8 BIGGEST ACT English Mistakes! Easy to Avoid

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8 BIGGEST ACT English Mistakes! Easy to Avoid

Over the years, I’ve tutored dozens of students on ACT and seen them make the same mistakes and miss the same types of questions over and over again. The ACT, of course, knows how a teenager mind thinks; therefore, it contains specific types of questions to try and trick students. Because the ACT is a standardized test, it has time and space constraints, so it only tests a handful of concepts. Making the same mistakes on three or four questions can really hurt your score, but if you learn how to handle those questions, you can also see significant improvement.

This article will describe 8 rules that you can follow to avoid the most common problems on ACT English. These rules coupled with consistent practice are guaranteed to raise your ACT English score.

Many of the mistakes on the ACT happen when students choose an answer that “sounds right” rather than follow the grammar rules. We will discuss the mistakes that most students make (in order of frequency) and explain how to avoid them.

  1. Omitting the NO CHANGE option
  2. Not recognizing and not removing redundant or unnecessary words
  3. Using too many commas
  4. Picking wrong punctuation for independent clauses
  5. Confusing it’s and its
  6. Using they instead of he or she
  7. Not focusing on the question
  8. Missing modifier errors

Mistake #1: Assuming That Every Underlined Word or Phrase Contains and Error

8 BIGGEST ACT English Mistakes! Easy to Avoid

Although, to many students, NO CHANGE seems that it must be wrong, this option is actually correct slightly more than 25% of the time. As you go through the test, do not automatically rule out A or F, and don’t second guess yourself if you have NO CHANGE for several questions in a row.

 

While many of the questions test more than one concept, you can determine the type of question by looking at the answer choices. For example, if all the answers are verbs, it is probably a verb tense or subject-verb agreement question. If answers have commas in different places, then it’s likely a comma question. Once you know what type of question you are dealing with, you can determine whether the original version contains is correct by deciding if the verb is properly conjugated and commas are correctly placed.

 

The trick to not be confused by NO CHANGE is treating it like any other answer. If the best version of the underlined word or phrase is the original one, then pick A.

 

Mistake #2: Keeping Extra Words

8 BIGGEST ACT English Mistakes! Easy to Avoid

Two of the least intuitive concepts on ACT English are relevance and redundancy. Questions that test these concepts require you to eliminate grammatically acceptable phrases that seem to add information.

 

The key to approaching these questions is recognizing that not all information is useful.

 

Example:

 

Every spring, I go through my yearly house-cleaning ritual and clean my home.

 

This sentence has proper grammar and it is easy to understand. However, it repeats certain words and ideas unnecessarily. By definition, “every spring” means “yearly,” so we don’t need the second word. In addition, the “ritual” is specifically described as “house-cleaning,” so “and clean my home” is redundant.

 

Every spring I go through my house-cleaning ritual.

 

Remember, if an answer choice restates something that has already been established or adds information that is not directly related to the point of the sentence, it is probably wrong. Try taking out the extra words and see if the sentence still makes sense (both grammatically and logically). If it does, then pick the shorter answer.

 

Also, if you think the sentence in question works without the underlined portion, don’t be afraid to choose the OMIT or DELETE option.

 

Mistake #3: Adding Too Many Commas

8 BIGGEST ACT English Mistakes! Easy to Avoid

Many students believe that you should put a comma whenever there is a pause; however, if you take this approach, you’re guaranteed to miss a lot of questions.

 

Example:

 

I know that Emma thought that accusing James, of stealing her headphones, would just cause more problems.

 

These commas may seem correct, but they are actually unnecessary. Even though this sentence is pretty long, it doesn’t require commas at all.

 

I know that Emma thought that accusing James of stealing her headphones would just cause more problems.

 

In reality, commas are only necessary in very specific situations, so a good rule of thumb is “When in doubt, leave it out!”

 

Mistake #4: Incorrect Punctuation of Independent Clauses

8 BIGGEST ACT English Mistakes! Easy to Avoid

One of the most common ACT English comma issues is a comma splice, it occurs when comma is used to connect two independent clauses (for example: this sentence). There are four correct ways to connect two independent clauses: a period, a semicolon, a colon, a coordinating conjunction with a comma.

 

Let’s look at some variations of the first sentence.

 

Incorrect:         One of the most common ACT English comma issues is a comma splice it occurs when comma is used to connect two independent clauses.

Incorrect:         One of the most common ACT English comma issues is a comma splice and it occurs when comma is used to connect two independent clauses.

Correct:           One of the most common ACT English comma issues is a comma splice. It occurs when comma is used to connect two independent clauses.

