Cover: The Official Act English Guide by ACT



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This guide will help you succeed on the ACT English test, which measures your understanding of what you've been taught in your core high school English courses. Reviewing all the grammar rules and writing skills you have learned during high school will take some time. This guide will help remind you of what you have learned and will likely teach you new skills and concepts as well. It covers the content of the ACT English and writing tests and the procedures you'll follow when you're actually taking the ACT English test. This guide also provides strategies for approaching the questions and content-specific test-taking tips.

The following chapters contain questions taken from actual ACT tests that are aimed at enhancing your understanding of the knowledge and skills you'll need to succeed on the test. Each question is followed by a detailed answer explanation. Chapters are organized by grammar and style concepts, which should help you see the patterns among the questions. Near the end of the guide, you will find a bank of real test questions and explanations as they appear on the test. This will give you practice switching gears between question types. A glossary is provided in the appendix to assist you in case you need reminders of common grammatical terminology.

If you already know your areas of strength and weakness when it comes to writing and grammar, you can look through the contents of this guide and focus on improving in those areas. If you are not yet aware of your weaknesses, take a diagnostic test. The Preparing for the ACT practice test is available for free online, and The Official ACT Prep Guide includes practice tests you can take. You should print the test if you plan to take it in hard copy so you can practice in the same manner in which you will take your actual test. Being able to cross out answer choices, underline, and star information can help you process the passages and questions.

We hope this guide helps you identify your strengths and improve areas of weakness so that you can show all that you know on your ACT English test.

Chapter 1:
An Overview of the ACT English and Writing Tests

Each ACT is different in its makeup and content. This chapter gives you an idea of what you can expect when you take the ACT English test and the ACT writing test.

The Structure of the English Test

The 45-minute ACT English test contains 75 questions in five passages. Each passage includes 15 questions, as follows:

If you divide your time evenly, you will spend 9 minutes per passage, and each question should take about 36 seconds to answer. The passages cover a wide variety of topics, ranging from texts about legendary athletes such as Roberto Clemente to scientific articles about exploring Mars.

At times, a concluding paragraph will be accompanied by questions about specific conventions and word choice, and then the final question will be a big-picture-meaning question, typically asking something like, “Suppose the writer's goal had been to write a brief essay concerning his experience with Miami time. Would this essay successfully fulfill that goal?” Since these types of questions are formatted differently from other questions, students may mistake them for directions and skip over them.

Remembering that each passage has 15 questions can help you realize that the last question related to a passage will end in a five or a zero. This should help you avoid accidentally skipping the last question.

In the following example, you will see how these questions will be formatted. Brackets are used to identify the number of a sentence within a paragraph and the paragraph numbers. Questions about an entire paragraph or passage will be identified by a box. Most question numbers appear below an underlined portion of a sentence. Be careful to replace only the underlined portion of the sentence as you test out the answer choices. Changes that have been made in previous sentences should be taken into account when answering subsequent questions. You will see this frequently in the chapter on subject-verb agreement. Note: The word omit means to delete or leave out.


Some questions will ask about the passage as a whole. They will be formatted like number 15 in the following example.


Content of the ACT English Test

The ACT English test measures your ability to use the Conventions of Standard English to edit passages, accomplish a certain task and purpose in writing, and create a style and tone through word choice. It focuses on three reporting categories that organize the types of questions you will answer and also make up the composite score you will receive. Each reporting category has a different number of questions associated with it on the ACT English test. You will not see the specific number of questions given in a category but rather the percentage of the total test score each will represent. Here is a brief description of the three reporting categories and their percentages in the total score of the English test.

A reporting category is composed of a set of skills that you are expected to have; each question is based on one or more of these skills. For instance, for Conventions of Standard English questions, the skills range from correcting errors in grammar to recognizing the proper use of punctuation. You might find questions about subject-verb agreement, commas with coordinating conjunctions, and sentence fragments. Production of Writing questions might relate to logical transitions and evidence for arguments, and Knowledge of Language questions might ask about the mood and tone of a passage. The number of questions per category is not important. What matters is the percentage of each category in the test that will weight your final score. Following is a more detailed breakdown of the skills that fall under each category.

Conventions of Standard English

Conventions of Standard English test the following knowledge and skills:

  • Determine when to use punctuation marks, including periods, colons, semicolons, dashes, and parentheses.
  • Determine when to use subordinating and coordinating conjunctions to join clauses or revise awkward-sounding fragments or fused sentences.
  • Use logical verb tenses in contexts.
  • Recognize and correct disturbances in sentence structure, such as faulty placement of adjectives, participial phrase fragments, missing or incorrect relative pronouns, dangling or misplaced modifiers, faulty parallelism, run-on sentences, and weak conjunctions between independent clauses.
  • Maintain consistent and logical verb tense and voice and personal pronouns within a paragraph or passage.

Production of Writing

Production of Writing questions test knowledge and skills in two areas of English composition.

Topic Development in Terms of Purpose and Focus

Examples of knowledge and skills tested in these questions include the following:

  • Determine the relevance of material to the topic or the focus of the passage or paragraph.
  • Identify the purpose of a word or phrase (for example, identify a person, define a term, or describe an object).
  • Use a word, phrase, or sentence to accomplish a specific purpose, such as convey a feeling or attitude or illustrate a given statement.

Organization, Unity, and Cohesion

Examples of knowledge and skills tested in these questions include the following:

  • Determine the need for transition words or phrases to define relationships in terms of time or logic.
  • Determine the most logical place for a sentence in a paragraph.
  • Provide a suitable conclusion for a paragraph or passage (for example, summarizing the main idea).
  • Provide a suitable introduction for a paragraph or passage.
  • Rearrange sentences in a paragraph or paragraphs to achieve a logical flow.
  • Determine the most logical place to divide a paragraph to achieve a stated goal.

Knowledge of Language

Knowledge of Language questions test your ability to clearly and succinctly express yourself in written English. Knowledge and skills tested in these questions include the following:

  • Revise unclear, clumsy, and confusing writing.
  • Delete redundant and wordy material.
  • Revise an expression to make it conform it to the style and tone used throughout the passage.
  • Determine the need for conjunctions that create logical connections between clauses.
  • Choose the most appropriate word or phrase in terms of the sentence content.

Questions assess your understanding of grammar and style rules in the context of the whole passage. You must pay attention not only to a single sentence with an error but also to the other sentences and paragraphs. The questions in the ACT English test never directly ask about grammar rules. For example, the test won't ask, “Can a subject of a verb be found within a prepositional phrase?” or “Which of the following is a relative clause?” Instead, you will be asked to revise sentences that include grammar and style errors. Spelling is not assessed in the ACT English test. At times, “NO CHANGE” will be the correct answer choice if the sentence was grammatically and stylistically correct in the first place.

The Content of the Writing Test

The optional writing test has important differences from the English test. It measures your ability to write a unified, coherent essay about an issue stated in the prompt. Rather than answering questions within reporting categories, you will follow each of the steps listed in the essay task. Your score, given from a low of 2 to a high of 12, depends on how well you have done each of the steps and completed the task. Here are the steps you will need to follow on the ACT writing test:

Chapters 8-13 of this guide will review each of these points, show samples of actual student essays, and explain the use of writing skills in their responses.

How to Use This Guide

This guide will give a brief description of each category followed by official sample questions associated with each category. It will review essential skills, present questions on those skills, and explain approaches to answering them. As you may notice, the English test covers many of the skills you need for writing. In the optional writing test, you respond to a prompt and compose an essay. This guide includes a review of both tests because they each call for such closely related skills.