The ACT Part 2: English

This is the second in a six-part series on the ACT. Read: Part 1 – Intro

The first section of every ACT is the English section. You have 45 minutes to answer 75 questions. That’s 36 seconds per question.

The questions are based on five passages. Each passage has 15 questions. You have nine minutes per passage.

75 questions
45 minutes
5 passages
9 minutes per passage
36 seconds per question

Most of the questions ask you to choose the best version of the underlined portion of a sentence. Other questions are more specific, asking things like “should this sentence be kept or deleted?” A few questions will ask about the passage as a whole.

Since most questions focus on only a few words in a sentence, many students do not read the entire sentence. This is a huge mistake. To see why, consider the following example:

. . . the walls has been painted to match . . .

If you read only this much of the sentence, you’ll think there’s a problem with the underlined portion. But the whole sentence says:

The washers and dryers are lime green, and the paneling on the walls has been painted to match, although it was later varnished with some kind of artificial wood grain finish.

The noun “walls” is inside a prepositional phrase; the subject of the underlined verb is “paneling.” The sentence is correct as it is. So read the whole sentence every time!

Here are some other tips:

The “no change” option is right about 25% of the time—in other words, as often as anything else. So don’t be afraid to choose it. Don’t be afraid to choose it twice in a row.

Most problems on this section have the four answer choices and that’s all. But some come with questions. Read the questions carefully. Sometimes all four answer choices will be grammatically correct, but only one will answer the question.

If a question has the word NOT, LEAST, or EXCEPT, be careful! Even though these words appear in all caps, it is very easy to overlook them. Think about it: you’ve just answered 50 questions in a row where your job was to choose the BEST version of the underlined portion. Now, all of a sudden you’re asked to choose the WORST version. It’s hard to suddenly change tactics. Circle the word as soon as you see it so you won’t forget it’s there.

Read every word of every passage. When a passage has three or four lines of text with nothing underlined, students tend to skip over them. But the last question is usually about the passage as whole, so you shouldn’t skip around.

When the four answer choices are all the same except for the punctuation, the choice with the fewest punctuation marks is probably right. For example, if you see answer choices like this . . .

A. Joe ate a sandwich
B. Joe ate: a sandwich
C. Joe ate a sandwich,
D. Joe, ate a sandwich,

. . . then the answer is probably A. Of course, you can’t know for sure without any context, but the odds are very good.

Okay, so much for the “tips and tricks.” What is the ACT English section actually testing?

It’s mostly grammar. Things like subject-verb agreement, comma splices, possessives, and parenthetical phrases. But it’s also rhetorical skills. Many questions require students to identify redundant information. To borrow an example from Philosophy 101, if I tell you that my friend Brian is an unmarried bachelor, I’ve just told you the same thing twice. A bachelor is by definition an unmarried man, so I should have just said he’s a bachelor and left it at that.

Another important concept is relevance. If I’m explaining to you how a car engine works and I mention that Elvis once owned a car—actually several of them, you’d probably wonder why I brought that up. It’s not relevant to the discussion.

So anything irrelevant or redundant is wrong. By the way, when “OMIT the underlined portion” is an answer choice, it’s right more often than not, usually because the underlined portion is irrelevant or redundant.

There’s way too much grammar to cover in this post, but there’s one thing that I want to explain because 95% of my students do not know it. Here’s how to use apostrophes to show possession:

1 dog’s house (a single house owned by a single dog)
2 dogs’ house (a single house owned by multiple dogs)

It’s simple, and it’s on practically every ACT, so memorize it.


it’s = it is
its is possessive. For example: I told my dog to get in its house.
its’ is not a word.

The Official ACT Guide has answer explanations for every problem. If you complete the English section of the first three tests and look up the explanations for every question you miss, you should learn just about every grammar rule you’re likely to encounter on test day.

Next time, we’ll take a look at the Math section.

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