Correct:           One of the most common ACT English comma issues is a comma splice; it occurs when comma is used to connect two independent clauses.

Correct:           One of the most common ACT English comma issues is a comma splice: it occurs when comma is used to connect two independent clauses.

Correct:           One of the most common ACT English comma issues is a comma splice, and it occurs when comma is used to connect two independent clauses.

 

Mistake #5: Confusing Its, It’s, and Its’

8 BIGGEST ACT English Mistakes! Easy to Avoid

The differences between these may seem complicated especially if you haven’t studied grammar in a while, but they’re actually pretty easy.

 

Its (with no apostrophe) is a possessive pronoun.

 

It’s (with an apostrophe before s) is a contraction of “it is” or “it has.” The apostrophe in contractions signals that there is a missing letter or letters.

 

Its’ (with an apostrophe after the s) is not a real word. It will appear in answer choices on the ACT English section, but it is always wrong.

 

When you are unsure whether to use its or it’s, try replacing it with “it is” or “it has” (depending on context) and see if the sentence makes sense. If it does, use “it’s”; if it doesn’t “its” is correct.

 

Example:

 

The dog pulled back its’ ears to show displeasure.

 

We know that its’ cannot be correct, but we have to decide if the word should be it’s or its. Replace “its’” with “it is” and see if it works. What you get is:

 

The dog pulled back it is ears to show displeasure.

 

This version doesn’t make sense; therefore, “its” is correct.

 

Correct:           The dog pulled back its ears to show displeasure.

Mistake #6: Using They or Their as a Singular Pronoun

8 BIGGEST ACT English Mistakes! Easy to Avoid

In normal, everyday language, we commonly use “they”, “their”, and “them” while talking about a person of unspecified gender (e.g. a child, a teacher, an inventor). However, in written English, the usage – where a noun is singular and pronoun is plural – is incorrect and is considered a pronoun agreement error.

 

For example:

 

Incorrect:         While interning at the Department of Corrections, Mary observed inmates paying their debt to society.

Correct:           While interning at the Department of Corrections, Mary observed inmates paying his or her debt to society.

 

Although it seems overly complicated for casual speech, the second sentence correctly pairs singular noun with singular pronoun. Pronoun agreement questions can be tricky and this concept is tested frequently on the ACT English and SAT writing. Make sure to have a solid understanding of the rules.

Mistake #7: Not Reading the Question

8 BIGGEST ACT English Mistakes! Easy to Avoid

Most questions on the ACT revolve around correcting an underlined word or phrase; therefore, it’s easy to not pay complete attention to the questions and miss the questions that are asking for something different.

 

As with other sections of the ACT, it is extremely important to read the questions carefully and think about what they are asking. Usually, the best hint for the correct answer can be found in the question.

 

This rule is especially important to answering questions that ask about which version of a sentence or phrase is best in terms of context. It may be tempting to pick an answer that you think ‘sounds’ best, but this will usually result in a wrong answer. Instead, focus on what the question is asking for (e.g. “specific details”, “an introductory or concluding sentence that flows with the rest of the paragraph or passage”, “information that agrees with an infographic”, etc.) Remember, ACT English section includes a wide variety of questions that use this format, so it is essential to stay focused and not allow your attention to lull.

Mistake #8: Misplacing Modifiers

8 BIGGEST ACT English Mistakes! Easy to Avoid

Misplaced or dangling modifiers – descriptive words or phrases that are incorrectly placed in a sentence – are another type of error that often doesn’t seem wrong. The ACT writers know this and includes these types of questions relatively frequently. Keep this rule in mind: a modifier must be next to whatever it modifies.

 

Examples:

Incorrect:         While walking, the banana peel tripped me.

Correct:           While walking, I tripped over the banana peel.

 

Dangling modifiers (which are introductory phrases that are separated from the thing they are modifying) are especially tricky. Watch out for sentences that begin with the descriptive phrases – they must be followed by a noun they describe.

 

Another way to look at this is to notice that the correct version of this sentence uses active voice, while the incorrect version uses passive voice. If you are not sure what or where a modifier is, make sure you are picking the sentence that uses active voice.

Next Steps

 

Now that you know about most frequent types of error, spend some time getting familiar with concepts such as subject-verb agreement and pronoun case.

Looking to build a study plan? Read this complete plan to studying for the ACT (coming soon), review what the ACT actually covers, and take a practice test (or five!).

If you are shooting for a perfect 36 (and even if you’re not), check out these strategies to get a high (or even perfect) score (coming soon).

If you would like to watch me explain everything in this article, please follow the link: https://youtu.be/H_Ls-owaVSY

 

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