Just to be clear, this is a post about strategy — if you don’t know the actual grammar, or you have difficulty understanding when to use different types of transitions, it won’t save you. And if you fall into that category and are looking to do some last minute cramming, you should probably start with my complete SAT and ACT grammar rules.
But assuming you have a reasonable grasp of the actual content and do not regularly run out of time, this is the most important piece of advice I can offer you. It might not sound like much, but it can have very significant consequences; I’ve seen it affect students’ English scores by as many as three points.
So here goes: after you’ve finished an ACT English passage, stop and take a brief break (anywhere from 10-30 seconds) before you begin the next passage. Make yourself stop before every new passage, regardless of whether you feel tired, and even if you’re a feeling slightly concerned about time.
I realize that given the time constraints of the test, that might sound like very counter-intuitive advice, so here’s why:
I’ve looked at a lot of ACT score reports over the past eight or so years, and after seeing certain number of them, I started to noticed something interesting. Often, a student would miss at most a couple of English questions during the first half of the section, but during the second half, there would be a sharp drop-off in performance. In addition, there was frequently a cluster of incorrect answers right around #70, regardless of whether the student was running out of time.
After some puzzling over this oh-so-intriguing phenomenon, I had a light bulb moment. There was nothing inherently more difficult about passages 3-5, I realized; students were just getting tired. And when the end was in sight, their focus would disappear, and they would crash and burn.
Spending that length of time staring at all those tiny commas and semicolons and colons and periods could make anyone a little cuckoo, regardless of how well they knew the test.
Eventually, I came up with what seemed to be a reasonable solution: I asked students to start taking breaks between passages. Very short breaks, mind you, but breaks nonetheless.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I encountered some pushback. Students felt that they were on a roll, that they would lose time, that they didn’t want to interrupt something that seemed to be working.
Those were entirely understandable objections. The problem was that when these students crashed straight through from question #1 to question #75, they always, always lost just a few extra points unnecessarily.
So I insisted: they had to force themselves to stop for even a few seconds, even if they didn’t feel tired. What’s more, they had to do it before every single passage — no skipping. The goal was to do everything possible to prevent the fatigue from accumulating to the point where it would start to affect their scores.
And it worked. Even if students resisted at first, they came around pretty easily once they saw that taking regular breaks got them from the consistent 29-30 range to the consistent 32-33 range.
Again, to reiterate: there is virtually no way to answer all 75 questions in an ACT English section without accumulating some degree of mental fatigue.
Even if you’re not aware that your brain is getting tired, trust me, it is. The change will be subtle at first, so subtle you probably won’t even be aware of it, but it will happen. Your reaction times will get a fraction of a second slower, and you will have to focus harder just to understand what each question is asking. You will also be more likely to miss key information that you would have noticed easily 30 minutes earlier.
If, on the other hand, you take a breather between passages, some of that mental clutter tends to dissipate. You’ll not only end the English section in better shape than you would have otherwise, but you’ll have more energy left for the rest of the exam.
So please, do yourself a favor. Stop for just a couple of seconds and let your mind reset. The ACT is a marathon, not a sprint, and you need to pace yourself accordingly. Close your eyes, look out the window, meditate… whatever. Just allow yourself that tiny mental break. It may seem like such a small thing, but it can have big consequences.
If you google “perfect score on SAT writing” (or “perfect score on ACT English”) you’ll probably come up with a couple dozen hits that make it seem as if accomplishing that feat is merely a matter of learning a few simple rules.
Now, if you have an outstanding ear and a solid basic knowledge of grammar, that could indeed be the case. And to be sure, the SAT and ACT both test a limited number of concepts (somewhere between 10 and 20, depending on how you count) over and over again, in very predictable ways. Within those 10-20 rules, however, there are many variations, and it’s always possible for rules to be tested or combined in slightly new ways. And rules that initially seem simple and straightforward can have very challenging applications.
Passages frequently mention topics, individuals, and places that most students aren’t particularly familiar with. It can be hard to worry about subject-verb agreement when you’re trying to puzzle through sentences that refer to multi-syllabic chemical compounds.
Given that, I’ve decided to compile a different sort of list. It is not a list of rules tested on the multiple choice grammar portion of the SAT and the English portion of the ACT. You can find those in my complete list of SAT and ACT grammar rules. Rather, it is a list of skills that you must have in order to apply those rules effectively.
