Word Choice and Diction on ACT English


Word Choice and Diction on ACT English

Word Choice and Diction on ACT English

Your ability to choose the right word from a selection of right-sounding words and to identify when a word is being used incorrectly is one of the trickier concepts that will be tested on ACT English.

Do you know how to find the differences in groups of similar words? Can you determine what is needed from the context of the sentence or paragraph?

If you are not so sure, read this article exactly how the ACT English tests this skill.

What is “Diction,” Anyway?

Word Choice and Diction on ACT English

You may have heard your literature teacher use the word “diction” when analyzing an author’s writing style, but what does the word “diction” actually mean?

“Diction” is a fancy way of saying “word choice.”

On ACT English, there are three main ways in which word choice becomes important:

  • Recognizing commonly confused words
  • Understanding meaning in context
  • Recognizing idiomatic uses of phrases with prepositions

The final topic is so broad that we have a whole separate article dedicated to it.

Let’s look at some examples that illustrate the first two topics.


There is nothing better then (1) waking up to the smell of fresh brewed coffee. The exciting (2) scent really gets my blood pumping.

  2. than
  3. better
  4. better to


  2. simulating
  3. dazzling
  4. stimulating


These questions are examples of two of the most common types of diction errors that you will see on ACT English – commonly confused words and understanding meaning in context. Both questions test your ability to understand when a word is being used incorrectly. We will discuss each of these types of questions in more detail later but first, let’s talk about why ACT English tests diction errors.

Why Does ACT English Test You on Diction Errors?

Word Choice and Diction on ACT English

You will be writing many papers in college and your ability to edit your own work and correct errors in passages is essential.

Most ACT English questions focus on grammar, punctuation, and style. Through reading our articles or using another prep method, you can learn the various grammar rules that will enable you to answer most of the questions on ACT English.

By testing diction, the ACT is looking to see whether you can spot errors where you cannot apply grammar rules. The only way you will be able to answer these types of questions correctly is if you understand the subtle differences between similar words.

Many people (not just students) make diction errors in everyday communication. The makers of the ACT know which words are most confusing to teenage students and focus on those when writing the test.

So, let’s make sure we cover the most common diction errors.

The Most Common Types of Diction Errors

Word Choice and Diction on ACT English

As we mentioned above you cannot apply grammar rules to diction error questions.  You have to recognize that some of the diction questions are random and impossible to study for; however, the ACT does have a couple of favorite errors which appear at least once on every test.

Than vs. Then

You must understand the difference between these similar sounding words.

Than is used for comparison. For example:

I like tulips better than roses.

She reads more than she writes.

Then is used to indicate time. For example:

First, she went to school, then she went to choir practice.

He wants to eat desert, then main course.

Strategy to approach this type of question

Word Choice and Diction on ACT English

To answer than vs. then questions, you have to look at the entire sentence. If the sentence is comparing something, use “than.” If the sentence is listing in order of time, use “then.”

A good rule of thumb is to remember:

Then refers to Time (both have an “e”)

Than refers to Comparison (both have an “a”)

Have vs. Of

The second most important diction error to know is “have” vs. “of.”

The important grammatical distinction here is that “have” is a helping verb and “of” is a preposition. If you see “of” being used as a helping verb, it is always incorrect.

In speaking, we tend to pronounce “have” like “of” because it’s faster and easier to say.

An example of an everyday “communication mistake” many people make is to use “of” instead of “have” in contractions such as “should’ve,” “could’ve,” or “would’ve.” This has led some students to believe that “of” is the correct choice to use – but it is not!

Incorrect:         She would of preferred to see a comedy, but saw a drama movie instead.

Correct:           She would have preferred to see a comedy but saw a drama movie instead.

Could, should, and would must always be paired with “have”, never with “of.”

Strategy to Approach This Type of Question

Word Choice and Diction on ACT English

If you are paying attention, have/of questions are pretty easy to find. If you see of or have underlined, be ready to answer a diction question.

You can immediately cross out answer choices that read: could of, should of, might of, will/would of.

Choose a grammatically correct option that replaces “of” with “have.”

Let’s look at an example from an actual ACT test.

ACT Example



Looking at the answer choices, we can immediately see that two (C and D) can be crossed out immediately. They have the “of” construction.

