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ACT English: Word Choice and Diction Errors

Posted by Mary Ann Barge | Aug 11, 2015 7:30:00 AM

ACT English

 

head_would_of

One of the trickier concepts that you will be tested on ACT English is your ability to choose the right word from among many that are not quite right, and to spot when words are being used incorrectly.

Are you confident in your ability to find the differences in a group of similar words? Can you distinguish what’s needed from the context of a question?

If you’re not so sure, read on to see how the ACT English will test you on this skill! In this post, I'll cover everything you need to know about these questions:

 

What Does “Diction” Mean, Anyway?

Diction is a fancy synonym for “word choice” - you may have heard your literature teacher talk about it when analyzing a famous author’s writing style. 

On the ACT English, there are three main ways that word choice becomes important:

  • recognizing commonly confused words
  • understanding meaning in context
  • recognizing idiomatic uses of phrases with prepositions 

This final topic is large enough that we have a whole separate article dedicated to it.

But for the first two, let's look at some example sentences that illustrate these concepts.

There is nothing better then (1) waking up to the smell of freshly-brewed coffee. The exciting (2) smell really gets my blood pumping. 

1. A. NO CHANGE

   B. better than

   C. better

   D. better to

 

2. A. NO CHANGE

   B. simulating

   C. dazzling

   D. stimulating

 body_coffee-1

Answers: 1. B; 2. D

How did you do? These questions cover two of the most common types of diction errors that you will see on ACT English – commonly confused words and understanding meaning in context. Both of these test your ability to understand when a word is being used incorrectly. I’ll go into each of these question types in more detail below.

But first, let’s talk about why ACT English has diction errors in the first place.

 

Why Diction Errors?

ACT English basically tests your ability to be an editor. The ACT wants to see if you can spot and correct errors in short passages. This skill is important for college level work, such as writing papers.

Most of the ACT English questions focus on grammar, punctuation and style. By reading our guides or using another prep method, you can learn the various grammar rules that are important for being able to answer most of the questions on ACT English.

With diction questions, the ACT is looking to see which students can also spot errors where you can’t apply your grammar rules. The only way you will know these answers is to understand the subtle differences between similar words. 

If you don’t think this task sounds too difficult, keep in mind that many students make diction errors all the time in their everyday speech and writing. The makers of the ACT know which words are most confusing for students, and focus on these when writing the test.

So let’s start there – with the most commonly confused words that the ACT loves to test.

 

The Most Common Diction Errors

Some of the diction errors the ACT tests are random and therefore essentially impossible to study for.

However, the ACT writers have a couple of favorite errors, which usually appear at least once on every test. We'll go through these one at a time.

 

THAN vs. THEN

The first key concept for diction questions is understanding the difference between “than” and “then.”

Than is used to show a comparison.

I am smarter than you are.

He eats more rice than beans.

Then is used for showing what happens next.

First, she went to the store. Then, she went home.

I want to eat my rice, then my beans.

 

Pop Quiz!

Look at the following pair of sentences. Can you tell which one is correct?

I like blue Cornish cheese more then any other cheese in the world.

I like blue Cornish cheese more than any other cheese in the world.

body_blue_cheese

Answer: the second is correct because the sentence shows a comparison - than is needed.

 

How Should You Approach These Questions?

Then/than errors are pretty easy to spot and correct.

When you see one of these words underlined, look at the rest of the sentence. If it is comparing something, use “than." If it is telling that one thing happened after another, use “then.”

 

Let’s look back at the first question

At the beginning of the article, I gave you the following question:

There is nothing better then waking up to the smell of freshly-brewed coffee.

A. No change

B. better than

C. better

D. better to

 

Now you can understand why the answer is (B) better than. The sentence shows a comparison (waking up and smelling coffee vs. waking up and doing anything else), so we need than.

 

HAVE vs. OF

The second most important diction pair to know is “have” and “of."

The important distinction here is that “have” is a helping verb, while “of” is a preposition. If you see “of” being used as a helping verb, it will be incorrect!

 

The #1 Rule for Have/Of: 

If you see could of, would/will of, should of, or might of: these are all INCORRECT. 