1) Recognizing prepositions and prepositional phrases
Prepositions are “location” and “time” words such as to, of, by, for, from, with, and about.
Prepositional phrases are phrases that begin with prepositions and include nouns, pronouns, and adjectives, e.g. on the shelf, by the author, with my father.
Both the SAT and ACT test a couple of errors involving prepositional phrases.
Most frequently, they test the “no comma before or after a preposition” rule — if you can recognize prepositions, this rule is extremely easy to apply. If you can’t, you have to puzzle things out by ear.
Prepositional phrases are also used to distract from subject-verb agreements, e.g. The forests of central Mexico provides an ideal habitat for Monarch butterflies.
In addition to knowing what prepositional phrases are, you must be able to recognize them so securely and consistently that you can remember, under pressure, to cross them out of potentially long and complicated sentences in order to check for disagreements.
2) Knowing the definitions of transition words
This is a big one. You probably don’t have any trouble with however and therefore, but what about less common transitions such as consequently, moreover, and nevertheless?
If you don’t know the literal meanings of these words as well as what sorts of relationships they’re used to indicate, you’ll have difficulty eliminating wrong answers and recognizing right ones. You might also start relying on how they sound (weird), and that’s usually a recipe for disaster.
3) Recognizing comma splices involving pronouns
A comma splice is formed when a comma rather than a period or semicolon is placed between two complete sentences. When this error involve two clearly separate sentences, it is generally easy to recognize; however, one very common problem arises when the second sentence begins with a pronoun (he, she, it, they, one) rather than a noun. Because the second sentence does not make sense out of context, many people falsely believe it cannot be a sentence.
Incorrect: The forests of central Mexico are warm and filled with a wide variety of plant life, they provide an ideal habitat for Monarch butterflies.
Correct: The forests of central Mexico are warm and filled with a wide variety of plant life. They provide an ideal habitat for Monarch butterflies.
Correct: The forests of central Mexico are warm and filled with a wide variety of plant life; they provide an ideal habitat for Monarch butterflies.
4) Being willing to read both forwards and backwards
One of the most important things to understand about SAT Writing/ACT English is that errors are context-based. As a result, the underlined portion of the sentence may not give you the information you need to answer a given question. Rather, the necessary information may be located elsewhere in the sentence or paragraph.
This skill is key for answering rhetoric questions that ask you to add, delete, or revise information. If you are asked about a topic sentence, for example, you must jump ahead and read the body of the paragraph in order to determine what topic the first sentence of the paragraph should introduce.
The exact elevation of Mt. Everest’s summit has long been a matter of controversy. In July, the warmest time of the year, temperatures average only about ?2°F on the summit; in January, the coldest month, summit temperatures average ?33 °F and can drop as low as ?76 °F. Storms can come up suddenly, and temperatures can plummet unexpectedly. The peak of Everest is so high that it reaches the lower limit of the jet stream, and it can be buffeted by sustained winds of more than 100 miles per hour. Precipitation falls as snow during the summer monsoon, and the risk of frostbite is extremely high.
Which of the following is the most effective introduction to the paragraph?
A. NO CHANGE
B. The climate of Mt. Everest is extremely hostile to climbers throughout the year.
C. Glacial action is the primary force behind the erosion of Mt. Everest and surrounding peaks.
D. The valleys below Everest are inhabited by Tibetan-speaking peoples.
In order to determine the answer, you must temporarily ignore the first sentence and instead focus on the rest of the paragraph — you cannot know what the topic sentence should be about until you know what sort of information it introduces. In this case, the paragraph discusses the extremely cold temperatures and dangerous weather conditions present on Mt. Everest. That corresponds to the phrase “hostile climate” in (B). Although the other answers refer to Mt. Everest, they are all off-topic.
5) Recognizing non-essential clauses
Simply put, a non-essential clause is a clause that can be eliminated from a sentence without affecting its essential structure or meaning. These clauses can be set off with either commas, dashes, or parentheses, but the same type of punctuation must be used at the beginning and end of the clause.
