Don’t forget to flip back a page on ACT English

I think we can probably all agree here that whatever the strengths of the ACT English section may be, formatting is most definitely not one of them. When there are five or six spaces — or even half a page — between lines, it’s almost impossible not to sometimes lose track of where paragraphs begin and end. Since I started tutoring the ACT in 2008, I’ve spent who knows how much time explaining just where the sentence is supposed to be inserted, or which paragraph a little numbered box is actually referring to. Sooner or later, almost every ACT student of mine has missed a question simply because they couldn’t figure what they were supposed to fix where.

Beyond the most obvious instances of formatting-related mistakes, though, I’ve noticed some subtler errors. One problem that seems to come up again and again involves…page turns. When I work through the same tests with enough people, I inevitably start to notice that almost everyone gets certain questions wrong, usually for the same reasons.

A couple of tests that I regularly use have questions that bridge two pages — that is, the sentence that a question asks about begins at the bottom of one page and ends at the top of the next page. Sometimes, it’s a very long sentence, which means it’s easy to lose track of.

And very often, my students answer those questions incorrectly because they’ve only read the information on the page containing the underlined portion or numbered box.They either didn’t want to make the effort to back up a page and read from the beginning of the sentence (relatively rare) or, more frequently, were so focused on the underlined portion of the sentence that they didn’t realize it actually began on the previous page.

Ironically, focusing on the question so hard caused them to overlook the larger context and miss the very information that they needed to answer the question. Had the entire sentence been located on a single page, they would likely have read from the start of it; but because it was split up, they simply didn’t notice that they weren’t reading from the beginning.

The moral of the story? Always, always back up and read from the beginning of the sentence, actively identifying where that place is. The capitalized letter at the beginning of a word is a giveaway, and no, I’m not being sarcastic. Sometimes you have to be that literal.

Recently, I’ve started seeing the same problem with paragraphs and rhetoric questions, specifically adding/delete sentences questions. In order to determine whether information should be added or deleted — that is, whether it’s relevant to a paragraph — it is first necessary to know what that paragraph is about. What part of the paragraph tells you most directly what it’s going to be about? Often, the first (topic) sentence or couple of sentences.

When the first sentence is on the previous page, however, it’s suddenly a lot less intuitive to read that spot. And when lines are separated by multiple spaces, making only a few lines of text appear much longer, it is possible to not even realize that a paragraph begins on the previous page. Again, the best way to guard against this problem is to back up and consciously search for the indented line that always signal the beginning of a paragraph, keeping in mind that it may be on the previous page.

Working this way might seem like an inordinate amount of effort — one more little detail to think about, on top of everything else — but it can actually save you time and energy in the long run. Instead of trying to puzzle out an answer that you don’t have sufficient information to determine, flipping back a page and getting the full picture can actually make finding the answer much more straightforward.

It’ s not you — it’s the test (or: if you don’t understand it, it probably doesn’t make sense)

It’ s not you — it’s the test (or: if you don’t understand it, it probably doesn’t make sense)

Much as I’ve tried to cut back on tutoring to work on my seemingly endless SAT book revisions, I somehow haven’t been able to escape entirely. In fact, I somehow ended up with no fewer than five (!) students taking the ACT this Saturday. It’s therefore entirely unsurprising that I’ve had the same set of conversations repeatedly over the last couple of weeks. (It’s also entirely unsurprising that I can no longer remember which conversation I’ve had with whom and am therefore reduced to constantly asking the student in front of me whether we’ve already discussed a particular rule, or whether I actually gave the explanation to someone. Although actually I’ve been doing that for a while now.)

Perhaps not unexpectedly at this point in the year, almost all of my students were “second rounders” — people who had worked with other tutors, for months in some cases, before finding their way to me. And that meant that there was the inevitable psychological baggage that accumulates when someone has already taken the test a couple of times without reaching their goals. As a result, I’ve been paying just as much attention to how people work through the test. When I work with a student who actually does have most of the skills they need but can’t quite seem to apply them when it counts, that’s basically a given.

It’s interesting — I’ve never really bought into a lot of the whole “test anxiety” thing, but more and more, I find myself dealing with the psychological aspects of test taking. (But rest assured, I don’t talk about scented candles or relaxation exercises).

Anyway, over the last few weeks, I’ve found myself paying an awful lot of attention to just what people who are scoring in the mid-20s on ACT English and trying to get to 30+ do when they sit down with a test. I’m pretty good at managing the psychological games that people play with themselves, particularly when they involve second-guessing, but I’ve never spent so much time thinking about those games specifically in terms of ACT English before.

Well, there’s a first time for everything.

If there’s one salient feature that characterizes the ACT English test, it’s probably the straightforward, almost folksy Midwestern style. There’s an occasional question that really makes you think, but for the most part, what you see is what you get. A lot of wrong answers are really wrong, almost to the point of absurdity.

As I worked with my ACT students, I noticed something interesting: when the original version of a sentence (that is, the version in the passage) didn’t make sense, the student would get confused and reread the sentence or section of the passage again. And when they still didn’t understand, they’d reread it again. And sometimes a third time.

The issue wasn’t so much that they were running out of time, but rather that they were wasting huge amounts of energy trying to make sense of things that couldn’t be made sense out of because they thought they were missing something. Then they were getting confused and panicking and second-guessing themselves.