Instead they should be could HAVE, would/will HAVE, should HAVE, and might HAVE.

 

This is one of those “everyday English” mistakes. In speaking, people tend to pronounce “have” like “of” because it’s faster and easier to say. It also sounds a lot like our contractions “would’ve," “should’ve," etc.

This has led some people to believe that “of” is actually the correct word to use in these circumstances - but it’s not!

 

Let’s look at some examples:

She would of preferred gorgonzola, but she got Cornish blue instead. INCORRECT

She would have preferred gorgonzola, but she got Cornish blue instead. CORRECT

"Would of" is always incorrect; "would have" is the correct replacement.

 

How Should You Approach These Questions?

Have/of questions should also be very easy to spot if you're looking for them. If you see of or have underlined, be ready to see a diction question.

Remember that if you have would/will of, might of, should of, or could of, you can immediately cross out those answers.

Choose an answer that replaces “of” with “have” and is also grammatically correct in the sentence.

 

Let’s look at an example from the ACT.

Dickinson’s last twenty years of letters -- many over 1,500 words in length -- reveals the breadth and depth of her connection to the world through a wide circle of correspondents.

A. NO CHANGE

B. reveal

C. will of revealed

D. would of revealed

 

First thing we see in the answer choices are two answers that can automatically be crossed out, which makes our lives so much easier! Get rid of C and D, which both have the dreaded “of” construction.

Now it’s a matter of differentiating between “reveals” and “reveal." At this point, you may notice that we are looking at a subject-verb agreement question. So we need to find what the subject is.

Ask yourself: what is doing the revealing? It’s the “last twenty years of letters." When we cross out modifiers and the prepositional phrase, we get “last twenty years of letters." Now it’s obvious that “years” is the subject.

Since “years” is a plural noun, we need the plural verb, which is “reveal." B is the answer.

 

 body_dickinson

 

Other Easily Confused Words

The ACT will rarely test other commonly-confused words. These questions are very difficult to predict because they happen quite infrequently.

I have included a list of commonly confused words at the end of this article. Try reading through them and see if there are any that surprise you or that you didn’t know.

If so, it wouldn’t hurt to make sure you have these down before you take the test.

But don’t bother spending a lot of time worrying about this list. The ACT will rarely test this kind of question, so it’s really not worth stressing out over. 

You will most often see these commonly confused words in the context of our next type of question, which is….

 

Understanding Word Meaning in Context 

Instead of using really tricky commonly confused words, the ACT usually uses fairly common words with similar meanings, and asks you to choose which one is best for the sentence.

This can be tricky because you have to really think about what the differences are between the different words that you're given, and also understand what the sentence needs in order to most correctly complete it.

Let’s look at an example of this type of problem from the ACT:

Many people might be surprised to learn that the American way of computing a person’s age differs from the traditional Korean way. In Korean tradition, a person is considered to be already one year old at the time of his or her birth.

As a child growing up in two cultures, I found this contest a bit confusing. When I was in the fifth grade, was I ten or eleven years old?

A. NO CHANGE

B. change

C. dispute

D. difference

 

This example shows how the ACT uses relatively simple words to try to trick you. You are probably familiar with all of the words in the answer choices, so let’s look at them closely to see which one best fits the sentence.

All of the words here imply some sort of contrast or conflict, but in very different ways.

Let’s start with the given word, “contest." A contest implies some form of formal competition between two things. Though the author says that there are differences between American and Korean age counting traditions, he doesn’t imply that they were actually in competition with each other. So (A) is out.

Let’s look at (B). “Change” implies that something was one way, and then became another way. This doesn’t work because these traditions haven’t changed from one to the other - they were just different to begin with. So (B) is out.

(C) is quite similar to (A), in that “dispute," like “contest," shows a direct conflict between two things. Again, this doesn’t really work because the two traditions aren’t actually competing with each other.

That leaves us with (D), which is the only answer that makes sense. As we’ve said, the two traditions aren’t having a fight; they contrast simply because they have different characteristics. That means that (D), “differences," is the most appropriate answer.

 body_birthday

 

How Should You Approach These Questions?

