The trickiest SAT/ACT transition questions

The trickiest SAT/ACT transition questions

When transition questions are discussed in regard to SAT Writing/ACT English, they tend to be covered in two main forms. 

The first way involves a transition placed after a comma in the middle of a sentence. 

Version #1: The Spanish conquest of the Aztecs in 1519 brought the fragrant vanilla flower—and its companion, cacao—to Europe. Vanilla was cultivated in botanical gardens in France and England, but growers were unable to collect its glorious seeds.   (more…)

My top ACT English strategy tip

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.

How to use dashes on the SAT and ACT

Dashes are one of the punctuation marks that are essentially guaranteed to show up on the ACT English Test and the multiple choice SAT Writing Test. Because they tend to be used more frequently in British than in American English, they are typically the least familiar type of punctuation for many students. That said, they are relatively straightforward and easy to master.

Dashes are tested in three ways. The first is extremely common, the second less so, and the third very rare.

1) To set off a non-essential clause (2 Dashes = 2 Commas)

In this case, dashes are used exactly like commas to indicate non-essential information that can be removed without affecting the basic meaning of a sentence. If you have one dash, you need the other dash. It cannot be omitted or replaced by a comma or by any other punctuation mark. This is the most important rule regarding dashes that you need to know.

Correct: John Locke – whose writings strongly influenced the Declaration of Independence – was one of the most important thinkers of the eighteenth century.

Incorrect: John Locke – whose writings strongly influenced the Declaration of Independence, was one of the most important thinkers of the eighteenth century.

2) To introduce an explanation or a list (Dash = Colon)

In this case, a full, stand-alone sentence must come before the dash. The information that comes after the dash does not have to be a full sentence, although it’s perfectly fine if it is.

Correct: John Locke was one of the most important thinkers of the eighteenth century — his writings strongly influenced the Declaration of Independence.

The information after the dash explains why Locke was one of the most important thinkers of the eighteenth century.

3) To create a dramatic pause

Correct: A number of John Locke’s ideas influenced the Declaration of Independence — particularly those concerning government, labor, and revolution.

To reiterate, this usage is not tested often, and you should simply be aware that it is acceptable.

The ACT English Supplement is now available

If you’ve purchased my SAT grammar book but are planning to take the ACT as well as the SAT, the ACT English supplement to The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar, 3rd Edition, is now available for order on the Books page. 

Adapted from The Complete Guide to ACT English, the supplement covers grammar concepts that are omitted or de-emphasized on rSAT and provides exercises in ACT format as well as two full-length practice tests with explanations. 

7 skills you need for a perfect SAT Writing/ACT English score

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 toof, 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 (hesheittheyone) 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 wiling to read both forwards and backwards

One of the most important things to understand about SAT Writing/ACT English is that errors are always context-based. What this means in practice is that the underlined portion of the sentence alone 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.

For example, consider the following:

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.

B. rock climbing world is
C. rock climbing world, is
D. rock climbing world, and it is


To answer this question, you must not only be able to recognize that it is testing your ability to recognize non-essential clauses as well as how they are punctuated, but also be willing to back up and look at the beginning of the sentence. The comma after El Capitan marks the beginning of the non-essential clause and indicates that a comma must be used to mark the end of the non-essential clause as well.

This skill is also 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.


5) Identifying subjects

If you take a sentence like John kicked the ball, it’s pretty safe you can identify John as the subject.

But what about this?

Finding definitive proof that carnivorous dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus Rex could swim has proved challenging for many scientists.

Or this:

Whether carnivorous dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus Rex could swim is a question that has proved challenging for many scientists.

If you had trouble identifying the subjects of those sentences, you might want to check out “What parts of speech can be subjects?”

Some sentences that contain multiple clauses may also have more than one subject, e.g. The Tyrannosaurs Rex was one of the most fearsome prehistoric carnivores, but the question of its ability to swim has not yet been resolved.

The subject of the first clause is The Tyrannosaurus Rex, while the subject of the second clause is the question. The ability to identify multiple subjects is essential because verbs can have subjects anywhere in a sentence, not just at the beginning. If you can’t match verbs to their subjects, you can’t figure out when there’s a disagreement. 


6) Distinguishing between number and tense 

Number = singular or plural?
Tense = when (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.

A. are
B. is
C. have been
D. were


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.


7) Recognizing singular vs. 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.




What parts of speech can be subjects?


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.