What To Know About The English Section On The ACT

The English portion of the ACT consists of 75 questions that measure written English and rhetorical skills.  Students receive 45 minutes in which to complete this section, which consists of five prose passages with corresponding multiple-choice questions.  The types of passages vary; one may be a personal narrative, and the next may be a textbook excerpt. 

Questions will often refer to underlined portions of the passages, and offer several alternatives as possible answers.  Students will be asked to select the example that is the most appropriate in terms of the context.  Besides asking about specific underlined portions, questions will also focus on a larger section of the passage, or the passage as a whole.  Possible answers include altering the passage, or simply selecting “No Change.”  Spelling skills, vocabulary, and rote grammar rules are not tested.  

The English exam is divided into two categories: Usage and Mechanics, and Rhetorical Skills, which each test several elements of effective writing.  The combined subscores from each category make up the total score for the English portion of the ACT.  

The Usage and Mechanics category includes questions on punctuation, grammar and usage, and sentence structure.  

Punctuation makes up 13% of the English section.  Questions focus on the conventions of punctuation within, and at the end of sentences.  They tend emphasize the relationship of punctuation to meaning, such as avoiding ambiguity and indicating appositives.  Think of the common example of “Let’s eat Grandpa!” as compared to “Let’s eat, Grandpa!”  (Unfortunately, the ACT will be a little trickier than that.)  Besides commas, the punctuation questions may ask about apostrophes, semicolons, colons, parentheses, dashes, periods, question marks, and exclamation points. 

Grammar and Usage questions are 16% of the English portion.  They will test your knowledge of agreements between subjects and verbs, pronouns and antecedents, and between modifiers and the word being modified.  Questions also deal with verb formation, pronoun case, formation of comparative and superlative adjectives and adverbs, and idiomatic usage.  A question will never explicitly require you to name a grammatical error, but instead ask you to fix phrases (that may work for spoken English but not for formal, written English).  

Sentence Structure is the final portion of the Usage and Mechanics section.  Questions make up 24% of the English portion, and will ask about placement of modifiers, shifts in construction, sentence fragments, comma splices, and test your understanding of the relationships between and among (subordinate or dependent) clauses.  Other sentence structure topics may also include connecting and transitional words, parallelism, and run-on sentences.  

The Rhetorical Skills category tests strategy, organization, and style.  

Strategy questions consist of 16% of the exam.  They test how well a student will develop a topic through choosing expressions that are most appropriate to an essay’s audience and purpose.  These questions also test how effective a student is at evaluating the effect of revising, adding, or deleting supporting material, and at judging the relevance of statements depending on context.  

Organization makes up 15% of the English portion.  Questions evaluate the ability of students to organize ideas and choose effective opening, transitional, and closing statements.  They also ask about the logical structuring of the passage on the level of the sentence, the paragraph, and the passage as a whole in order to maximize coherence, order, and unity.  

Style questions are the final 16% of the test. These assess how a student selects the most appropriate or precise words and images for a writing sample and also maintains a consistent level of style and tone throughout an essay.  Questions will examine how well a student manages sentence elements for rhetorical effectiveness, and avoids ambiguous pronoun references, over-wordiness, and redundancy. 

Unlike the other sections on the ACT, the English portion of the exam assesses what you already know, rather than what you can figure out if you are presented with certain information.  In other words, this means that it is possible to prepare fully for the English section.  You can do this through improving your reading speed and efficiency, and learning to avoid any tricky traps the ACT writers may have included.  It helps to learn the strategies to eliminate multiple choice answers and save some time.  For the Usage and Mechanics category, it helps to understand basic rules of grammar, punctuation and sentence structure, so it’s possible to recognize when something doesn’t belong, or what a better alternative would be.  In order to do well in the Rhetorical Skills section, it helps to have an intuitive sense for good English writing, and be able to recognize the best and most effective method of getting a message across.  However, the best way to achieve your desired score on the ACT English exam is to take ACT practice tests or work with a tutor to familiarize yourself with the material, and understand exactly what a question is asking so you’ll succeed on test day.