Now we are left with two answer choices – reveals or reveal. At this point, you might notice that to answer this question, we need to apply subject-verb agreement rules. First, let’s determine what the subject is.

To find the subject, ask yourself: what is doing the revealing? It’s the “last twently years of letters.” Summarizing the subject in the context of the sentence (over 1,500 words in length), we identify that the subject is “letters.” This is a plural subject that must be paired with a plural verb. As you know, plural verbs do not end in -s; therefore, the correct answer is B.

Other Easily Confused Words

Word Choice and Diction on ACT English

Below, we have included a list of commonly confused words. I would recommend you reading and learning the words you are not familiar with. However, do not spend too much time on this task because the ACT rarely tests these words.

Most frequently, you will encounter these commonly confused words within the context of the sentence or paragraph.

Understanding Word Meaning in Context

Word Choice and Diction on ACT English

The ACT usually tests your understanding of commonly confused words by asking you to choose the best one from the list of words with similar meanings.

These questions can be tricky because you have to think about the meaning of the sentence and which of the words with similar meanings would best complete it.

Let’s look at an example form a real ACT.

ACT Example



This example shows how ACT uses simple words to trick you. You are probably familiar with all of the words given in the answer choices, so let’s talk about which one will best complete the sentence.

All of the words imply some sort of contrast or conflict, but in very different ways.

In the first paragraph of the passage, the author tells us that the way age is calculated in America differs from the way age is calculated in Korea.

Let’s start with choice F, “contest.” The word “contest” mean some sort of competition. Although the author tells us that there are differences in the way age is counted in two countries, he doesn’t suggest that there’s any form of competition. We can eliminate choice F.

Choice G has the word “change.” “Change” implies that something was once one way and then it changed and became another way. This is not what is happening in the passage – two countries (America and Korea) have always counted age differently. We can eliminate choice G.

Choice H is somewhat similar to choice F in that the word “dispute” shows direct competition (or conflict) between two things. This choice also does not work because, as explained before, the two countries are not competing. We can eliminate choice H.

That leave us with J, which is the only answer that makes sense. The two traditions described in the first paragraph of the passage are not fighting or completing, they just approach age counting differently.  This means that J, “differences” is the correct answer.

Strategy to Approach This Type of Question

Understanding the meaning of words in context is the trickiest of all the diction questions on ACT English. To identify these types of questions, look for questions that have an underlined word and answer choices that are loosely related in meaning.

Start by reading the whole sentence. Lightly cross out (in pencil) the underlined word. Try to place your own word in place of the underlined word.

Look at the answer choices. Is there one that is closest in meaning to the word you thought about? Choose that word as your answer.

Let’s look at one more ACT example:

ACT Example



First, let’s read through the sentence and determine what should go in the blank space. “Perhaps the celebration of New Year’s Day in Korean culture is ______ because it is thought of as everyone’s birthday party.” From the context of the sentence it seems that something that is thought of as “everyone’s birthday party” is probably important or significant. So which answer choice means something like “important?”

Looking at the answer choices, you will notice that all of the words have something to do with “going up.” This is how the ACT is trying to trick you. In the right context, only one choice can mean “important.”

Choices B and C, “raised” and “lifted” imply physically moving something up. We can eliminate choices B and C.

The word “lighted” is included here to throw you off. This word is different from the others – it means something was made lighter (as in opposite of darker). This word does not make sense in context. We can eliminate choice D.

Option A is left, “heightened.” If you look up the word “heightened” you will find that it means to physically lift something up, but it also means to make something more intense and significant which is close to the original idea we came up with, i.e. that New Year’s celebrations are more important in Korea because they are viewed as everyone’s birthday. The correct answer is A.

Summary: Rules and Strategies for Word Choice and Diction

  1. “Of” used as a helping verb (ex. Would of, should of) is always Choose an option that replaces “of” with “have.”
  2. “Than” is used for comparisons.
  3. “Then” is used to show continuance of time (one thing happens after another).
  4. When you encounter a vocabulary in context question, read through the complete sentence to understand its meaning, mentally replace the underlined word with another word that would fit within context. Pick the answer choice that comes closest to the word you thought of.

List of Commonly Confused Words

Please follow the link below for a comprehensive list of commonly confused words that have been tested on the ACT.


Next Steps

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

Not sure what you need to know? Here’s a complete breakdown of what is actually tested on ACT English.

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