Page 1 English Study Guide for the ACT

How to Prepare for the ACT English Test

The English and Reading sections of the ACT test are two separate entities. While the Reading section evaluates reading prowess and comprehension, the English section places emphasis on these three competencies and you will be given a subscore in each. The percentage in parentheses indicates the approximate portion of questions that contribute to each subscore.

  • Use of standard English (51 to 56%), including sentence structure, word usage, and punctuation

  • Production of writing (29 to 32%), including organization, topic development, cohesion, and unity

  • Knowledge of language (13 to 19%), including style, tone, and choice of words

On this test, you will evaluate the writing of another person to determine what changes should be made to make the writing more effective.

Please note:

  • There are no questions about spelling, vocabulary, or simple recall of grammar rules. You may need to utilize your knowledge of these concepts while reasoning about a question, but there will be no questions that ask specifically about these things.

  • All questions refer to passages. There are no questions that merely refer to a word or sentence, alone.

  • Some questions are about an entire passage or paragraph. The question number will be shown near the appropriate text in the reading material. Other questions refer to an underlined portion of the passage, which is also marked with question number.

  • There is an answer option of “no change” for many questions. Choose this option if the sentence or passage portion is correct, as written.

Here is a list of things to practice in preparation for the English test.

Usage/Mechanics

Punctuation

Punctuation ranges from putting the correct mark at the end of a sentence to properly structuring lists embedded within the body of a paragraph. Punctuation can also affect the meaning of a sentence, so you must consider the context of the given passage, and the use of the sentence in the passage, to be sure of a correct answer. Consider the difference in these, for example:

“The restaurant is serving roast beef, soup, ham, sandwiches, corn, salad, and beverages.”

“The restaurant is serving roast beef soup, ham sandwiches, corn salad, and beverages.”

Each describes a somewhat different menu, depending on where the commas are placed.

To study punctuation, consider looking at more in-depth punctuation problems and mistakes, such as comma splices. While period and questions marks might be easy, many people struggle with properly inserting colons and semicolons into their work.

To practice noticing (and correcting) comma splices, you can easily search online or in textbooks for sentences to practice with. Comma splices may be difficult to spot; even the most seasoned writer or reader often falls prey to the trappings of comma splices. The following two sentences are an example of a comma splice and a properly punctuated sentence—see if you can spot the difference.

“Stacy and Grey were late to the party, Ken started dinner without them.”

“Casey left for work, so she called her boss to let him know.”

Of the two sentences, only the second one is correct; the first one fails to unify the two independent thoughts with a conjunction by only inserting a comma. While a comma is necessary in the sentence, it is also necessary to insert a conjunction.

To use colons and semicolons correctly, there are several things to keep in mind. A colon is used to indicate that something is still to come: a list, a connected thought (in the form of a sentence), or even a single word hinted at prior to the colon. Conversely, a semicolon is, typically, used to connect two similar sentences, often with a connecting word. Of the following two sentences, which do you think is correct?

“Charlotte failed to study for her test; however, despite her mistake, Charlotte was able to pass the exam.”

“Adam called his mother for Mother’s Day; she failed to answer, as she was on her way to surprise him.”

Although the format for each sentence differs, both are correct uses of a semicolon. Punctuation may, at first, seem extremely daunting, given that there are many different uses and rules for a single mark. Do not let this scare you off, however; with some practice and patience, anyone can master English punctuation.

Grammar and Usage

Grammar includes not only simple rules (whether a sentence is a complete thought or not) but also more complex guidelines, such as the need for pronouns to agree with antecedents. To prepare for this, focus on the parts of speech and how they interact with each other. Know the basics rules on verb and nouns and the more complex concepts, such as antecedents, adverb phrases, and the different types of clauses. Knowing the general idea surrounding a concept allows you to determine the answer to most of the English ACT test questions.

First, gather a clear definition of each part of speech. The following simple list will get you well on your way.

  • Verb ― an action word
  • Noun ― a person, place, or thing
  • Adverb ― a word (or phrase) used to describe a verb’s action (often accompanied by -ly), an adjective, or another adverb
  • Adjective ― a word (or phrase) used to describe a noun
  • Conjunction ― a connecting word, such as and, but, because, however, etc.
  • Pronoun ― a word used to replace a noun (i.e. I, we, you, he, her, etc.)

Memorize the definitions of these simple parts of speech, and practice applying those definitions to the questions you encounter. Questions may simply ask you to identify which word is the sentence’s main verb (the verb bearing the brunt of the sentence’s action) or may ask you something more complicated, such as which pronoun matches which antecedent (in the sentence “Carrie and the dog ran along the trail—while she was running, it came trotting along beside,” Carrie is the antecedent to she and dog is the antecedent to it).

The ACT English test will mostly ask you to apply your knowledge of these concepts and how they function in standard written English. You will need to know rules for:

Subject/Verb Agreement

The verb in a sentence must “agree” with the subject with regard to number.
A simple example is this one: It is correct to say “he goes,” but you must say “they go.” It becomes more complicated when you have certain subjects that actually refer to more than one, but are considered singular for verb form. For example, “The staff earns no pay for overtime.” is correct. Even though staff obviously refers to a group of people, it is a “collective” noun that requires a singular verb form. Other similar nouns include board of directors and team.

The verb must also agree in terms of the tense of the sentence. Obviously, you would not say “Yesterday, I will go to the store.” But you also need to be able to discern when to use more complicated tenses, like past perfect, etc. You’ll need to review these more fully, but here’s a brief example:

The past perfect tense indicates that something happened, and was finished, in the past before something else happened. So, you would say, “I had prepared lunch before going for a walk yesterday.” Whatever tense you use, it must make sense, in terms of time, in the context of the given sentence.