The meaning in context questions are definitely the trickiest of the diction questions. To spot them, look for questions that have an underlined word and answer choices that are completely different words, but are loosely related in meaning.

First, read through the sentence. Try to place a word of your own in the spot of the underlined word.

Now look at the answer choices. Though they will be slightly similar words, they will have different meanings. Which of them can have the meaning most like the word you put into the sentence? Choose that as the answer.

Let’s look at this example from the ACT and use the above strategy to answer it.

Perhaps the celebration of New Year’s Day in Korean culture is heightened because it is thought of as everyone’s birthday party.

A. NO CHANGE

B. raised

C. lifted

D. lighted

 

First, let’s read through the sentence and try to see what should go in the blank. “Perhaps the celebration of New Year’s Day in Korean culture is _______ because it is thought of as everyone’s birthday party.”

Something along the lines of “made more important” makes sense here. So which word could mean that?

You’ll notice that almost all the words imply going up in one way or another - this is how the ACT is trying to trick you. But in the right context, one of them can also mean showing greater importance.

“Raised” and “lifted” both refer to physically moving something up (unless they are paired with other words - not the case here). So (B) and (C) are out.

“Lighted” is thrown in here to trick you and is quite different to the others - its means something has been made lighter, as in the opposite of darker. It doesn’t work at all, so (D) is out.

Therefore the best word is the one the sentence started out with. If you look up “heighten”, you will see it can mean to physically raise something up, but it can also mean to make something more intense or significant, which is close to the original idea we came up with, which was making something more important.

 

 body_fireworks-2

 

Looking Back

The second question I gave you about smelling coffee in the morning had one of these meaning in context errors. Take a second look at the question.

Though the answer choices are all vaguely related – they all imply something that excites or surprises in some way – the correct answer is “stimulating”. This is the only word that really implies something that helps wake you up, which is what is needed to correctly complete the sentence.

 

Quick Recap

To summarize, here are the key strategies you need to use to master diction questions on ACT English: 

  1. Of” used as a helping verb (would of, should of) is always incorrect. Choose an answer that replaces it with “have."
  2. Use “than” for sentences with comparisons.
  3. Use “then” to show one thing happening after another.
  4. When you see a meaning in context question, first read through the sentence and mentally replace the word with one that makes sense in the sentence. Choose the answer that comes closest to the word you used.

 

Now It’s Your Turn!

Read the following passage and answer the questions that follow.

For the past twelve years, Khoubbane has been the unassuming leader of a unique (1) culinary movement in Morocco: creating and distributing a variety of high-quality cheeses throughout the country

He slices a small piece off the outer edge of the wheel. A fine dusting of white mold already covers the cheese. The flavor is intense and creamy, with just a hint of the tang that will of developed (2) over the next five months with only Khoubbane's watchful eye and sensible (3) palate to determine when it has finished maturing.

It is an unexpected undertaking for the 56 year old. Cheese, as the western world knows it, is unpopular in Morocco. "Moroccans don't eat smelly things," he says with a shrug. "There is less love for cheese here then in (4) France or Italy."

This attitude is slowly changing, thanks to Khoubbane.

His success, he says, has been due to the fact that he has viewed the process as a labor of love, rather than a business adventure.(5)

 

  1.    A. NO CHANGE

              B. single

              C. differentiated

              D. specified

 

  1.    A. NO CHANGE

              B. would of developed

              C. will develop

              D. develops

 

  1.    A. NO CHANGE

              B. sensitive

              C. emotional

              D. touchy

 

  1.    A. NO CHANGE

              B. then between

              C. than in

              D. than between

 

  1.    A. NO CHANGE

              B. venture

              C. advantage

              D. process

 

1. A; 2. C; B.; 4. C; 5. B

 

