English Study Guide for the ACT

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Conventions of Standard English

Conventions of language questions on the ACT cover both mechanics and usage. Writers use language in different ways to express their ideas to their readers, but if they don’t follow the conventions of standard English and the “rules” of language, the result can be confusing for the reader. In the conventions of standard English questions on the test, you will be asked to correct errors in mechanics (mostly capitalization and punctuation) and usage (grammar, including sentence structure and verb tense) to help improve the clarity and precision of the text.

Connecting Clauses with Punctuation

Clauses can be combined in one of two ways: using a semicolon or a comma and a coordinating conjunction. For example:

Ronny finished his math homework. He still needs to finish his English homework.

These independent clauses can be joined with a semicolon like this:

Ronny finished his math homework; he still needs to finish his English homework.

Alternatively, a comma and coordinating conjunction may be used to combine the clauses.

Lana went to the pool to swim. She forgot her towel.

These sentences may be combined in this way:

Lana went to the pool to swim, but she forgot her towel.

Punctuation and its placement is important in joining clauses. Putting it in the wrong place, or forgetting punctuation altogether, can create awkward fragment sentences or confusing run-on sentences.

Awkward and Fused Sentences

Joining clauses doesn’t always work. If the clauses aren’t closely related, trying to combine them can result in awkward or confusing sentences, like this one that can be corrected as shown below.

Doug saw a monkey trying to steal his backpack and he remembered his passport was in the front pocket.

Doug saw a monkey trying to steal his backpack. As he watched, he remembered his passport was in the front pocket.

Failing to use the proper punctuation when combining clauses that are related can also result in issues, as in this sentence with the correction shown below.

Gas prices keep rising many drivers are electing to buy electric vehicles.

Gas prices keep rising; many drivers are electing to buy electric vehicles.

Combining independent clauses with no punctuation at all leads to run-on, or fused, sentences.

Trying to join independent clauses with just a comma and no conjunction creates a different kind of problem: the comma splice. Here is a sentence with a comma splice and its correction:

My dad dropped us off at the mall, Suzie’s mom picked us up.

My dad dropped us off at the mall, and Suzie’s mom picked us up.

It is important to be able to identify these issues and to understand how to correct them to make the sentences complete and correct.

Subordination and Coordination

Some of the issues that arise when connecting clauses come as a result of the types of clauses being joined. Subordinate, or dependent, clauses cannot stand by themselves as complete sentences. They are fragments, and joining two of those together won’t necessarily create a complete sentence. Here is an example:

After they shut down the business because they had run out of money.

Instead, subordinating clauses must be joined to at least one independent clause using a subordinating conjunction. This is the above example in corrected form:

Because they had run out of money, the partners had to seek new investors after they shut down the business.

Using subordination helps show the relationship between ideas, with one being more important than the other. Coordination involves expanding sentences by adding information that has an equal relationship. In coordination, commas and coordinating conjunctions are used to join two independent clauses together, but one is not necessarily more important than the other.

Errors in Sentence Structure

When sentences contain structural errors, they can be confusing and risk sending the wrong message to the reader. For example, misplaced punctuation or modifiers can completely change the meaning of a sentence, and it may not end up meaning what the writer intended. These are some structural elements to keep in mind when reading and editing a text.

Adjective Placement

Adjectives describe nouns and noun phrases. The best place to put an adjective is right before the noun that it’s describing:

He has a beautiful smile.

However, when used with the verb “to be,” adjectives usually come after the subject:

She is smart.

Adjectives also come after linking verbs:

The cake smelled delicious.

He feels excited.

That dog seems nice.

Multiple adjectives can be used to describe the same noun or noun phrase. In that case, they usually come in this order: determiners, observations, size, shape, age, color, origin, material, and qualifier. For example:

The beautiful long winding old green Native American grassy hunting path had been used by local tribes for centuries.