Correct: The peak known as El Capitan, which is considered by the majority of expert climbers to be the epicenter of the rock climbing world, is a vertical expanse stretching higher than the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
Correct: The peak known as El Capitan – which is considered by the majority of expert climbers to be the epicenter of the rock climbing world – is a vertical expanse stretching higher than the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
Correct: The peak known as El Capitan (which is considered by the majority of expert climbers to be the epicenter of the rock climbing world) is a vertical expanse stretching higher than the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
Incorrect answers to questions testing non-essential clauses often omit one or both of the punctuation marks surrounding the clause. They may also “mix and match” — for example, use a dash to end a non-essential clause begun by a comma, or vice versa.
To identify what type of punctuation should be used and where it should be placed, you must be able to identify where the non-essential clause logically begins and ends.
A mathematician, inventor, and philosopher, Charles Babbage, considered by some to be a “father of the computer” is credited with inventing the first mechanical computer.
A. NO CHANGE
B. computer is credited,
C. computer – is credited
D. computer, is credited
To answer this question, you must be able to recognize that the clause considered by some to be a “father of the computer” can be removed from the sentence without affecting its basic structure or meaning (A mathematician, inventor, and philosopher, Charles Babbage…is credited with inventing the first mechanical computer).
6) Distinguishing between number and tense
Number = singular or plural
Tense = past, present, or future
Consider the following sentence:
Incorrect: The relationship between goby fish and striped shrimp are truly symbiotic, for neither can exist without the other.
When asked to correct it, many students will simply change are to were. Not only does that not fix sentence, it misses the entire point of what’s being asked. And that becomes a problem when you encounter questions like this:
The relationship between sharks and remora fish are truly symbiotic, for neither can exist without the other.
C. have been
If you don’t clue into the fact that the verb must agree with the subject, the singular noun relationship, you have no real way of deciding between the answers.
Note that to answer subject-verb agreement questions, you also need to be able to distinguish between singular and plural verbs.
Singular verbs end in -s (e.g. he talks)
Plural verbs do not end in -s (e.g. they talk).
Many people associate -s with plural forms because, of course, plural nouns end in -s. Making the switch to verbs can be confusing, particularly when sentences are long and complicated, and subjects are separated from verbs. If you have a tendency to forget, write this rule down on the front of your test.
7) Recognizing formal vs. informal writing (register)
Questions testing diction, or word choice, appear frequently on both the SAT and the ACT. In some cases you must choose the word or phrase with the most appropriate meaning, while in others you must choose the word or phrase with the most appropriate tone or register — that is, the proper degree of formality or informality.
Passages are almost always written in a straightforward, moderately serious tone. Correct answers to register questions are consistent with the tone, whereas incorrect answers are typically too casual or slangy. They may also be excessively formal, but this is less common.
As a result of variations in snow height, light refraction, and gravity deviation, the exact elevation of Mt. Everest’s summit has long been a topic of debate. Beginning in the 1950s, numerous attempts were made to measure the summit’s true height.
A. NO CHANGE
B. a thing that people fight about.
C. a matter of great disputation.
D. the cause of a bunch of arguments.
In the above question, (B) and (D) are both awkward and overly casual, employing “vague,” highly informal words such as thing and bunch, whereas disputation in (C) is excessively formal. (A) is correct because it is consistent with the straightforward, middle-of-the-road tone found in the rest of the passage.
Nouns are the most common type of subjects. They include people, places, and things and can be concrete (book, chair, house) or abstract (belief, notion, theory).
Example: Bats are able to hang upside down for long periods because they possess specialized tendons in their feet.
Pronouns are words that replace nouns. Common pronouns include she, he, it, one, you, this, that, and there.
Less common pronouns include what, how, whether, and that, all of which are singular. They are typically used as part of a much longer complete subject (underlined in the second example below).
Example: They are able to hang upside down for long periods because they possess specialized tendons in their feet.
Example: How bats hang upside down for long periods was a mystery until it was discovered that they possess specialized tendons in their feet.
Gerunds are formed by adding -ING to the ends of verbs (e.g. read – reading; talk – talking). Although gerunds look like verbs, they act like nouns. They are always singular and take singular verbs.
Example: Hanging upside down for long periods is a skill that both bats and sloths possess.
The infinitive is the “to” form of a verb. Infinitives are always singular when they are used as subjects. They are most commonly used to create the parallel structure “To do x is to do y.”
Example: To hang upside down for a long period of time is to experience the world as a bat or sloth does.