List of Commonly Confused Words

WORD

MEANING

WORD

MEANING

accept

to receive, take

except

excluding

access

entrance; opportunity

excess

more than needed

addition

something added

edition

a certain production of something

adopt

to legally take on, accept

adapt

to change to be more suitable

advice

a recommendation

advise

to give a recommendation

adverse

bad; unfavorable

averse

opposed to

affect

to influence

effect

a result

afflict

to cause suffering

inflict

to force something harmful

aisle

space between rows

isle

island

allude

to make an indirect reference

elude

to avoid

allusion

an indirect reference

illusion

a false idea or vision

already

happened before now

all ready

to be entirely prepared

altar

table for religious ceremony

alter

to change

altogether

completely; entirely

all together

all things with each other

a lot

a large number of something

allot

to give out an amount of something

ambivalent

to have two different feelings about something

ambiguous

having more than one possible meaning

amoral

having no sense or right and wrong

immoral

having intentionally bad morals

anecdote

a short personal story

antidote

a substance or activity that stops something bad

angel

a spiritual creature

angle

space between intersecting lines measured in degrees

apart

separated, into pieces

a part

a piece of something

appraise

to examine and judge

apprise

to tell someone of something

are

3rd person plural of “to be”

our

belonging to us

accent

how someone pronounces words

ascent

movement up

 

 

assent

agreement/approval

assistance

help

assistants

helpers

attribute

a quality/characteristic

contribute

to give something

auditory

related to hearing

audible

able to be heard

aural

related to hearing

oral

spoken, or related to the mouth

balmy

pleasantly warm

barmy

crazy or silly

bare

not covered

bear

to carry or accept something

bated

in suspense, excited

baited

to harass (past tense)

bazaar

a market

bizarre

very strange and surprising

berth

a bed on a boat/train

birth

time when a baby is born

beside

next to something

besides

in addition to something

boar

a wild pig

bore

a dull person

board

a long, flat piece of wood

bored

feeling uninterested

born

to have been birthed

borne

carried

bough

a large branch of a tree

bow

bend upper body forward

breath

air that comes from lunch

breathe

to take air in and out

brake

part of a vehicle that stops it

break

to separate into pieces

buy

to purchase

by

shows a person who does something

canvas

a strong cloth

canvass

to ask people their opinions

censure

to criticize formally

censor

to remove offensive things from public

capital

city where government is based, or money

capitol

state legislature building

choose

to decide or pick

chose

past tense of choose

climactic

an important or exciting time

climatic

relating to the weather

coarse

rough and thick

course

a series of lessons

collaborate

to work together

corroborate

to provide supporting information

command

to order

commend

to praise

complacent

feeling you don’t need to try hard

complaisant

willingness to please others

complement

something that goes well with something else

compliment

saying something to show praise

comprehensive

thorough

comprehensible

easy to understand

conscience

the part of you that makes you feel guilty

conscious

aware; awake

contemptuous

showing contempt

contemptible

extremely bad

corps

a group of people or military force

corpse

a dead body

council

an elected group of people

counsel

to give advice

credible

able to be believed

credulous

gullible

dairy

milk products

diary

a book of personal thoughts

descent

a movement down

dissent

disagreement

desirous

wanting something

desirable

attractive

dessert

sweet food

desert

hot, dry area

device

equipment used for a particular purpose

devise

to design or invent something

discreet

secretive

discrete

separate and different

disinterested

impartial

uninterested

not interested

do

a helping verb

dew

drops of water

 

 

due

expected or planned

dominant

most important or wanting control

dominate

to control or have power over

die

to stop living

dye

substance used to change color

dyeing

to change the color of

dying

present participle of “die”

elicit

to get info or a reaction from someone

illicit

not legal

eminent

respected

imminent

about to happen

 

 

immanent

permanent part of something

emit

to send out gas/heat/light

omit

exclude

envelop

cover something

envelope

what letters go in

everyday

consecutive days

every day

used a lot

exhaustive

repetitive use

exhausting

tiring

expandable

gets bigger

expendable

to leave out

explicit

gratuitous

implicit

complete

fair

reasonable

fare

cost

farther

far

further

more

flaunt

exaggerate

flout

intentionally break the rules

formally

properly

formerly

before

foreboding

over-powering

forbidding

not allowed

forth

forwards

fourth

first, second, third…..

gorilla

large monkey

guerrilla

unofficial military group

hear

sounds

here

present

heard

noise

herd

flock/gaggle/group

hoard

collect/store

horde

large group

hole

hollow space in something

whole

complete

human

people/person

humane

kind

implicit

complete

complicit

involved in

imply

suggest

implicate

suggest someone is involved in something

 