Participial Phrase Fragments

Sentence structure can also be affected by participial phrase fragments. Participial phrases are phrases that begin with a participle and, when used by themselves, form fragment sentences. Participial phrases must be connected to an independent clause to be a complete sentence. They are often used as adjectives to describe or modify nouns. For example, these sentence parts are connected correctly:

Eaten alive by mosquitos while camping last summer, Carlos remembered to bring bug spray on his spring break camping trip.

Relative Pronouns

Relative pronouns introduce dependent, or relative, clauses and connect a noun or pronoun to an adjective clause. It is important to use the correct one and to punctuate it as necessary to avoid errors in sentence structure. For example,

The actor who won the award starred in my favorite movie.

The sweater, which was a gift from Grandma, shrank in the dryer.

Modifier Placement (Dangling or Misplaced)

To avoid confusion or misunderstanding, modifiers should be placed as close as possible to the words they modify or describe. They should not be used in different sentences but be contained within the same sentence as the word(s) they are modifying. If a modifier is used at the beginning of a sentence, it must modify the subject of the sentence. For example:

Because she was wearing sunscreen, Pam did not get sunburned during her afternoon at the beach.

If it’s not clear who or what the modifier is describing, it’s known as a dangling modifier. To correct dangling modifiers, move them closer to what they describe, and if what they describe is not included in the sentence, add it in. For example:

Crunching on the gravel driveway, I could hear the car.

In this sentence, it’s the car doing the crunching, not “I,” so move the modifier closer to “car.” To clarify further, add in what part of the car is crunching:

I could hear the car’s tires crunching on the gravel driveway.


Parallelism helps create a sense of balance in a sentence or in sentences near one another. To create parallelism, make sure the word forms match. For example:

Sam likes swimming and to surf.

Here the verbs are conjugated in two different ways. To fix the problem, make them match in ways like these:

Sam likes swimming and surfing.

Sam likes to swim and surf.

Another example is:

We all need regular exercise and to get enough sleep.

which can be revised to this:

We all need regular exercise and adequate sleep.

Run-On Sentences

A run-on sentence happens when two or more independent clauses are joined without the right punctuation included. For example:

The movie began, the audience grew quiet.

This is a run-on sentence. To join independent clauses, use a semicolon or a comma and a coordinating conjunction. Just fusing them together without the correct punctuation results in a run-on sentence, which can cause confusion for the reader trying to make meaning from the text. Two ways to fix our movie sentence are:

The movie began; the audience grew quiet.

The movie began, and the audience grew quiet.


Clarity in writing comes, in large part, from consistency in writing. This consistency comes at both the sentence or paragraph level and in the text as a whole. It refers to using the same style, format, and voice throughout a text. The most common inconsistencies in writing seem to come from issues with verbs. Maintaining consistency in verb tense and voice, as well as pronoun usage, can help make writing clear and the message easier for the reader to understand.

Verb Tense

Verbs are usually conjugated into either the past, present, or future tense. To help avoid confusion for the reader, it is important that the verb tense remains consistent throughout a text and not change haphazardly. There may be good reason for changing verb tense within a text, but it should be done purposefully and fit the context of the writing. If it changes inconsistently or is illogical, it will be confusing for the reader.

Verb Voice

Verb voice refers to the relationship between the verb, or the action of a sentence, and the subject. If the subject actively does, did, or will do the action of the verb, it is active voice. For example:

Marla picked apples.

The subject, Marla, did the actual picking of the apples herself. If the action is done to the subject rather than by the subject, it is passive voice. For example:

The apples were picked by Marla.

Now the subject is the apples, and they had the action of being picked done to them in this passive voice sentence. Usually, active voice is the preferred verb voice to use in writing as it is more direct and clear.

Pronoun Person

Pronouns replace nouns, but it is important to use the correct ones in the correct ways. As with verbs, pronouns should be used consistently and logically in writing. While some pronouns are masculine (he, him, his) and others are feminine (she, her, hers), their use for some individuals should not be assumed, and the gender-neutral option may be used (they, them, theirs).

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