Pronoun/Antecedent Agreement

While it’s not so tough to use she to refer to Jane and he when referring to Bill, some pronoun use requires more thought. For instance, many people overlook the fact that they are referring to a singular subject in sentences like this one:

“Each person must store their backpacks in the closet.”

Unless the sentence is in a context obviously written for only one gender (like in a handbook for a women’s organization), it should be written:

“Each person must store his or her backpacks in the closet.”

Words like everyone follow this rule, too. Everyone actually means “every single one (or person),” which is also singular. When obviously referring to one gender, you would use the appropriate his or her, but not their, because,the subject, each person, is singular.

Modifiers/Word Modified

Be sure that even the words used to modify other words “agree” with the word modified. A common error regarding this involves the use of fewer and less. Many people use less indiscriminately to compare any type of quantity, but there is a rule for this.

The word less is used to compare quantities that are usually not counted, such as sand, air, hair, etc. The word fewer should be used for countable quantities, such as cookies, trees, and ideas.

So, “The house has less space” is correct, but you should write “The house has fewer bedrooms.”

Verb Formation

Apart from aligning verbs with the subject by tense and number, deciding which verb form to use has other considerations. This is particularly true with irregular verbs. Consider the verb go, for which all of these forms are correct.

“I go to the store.”
“I went to the store.”
“I have gone to the store.”

and these are not correct:

“I goed to the store.”
“I have went to the store.”

Words like gone and seen require the use of have, has, or had before them. But never use these “helping verbs” with went or saw.

Be sure to check out lists of irregular verbs and their forms to be sure you know which form to use in different circumstances.

Pronoun Case

We use pronouns as substitutes for nouns, such as he for Mr. White and it for the tree. That part seems simple, but you need to remember that different cases of pronouns are used for different purposes.

  • Subjective pronouns are used to replace the subject of a sentence. They are: I, you, we, they, he, she, and it.

  • Objective pronouns are used to replace an object in a sentence. To simplify, they replace the noun to which something is being done, not the noun doing it. Objective pronouns are: me, you, him, her, us, them, and, again, it.

  • Possessive pronouns are substitutes for possessive nouns. These include: my, mine, their, theirs, its, his, her, and hers. Note that the word its, when used as a pronoun, does not have an apostrophe. With an apostrophe, (it’s), it forms the contraction for it is.

Formation of Comparative and Superlative Adjectives/Adverbs

Many times, comparing items simply involves adding either -er or -est to the end of a word, like this:

“Mike was fast.”
“Jimmy was faster.”
“Alec was the fastest of the three boys in the race.”

Some words, usually those with more than two syllables, need to be preceded by more/most or less/least to create a comparative or superlative. These would be correct:

“Jane was sensible.”
“Mary was even more sensible than Jane.”
“Kate was the most sensible girl in the group.”

Note that you never use the -est ending or the words (the) most or least when comparing only two things.

Also be aware of the need to change some words when you add an ending. For example, sleepy becomes sleepier and sleepiest.

Idiom usage

If you have done a lot of reading, you are probably familiar with quite a few idioms. An idiom is a group of words that can mean something different from the actual definition of each word alone. For example, the phrase “hanging out” really has nothing to do with hanging anything or the out of doors. It simply means relaxing or spending time. Look for idioms as you read and find out their meanings if they are new to you.

Sentence Structure

The manner in which words are “put together” in a sentence can make a huge difference in the clarity of message to the reader. Some structure variations can also totally alter the meaning of the sentence, making it communicate a different message from what the author intended.

Relationships Between and Among Clauses

A clause is simply a group of words that contains a verb. Sometimes, a clause is a complete sentence by itself and other times, it must be combined with other words to form a complete sentence. These are all clauses:

“Sam went outside.” “because the wind was blowing” “after the sun went down” “if you have a cold”

Every complete sentence has at least one clause, but many sentences have two or more. How you attach the clauses, and in what order, is important for clear communication. The words you use to connect clauses can also make a difference.

The message is clear in this version:
“They had planned a picnic, but the weather turned stormy.”

This version is a little confusing:
“They had planned a picnic and the weather turned stormy.”

There are many rules for clause relationships, including those involving dependent/independent, subordinate, conditional, and relative clauses. It would be a good idea to review clause relationships in preparation for any test in English.

Placement of Modifiers

A modifier gives information about a noun and can be a single word or a phrase. In simple sentences, there is usually not a problem.

“The sleepy boy went outside.”

There is no doubt that it is the boy who is sleepy because there is only one subject in the sentence to which sleepy can refer. But if we add more information, it can become confusing.

“The sleepy boy went outside and chased a squirrel in his pajamas.”

Now, the reader is not sure whether it was the boy or the squirrel who was dressed in pajamas. To be sure of clarity, always place the modifier as close as possible to the subject it modifies, like this:

“The sleepy boy went outside in his pajamas and chased a squirrel .”

Shifts in Construction

A good sentence should leave no doubt about its message, but when there are multiple subjects and multiple actions, things can become confusing. A shift in construction occurs when the writer appears to change course in the middle of a sentence. For example:

“For the migrating ducks to seek open water, they caused confusion by the early onset of winter.”
“For the migrating ducks seeking open water, the early onset of winter caused some confusion.”

The second sentence was revised to be more clear simply by matching subjects to their actions. Limiting the number of subjects in one sentence can also help.