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ACT English Basic Strategy Outline


5 passages and 75 questions in 45 minutes (15 questions per passage)

9 minutes per passage

General Strategy

• Read the entire passage and do the questions as you get to them.  Do not skip over parts even if there is a big space between questions, since some questions might ask about the passage as a whole.

• Always finish reading the entire sentence that contains the underlined portion before answering a question.

• It is a test of formal written English, not spoken English, so you must know the rules instead of always relying on your ear.

• Know when your ear is likely correct and when it is likely incorrect.

º It will often fool you for pronoun agreement and verb agreement and will often miss redundancy.

º It is all you have to go by on idiomatic language questions.

º It will often, but not always be correct on comma usage.

º It can be very useful on awkwardness questions.

• Concentrate on the differences between the answers to figure out exactly what you are being tested on so that you know which rule to apply.

• “NO CHANGE” is correct about 1/4 of the time it is offered.

• “OMIT the underlined portion” and “DELETE the underlined portion” are correct almost 1/2 the time they are offered.

• Sometimes it makes sense to go out of order, especially if an error later in the sentence is making it tough to deal with a previous error.

• Take it slowly on questions that involve arranging the sentences in a paragraph, arranging the paragraphs within the essay, deciding whether a sentence should be kept or deleted, and similar rhetorical skills questions.  These types of questions take a little longer to be certain of.

• Be careful of questions that feature the words “EXCEPT,” “NOT,” or “LEAST.”  Missing these crucial words is a common cause of careless errors. Put a giant X over the entire question as an unmistakable visual reminder.


Specific Tips


• Match every pronoun with the word it renames (its antecedent) to check for agreement.

• Match every verb with its simple subject to check for agreement.

º The subject is never found within a phrase.

º Use the is/are test to see if a noun is singular or plural.  If “is” sounds good after the noun, the noun is singular.  If “are” sounds good after the noun, the noun is plural.

º Use the he/they test to figure out the singular or plural form of a verb.  If the verb works with the subject “he,” the verb is singular.  If the verb works with the subject “they,” the verb is plural.

º Each, either, and neither are singular.

• Never put a comma between a subject and its verb.  For example, there is no comma in the following sentence: “The best part about skiing is that you get to go fast.”

• A semicolon followed by a lowercase letter is identical to a period followed by a capital letter (for the purposes of this test).  If both are offered, neither is correct, assuming there are no other differences between the two answer choices.

• “Who” is followed by a verb and is not preceded by a preposition.  “Whom” is followed by a noun or pronoun or is preceded by a preposition.

• Before choosing a period, semicolon, or comma-conjunction, be certain that what comes before and after are both independent clauses.

• Only combine two sentences if one of them is incapable of standing alone.  If they both work alone, keep them as separate sentences.

• For awkwardness questions, process of elimination often works well until you have it down to one answer.  Look for specific errors to help you eliminate answers, and also use your ear.  Anything that is overly wordy is definitely wrong.  Before you choose your answer, make sure it has no subtle misplaced modifiers.  If given the choice between active and passive voice, choose the active unless there is a reason to choose the passive.

• When you add a dependent clause or a phrase to the beginning of an independent clause, ALWAYS separate it from the independent clause with a comma.

• When you add a dependent clause or a phrase to the end of an independent clause, typically do not use a comma, unless your ear is strongly telling you that you need one.

• When adding a phrase to the middle of an independent clause, consider whether it is essential or nonessential.  If it is essential, no commas are used.  If it is nonessential, separate it from the rest of the sentence with commas on both sides.


Rhetorical Skills

• If you think something could possibly be redundant, unnecessary, or irrelevant, it probably is.  Take it out.

º Use the structure of the question to tip you of to look for the possibility of something being unnecessary, irrelevant, or redundant.  If “OMIT the underlined portion” or “DELETE the underlined portion” is an option, or if one or two answer choices are shorter than the others, the question is giving you the option of taking something out.  You should think carefully about why you might do this.

• When a question asks you to insert a sentence to accomplish a specific purpose, pay close attention to that purpose and pick the answer that accomplishes it.  Pay no attention to the context unless the purpose itself is context dependent, as many of the choices will sound good in the context.

• On transition word questions, you must pay attention to the sentence before and after the transition, unless it is transitioning two parts of one sentence.

• When given the option of a transition word or no transition word, always choose a transition word if one works.  Only choose not to use a transition word if none of the transition words really fits.

• On sentence placement questions, look for a vague reference in the sentence or elsewhere in the paragraph.  If you find one, place the sentence where you need to in order to clarify the vague reference.