Rhetorical Skill: Formality on ACT English


Rhetorical Skill: Formality on ACT English

Rhetorical Skill: Formality on ACT English

You wouldn’t speak to your professors in the same jargon you might use when talking to your friends; you wouldn’t wear a tuxedo to a first date or jeans and flip flops to a formal interview. Similarly, the ACT will sometimes test you on whether or not you understand the level of formality that is appropriate in different circumstances.

Formality questions are some of the rarest and least common questions on ACT English, so, if you are pressed for time, you shouldn’t be worried about this topic. However, if you are shooting for a perfect score or are really interested in formal vs. casual examples of ACT paragraphs, keep reading.

In this article, we will discuss everything you need to know to answer any formality question you might see.

What is Formality on ACT English?

Rhetorical Skill: Formality on ACT English

“Formality” refers to the idea that different texts are written with different audiences in mind. Some are more casual, and some are more formal.

Generally, ACT English passages are written in the style of a newspaper article or of a textbook. The authors usually will not sound as if the reader is his or her best friend nor does he or she sound as if preparing to give a speech in front of the President.

The key to formality questions on ACT English is that your answer choices should follow the level of formality used by the author.

What Do “Normal” ACT English Passages Look Like?

Rhetorical Skill: Formality on ACT English

There are two main types of passages you will see on ACT English: factual/historical passages and personal narratives.

The example below is what a factual/historical passage would look like. Notice that it is written in a straightforward tone, similar to what you might see in a newspaper article or high school textbook.


Personal narratives may seem more casual than the factual/historical passages. They are usually written in the first person (using pronoun “I”) and include more contractions. Taken as a whole, they are still considered in the middle of the formality scale. Overly casual language such as slang would be incorrect in both types of passages.


Now that you know what ACT English passages should look like, let’s talk about why formality questions on ACT English can be difficult and ways of dealing with them.

What Makes Formality Questions Difficult

Rhetorical Skill: Formality on ACT English

Formality questions can confuse any test taker because they are about style, not grammar. In fact, incorrect answer choices for these types of questions would be usually grammatically correct.

In addition, there are no specific rules that you can learn that will let you answer these questions correctly every time.

Understanding the formality level of writing is a skill that can be acquired over the long term through reading a variety of books and articles in English and learning how authors communicate with different audiences.

Because of this, these questions are likely to be most difficult for non-native English speakers.

There are, however, some signs that you can look for in order to identify if a phrase is written too casually (which would make it incorrect).

What Are Some Signs of Overly Casual Language?

Rhetorical Skill: Formality on ACT English

The following types of language usually signal an overly casual tone and, therefore, a wrong answer.

  • Slang is a word or phrase that has a cultural meaning different from its literal meaning. For example: “cool” and “crush.”
  • Vague language. Ideas could be expressed more clearly and directly, with more detail.
  • Wordy language. Frequently, overly casual language will use more words than necessary to make a point.
  • Unnecessary commentary. When an author writes casually, they may also add unnecessary comments, such as personal thoughts or opinions about the topic.

What Are Some Examples of Formality Issues?

Here is an example of a few sentences written with mid-level formality that you would normally see in an ACT English passage.

Although Tolstoy preached abstinence to his many followers, he actually had thirteen children of his own. His wife, Sofia, was offended by his stories that insulted their marital life and implied that she had been unfaithful to him.

And here are the same sentences written more casually. If you see something written too casually, it will always be incorrect on ACT English (assuming there are no other grammatical errors).

Tolstoy told his followers that they shouldn’t have lots of kids, but actually he had a load of his own. Unfortunately for him, his wife, Sofia, got pissed off when he implied through a story that their marriage was a sham and that she had been messing around.

Can you find the casual language signs mentioned above? 

Slang: “a load of his own,” “got pissed off,” “messing around.”

Vague and lacking detail: “a load of his own”

Wordiness: “that they shouldn’t have lots of kids” instead of “abstinence”

Unnecessary commentary: “Unfortunately for him”

The ACT will not usually be obvious with their errors. But now that you know what mistakes to look for if and when you encounter a “true” formality question.

Let’s look at an ACT example:

ACT Example



This passage is at a standard formality level for ACT English in that it is neither extremely formal, nor overly casual.

Let’s start with an underlined section. The phrase “inefficient toward” is idiomatically incorrect, so F can be eliminated. (If you need to review usage of idioms, read this article).

Moving on to the other answer choices, we see that G reads “lazy and bored to tears with.” This expression is a very casual phrase used to express extreme boredom. Because it is much more casual than the rest of the paragraph, we can eliminate G.

Similarly, the phrase “blow off” in choice H is slang which does not fit with the formality level of the rest of the paragraph. We can eliminate choice H.

Now we are left with choice J. When you insert it into the paragraph, the sentence will read: “The school board members believed that wearing “play clothes” to school made the students lax and indifferent toward their school work, while more formal attire established a positive educational climate.” Option J matches the rest of the paragraph in formality and is also grammatically and idiomatically correct.

Summary: Rules and Strategies for Formality Questions on ACT English

#1. All ACT English passages will be in the middle of the formality scale.

It is technically possible for an ACT English passage to be written more formally or casually, these types of questions are so rare that we have never seen an example of this on an actual ACT.

#2. Eliminate grammatically incorrect answers first.

Formality questions on ACT English are extremely rare. Do not rule out answer choices based on their level of formality until you’ve had a chance to determine there aren’t any other types of errors in the choices.

Always focus on grammatical and common style errors (e.g. redundancy and relevance) first, and only focus on formality if you don’t see anything else wrong with the answer choices.

#3. Cross out any answers that appear overly formal or overly casual (unless the question asks for a formal or casual choice).

If you are reading a sentence that sounds like something you might say to a friend, then it is casual. These choices may appear as colloquial and friendly or may use signs of casual language we discussed above. The rule to keep in mind is that any answer choice with these qualities is incorrect.

#4. Re-read the sentence with your answer choice.

Check if the sentence still makes sense and flows with the rest of the passage.

Next Steps

Now that you know how to handle one of the trickiest questions on the ACT English, try another: here is an article on how to handle idioms on the ACT.

Want to know what you are up against? Read this complete breakdown of what exactly is tested on ACT English.

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