 

infer

guess something based on the information you have

incur

experience something unpleasant

occur

to happen

indeterminate

impossible to know

interminable

lasting a long time, in a boring way

influence

make an impression

affluence

wealth

ingenious

really clever

ingenuous

honest

its

belongs to

it’s

it is

knew

knowledge you have

new

not old

know

knowledge

no

denied

laid

the past of lay

lain

lied down

later

in the past

latter

near the end of a period

lay

to put something down

lie

horizontal

lead

to take charge

led

had taken charge

lessen

to weaken

lesson

what a teacher teaches

lightning

weather

lightening

not as dark

loose

not fitting tightly

lose

to not win

maybe

perhaps/possibly

may be

accepting something as true despite your opinion on it

meat

flesh

meet

assemble

mete

punish

 

 

metal

hard, shiny substance

medal

metal object given as a prize

 

 

mettle

determination when doing something

miner

someone who works in a mine

minor

not important; underage person

moral

right and wrongs

morale

the meaning

passed

to qualify

past

something that’s happened

patience

to stay calm

patients

sick people

peace

tranquility

piece

a part of

peak

the top

peek

a quick look

 

 

pique

annoyance

pedal

foot operated part of machine

petal

part of a flower

 

 

peddle

to sell

perpetrate

do something bad

perpetuate

elongate

personal

relating to a person

personnel

staff

persecute

treat someone unfairly

prosecute

to convict

perspective

viewpoint

prospective

potential buyer

plain

ordinary

plane

flying vehicle

pore

small hole for sweat to pass through

pour

make liquid flow from a container

precede

to happen before something else

proceed

to go forward

precedent

to set an example for others

president

the head of

prescribe

give medical treatment

proscribe

to not allow something

presence

being in a place

presents

gifts

principal

most important

principle

basic rule

quiet

no noise

quite

completely

rain

precipitation

reign

to rule

 

 

rein

straps that control a horse

raise

to lift

raze

completely destroy

rational

reasonable

rationale

the reason

reluctant

unwilling

reticent

saying little about what you feel

respectfully

showing respect

respectively

in the same order

reverend

Christian official

reverent

showing respect

right

correct

rite

traditional religious ceremony

 

 

write

produce words

road

surface built for vehicles

rode

to have ridden

scene

a view

seen

to have looked

sense

logic

since

from a time in the past

sensible

well behaved

sensitive

to be dealt with carefully

 

 

sensory

connected to the physical senses

sight

vision

site

a place of importance

 

 

cite

mention something as proof

simulate

to mimic

stimulate

to make something happen

stationary

still motion

stationery

office supplies

straight

not curved

strait

narrow area of sea

suppose

think something is true

supposed to

expected to do something

taught

educated, instructed

taut

stretched very tight

than

used to compare two things

then

at that time

their

belongs to them

there

used to show something exists

 

 

they’re

they are

through

from one end to the other

threw

to have thrown

 

 

thorough

completely

to

used to give a reason or direction

too

as well as

 

 

two

comes after one

track

narrow path

tract

large area of land

visual

relating to seeing

visible

able to seen

waist

around the middle of your body

waste

a bad use of something

waive

allow someone to break the rules

wave

move hands from side to side

weak

not strong

week

7 days

weather

conditions in the air above the earth (wind, rain etc)

whether

if, or not

 

 

wether

a castrated ram

where

to, at, or in what place

were

past tense of be

which

determining pronoun

witch

woman with magical powers

whose

which person owns or is responsible for something

who’s

who is

your

belonging to the person being spoken to

you’re

you are

 

 

yore

a long time ago

 

 

What’s Next?

Now that you know how to tackle one of the trickier subjects on the ACT English, try another: here is how to take on idioms on the ACT.

Not sure what else you’ll be up against? Here is a full breakdown of what you will find on ACT English.

Aiming high? Here are some top tips to get a 36 on ACT English.

 

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Mary Ann Barge
About the Author

Mary Ann holds a BA in Classics and Russian from the University of Notre Dame, and an MA from University College London. She has years of tutoring experience and is also passionate about travel and learning languages.



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