sentence and all of the answer choices to make sure you are not falling into any traps or missing the “not” or “least” in the question.


However, there will be times when you come up with the perfect answer only to find that it is not one of the choices. Do not panic! Think about what the error is and eliminate all of the answers with the same type of mistake. Then, try to narrow down the other choices and when you are reasonably sure you found the right one, plug it back into the passage to see if it wold work in context.


Strategy: Eliminate Identical Answers


This is a simple strategy, but a lot of students find it extremely helpful: if two (or more) answers are functionally identical, they must both (or all) be wrong.


Let’s say that you have a transition question and the answer choices are Nevertheless and Nonetheless – how can you choose between them? You can’t because they mean the same thing, so both answers must be wrong.


Sometimes you come across questions that have three identical answers. For example, a period, a semi-colon, and a comma +and or but, all mean essentially the same thing. You can eliminate all three of these.


The exception to this rule is if there are three correct answers, check if the question does not ask “Which of the following is NOT (or LEAST) acceptable”.


Keep your eye on these patterns as you study – they’re invaluable for improving your score on ACT Reading.


#5. Don’t Rush

5 Most Important ACT English Concepts to Know.

If after reading this article you are wondering how you can possibly get through the 75 ACT English questions in just 45 minutes. Don’t worry. When you complete a couple of practice sections, you will find out that they go much faster than you would expect. Many students worry about being able to get through the section so much that they rush and make a lot of careless mistakes and then end up with time left over at the end.


If you find that you have more than one or two minutes leftover at the end of the ACT English section and are missing a bunch of questions, you are moving too fast.


Even if you do find yourself running out of time, it would still NOT benefit you to speed up. Rushing will ALWAYS hurt your score. If you are struggling to get through every question in the allotted time, you’re better off guessing on a few remaining questions or skipping a couple of time-consuming big picture questions.

Next Steps

Now that you understand the 5 concepts of the ACT English, practice with some specific grammar topics, starting with this complete guide to commas.

Are you considering switching to the SAT? Make sure you understand the differences between SAT Writing and ACT English (coming soon).

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