So although it might sound obvious, I think this bears saying: if you are working through an ACT English section and find that you just cannot make sense out of a phrase or sentence in the passage, that version of the phrase or sentence is wrong. Do not try to wrap your head around it by reading it again and again. You can’t make sense out of it because it doesn’t make sense. In other words, it’s not you — it’s the test.

Even if you don’t know what the right answer is, you do know what the answer is not: NO CHANGE. Pick up your pencil, put a line through A or F, and start plugging in the other options.

You might not know quite what you’re looking for, but at least that way you’re doing something constructive, not just freaking yourself out.

Worry about when you DO need a comma, not when you don’t

I think it’s fair to say that the ACT really, really likes to test commas. I’ve never done a statistical analysis, but I’d wager that it’s around 15-20%.

But while the ACT does test commas in many different ways, the reality is that you don’t have to know every last rule governing comma usage. As long as you know the major ways in which commas are used correctly, you can probably identify when a comma is not being used correctly.

So that said, here are the contexts tested on the ACT that require you to absolutely, conclusively use a comma:

1) Before a FANBOYS (coordinating) conjunction when joining two independent clauses

Example: London is a very old city, and it contains buildings from many different eras.

2) To set off a non-essential clause that can be removed from a sentence

Example: London, which is a very old city, contains buildings from many different eras.

3) Between items in a list

Example: London contains buildings from time periods including the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Victorian era. The third comma is optional, by the way. Since the sentence is correct both with and without it, you’ll never be tested on that particular usage.

4) To separate multiple adjectives whose order could be reversed

Example: London contains many interesting, eclectic neighborhoods, OR London contains many eclectic, interesting neighborhoods.

When you see a comma, ask yourself whether it’s being used in one of the above ways. If it isn’t, you can be relatively certain that you should choose an answer that doesn’t include it.

Who and whom: what to know for the SAT and ACT

The SAT and ACT do test a version of the “who vs. whom” rule, but only at a relatively superficial level. There are only two things you need to know:

1) Whom should not come before a verb

2) Whom should come after a preposition


For example:

Many people are familiar with the story of how the Pilgrim settlers met a Pawtuxet

tribe member named Squanto whom befriended them, taught them how to survive in

their new wilderness home, showed them how to plant crops, and acted as an interpreter 

with the Wampanoag tribe and its chief, Massasoit.

B. which befriended
C. who befriended
D. and befriending


Yes, “who vs. whom” is clearly being tested here, but there’s a decent chance that you can hear that whom befriended sounds extremely awkward, and that who befriended sounds a lot better.

In grammatical terms, the simplest version of the rule here is that whom should never be used right before a verb. (Befriend is a verb because you can say to befriend). That’s it. In order to apply the rule, you do need to be able to accurately recognize verbs, but if you can do that, you’re pretty much set.


Now, here’s part two of what you’re likely to see.

Many people are familiar with the story of how the Pilgrim settlers met Squanto, a

Pawtuxet tribe member from whom they learned about planting crops and surviving

in the New World.

B. from who
C. by which
D. from which


There are two straightforward rules being tested here:

1)  Who and whom = people; which = thing

2) Whom, not who, must follow a preposition


C and D can be easily eliminated because which should only refer to things.

B is incorrect because from is a preposition, and prepositions should be followed by whom, not who.

That leaves A, which correctly uses whom.

Generally speaking, the SAT and ACT are a lot more interested in testing whether people know the basics of correct English and are able to recognize flagrant mistakes than with how well they know complex grammar rules.


That means you’re exceedingly unlikely to see a question that looks like this:

Many people are familiar with the story of how the Pilgrim settlers met Squanto, a

Pawtuxet tribe member who they encountered shortly after arriving in the New World.

B. whom they encountered
C. which they encountered
D. they encountered him


To answer this question, you need to be able to recognize that the correct answer is the direct object of the verb encounter – that is, you would say encounter him (object pronoun), not encounter he (subject pronoun).

Whom is correct because it is an object pronoun, whereas who is a subject pronoun. Only an object pronoun can replace an object pronoun (him —-> whom).

But again, the chance of your encountering a question that tests the rule at this level of subtlety is so small that it’s not even really worth worrying about.

Read each passage entirely; don’t just jump from question to question

When a lot of students start studying for ACT English/SAT Writing, one of the first things they often wonder is whether they actually really need to read the entire passage, or whether it’s ok to just skip from question to question.

My answer?

A resounding yes and no. That is, yes, they have to read everything, no they can’t just skip from question to question.

Here’s why:

ACT English and SAT multiple-choice Writing are context-based tests. Sometimes you’ll be asked about grammar, and sometimes you’ll be asked about content and structure. Both kinds of questions are often dependent on the surrounding sentence, however. A question testing verb tense may have four answers that are acceptable in isolation but only one answer that’s correct in context. If you don’t look at the surrounding sentences and see that they’re in the past, you might not realize that the verb in question has to be in the past as well.

Furthermore, it’s often impossible to answer rhetoric questions without a general knowledge of the paragraph or passage. If you’ve been reading the passage all along, you’re a lot more likely to be able to spot answers immediately since you’ll be able to tell whether a given choice is or is not consistent with the passage. If, on the other hand, you suddenly start reading surrounding sentences, you’re more likely to miss important information because you don’t have the full context for them.