Feb. 7, 2021
It might seem like the English portion of the ACT is there to test your writing, but that isn't exactly the case. (There's a whole Writing portion for that!) What the ACT English test measures is how well you recognize errors in a piece of writing and how well you can correct them. A better term for that would be editing: Fixing grammatical mistakes and punctuation and improving the organization and structure of writing passages. Basically, your goal is to ensure that each underlined portion upholds the three C's: Consistent, Clear and Concise.
That might sound a little scary — many students fear they're going to have to know even the most obscure and detailed rules of the English language — but don't worry! The concepts covered on the ACT English test are all a lot more basic than you might assume:
- Subject/Verb Agreement
- Verb Tense
So if you're worried about facing a litany of English puzzles even experts still argue over — and let me tell you, there are very few rules that are unanimously agreed upon to be correct — I'll tell you it will not be nearly that complex.
The above language concepts (among a few other very common subjects) form the foundation for this portion of the ACT. You are not expected to memorize your grammar book. (And in fact, I don't even recommend trying.) There's simply too much information out there that will fill your brain to the point of exertion, and you'll be left looking for errors in ways you're not supposed to on test day. The test simply seeks to gauge your understanding of these basic (but essential!) concepts, so focus on those and you'll be well on your way to feeling more comfortable on the ACT.
The format of the questions for English will be rather straightforward: You'll read a passage with a few underlined words or phrases, and then you'll be given questions that propose edits to that underlined section. (I'll come back to this later, but keep in mind that an option of NO CHANGE will often be present.)
Wondering why sometimes you'll have to read entire paragraphs just to be tested on a couple of underlined words? Think of it this way: Those two words might be the only thing you have the option of changing, but the rest of the passage will hold the answers on how to change them. Using context clues from elsewhere in the passage will be integral to finding the correct answer, more often than not.
For example, if only a verb phrase is underlined in a given passage, what else might you need to know in order to determine whether that verb appears in its correct form? How about the subject of the sentence? That might be important, right? Of course! In fact, without knowing what the subject of the sentence is, there's no way you'd be able to answer a question about the verb with any sort of certainty.
Sure, those underlined portions are great at catching your eye, and it might be tempting to skip right to them and then to the questions. But I urge you to remember that the rest of each passage can be just as important to the question, underlined or not.
This is where things can get a little tricky. If the test is highlighting part of a sentence and asking how you'd change it, there must be something wrong with it, right? No! Well, not always, at least.
The writers of the ACT love to throw in the option of NO CHANGE as a sort of non-answer to their questions. So what I always say is to never assume that the original text is wrong. Instead, a handy tip is to look at what changes in each answer and determine whether or not those changes make sense. If none of them do, then you have your answer: Leave the text alone! For more tips and useful tricks like this explained in full, check out our Cracking the ACT.