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Formality on ACT English: Strategies and Tips


You wouldn’t wear a tux on a first date or jeans to a wedding. The ACT also tests you on whether or not you understand what level of formality is appropriate in different circumstances.

Read on to learn more about one of the most unusual topics covered on the ACT!

Formality questions are some of the least common on ACT English, so you shouldn't be too concerned about this topic. Nonetheless, in this article, I'll cover everything you need to know to tackle any formality questions you might see:

  • What is formality and how is it tested on the ACT?
  • The "normal" level of formality on the ACT
  • Key signs of a formality error
  • Examples of formality issues
  • Top tips for tackling formality questions on ACT English


What Is Formality on the ACT?

“Formality” refers to the idea that different texts are written with different audiences in mind, so some are more casual while others are more formal.

Usually, ACT English passages are written very similarly to a textbook or a newspaper article. You will notice that the author usually doesn't talk as if the reader is his best friend nor does he speak as if drafting a speech to read in front of Congress.

The key to formality questions is that your answer choices should follow the patterns laid out by the original author.


What Do "Normal" ACT English Passages Look Like?

Passages on the ACT fall into the middle of the formality scale. There are two main types of passages that you will see: factual/historical passages and personal narratives.

The example below is what a factual/historical passage looks like. You will notice that it is written in a very straightforward fashion, similar to what you might see in a high school textbook or a newspaper.

Benjamin Banneker, African American inventor and astronomer, grew up on his family's farm in colonial Maryland. Though he had limited access to formal education, Banneker nevertheless demonstrated a keen curiosity and a consuming interest in acquiring knowledge.


The personal narratives may seem slightly more casual than the factual/historical passages: they are written in the first person (using the pronoun "I") and include more contractions. 

However, overall they're still in the middle on the formality scale. If you see overly casual language, such as slang, it will also be incorrect here.

I live with my father in the summer, when I'm on vacation from school. Last week, he told me he had to go on a business trip in connection with his work and that I'd be staying with his sister for three days. Although I love my aunt, I wasn't happy about the prospect of three days at her house with nothing to do. It turns out I was in for a surprise.


Now that you know what ACT English passages should look like, let's discuss why formality questions can be difficult and some strategies to attack them.


What Makes Formality Questions Difficult?

Formality questions can trip up some test takers because they are all about style, not grammar. In fact, the incorrect answer choices for these questions will usually be grammatically correct!

Furthermore, there are no specific rules you can learn that will let you answer these questions correctly every time.

Understanding the formality level of writing is a skill that you acquire over the long term, through reading lots of different kinds of documents in English and learning how people communicate to different audiences.

As such, these questions are likely to be most difficult for non-native speakers of English.

Despite the challenges posed by formality question, there are some signs you can look for in order to see if a phrase or sentence is written too casually and is therefore incorrect.


What Are Some Signs of Overly Casual Language?

The following types of language generally signal an overly casual style and, thus, a wrong answer:

  • Slang. Slang is a word or phrase that has a cultural meaning different from its literal meaning. Examples include "cool," "sketchy," and "crush."
  • Vague language. Ideas could be expressed much more clearly and directly, with more detail.
  • Wordy language. Oftentimes, casual language will take more words than necessary to make a point.
  • Unnecessary commentary. When an author writes casually, they may also add unnecessary comments, such as personal thoughts or opinions about the topic.



Beware of slang.

What Are Some Examples of Formality Issues?

Here is an example of a few sentences written with mid-level formality, which is the type of writing that is normal on ACT English.

Although Tolstoy preached abstinence to his many followers, he actually had thirteen children of his own. His wife, Sofia, was offended by his stories that insulted their married life and implied that she had been unfaithful to him.


And here are the same sentences written more casually. If you see something written this casually, it will always be incorrect on ACT English.

Tolstoy told his followers that they shouldn’t have lots of kids, but actually he had a load of his own. Unfortunately for him, his wife, Sofia, got pissed off when he implied through a story that their marriage was a sham and that she had been messing around.


Can you spot the key signs mentioned above?

Slang: “a load of his own," “got pissed off," “messing around”

Vague and lacking detail: “a load of his own”

Wordiness: “that they shouldn’t have lots of kids” instead of “abstinence”

Unnecessary commentary: “Unfortunately for him”

The ACT won’t usually be this obvious with their errors. But now that you know what mistakes to look for, keep an eye out when you think you’re being asked a formality question!




Top Tips for Formality Questions on ACT English

#1: Remember that all ACT passages will be in the middle on the formality scale. 

While it's technically possible for a passage to be written more formally or casually, we have never seen an example of this actually occurring on the ACT.


#2: Eliminate grammatically incorrect answers first.

Formality questions are extremely rare, so you shouldn't rule out answers based on their level of formality until you're certain there aren't any other errors in the choices.

Always focus on grammatical errors and more common style errors like redundancy and relevance first, and only worry about using formality to narrow down your choices if you don't see those other types of issues.


#3: Cross out any answers that strike you as overly formal or overly casual.

If you're reading a sentence that sounds like something you might say to a friend, then it is casual. These choices may strike you as colloquial and friendly, or may use the signs of casual language that we discussed above. If you see an answer choice with these qualities, it will be incorrect.

On the flip side, if a sentence or answer choice seems quite stuffy and high-brow for the ACT, then it's overly formalThese options will also be incorrect because they don't match the rest of the passage.


#4: Re-read the sentence with your answer choice.

Does it seem to flow? Make sure that your answer seems to fit in with the rest of the sentence.



Remember passages will be written in the middle of the formality scale.


Let’s Look at an Example Together

In 1970, the school board in Pittsfield, New Hampshire, approved a dress code that prohibited students from wearing certain types of clothing. The school board members believed that wearing “play clothes” to school made the students inefficient toward their school work, while more formal attire established a positive educational climate.

B. lazy and bored to tears with
C. blow off
D. lax and indifferent toward


As I'm reading through this passage, it feels like it is at a standard formality level for the ACT. The language is not overly complex and flowery nor is it extremely casual.

Let’s start with the underlined section. “Inefficient toward” is idiomatically incorrect, so A is out. (Idiomatic errors can be tricky to detect - see our article on them here.)

Now let’s turn to the answers. Option B uses the phrase “bored to tears." This expression is a very casual phrase used to express extreme boredom. It’s far too casual to fit with the rest of the paragraph, so we can eliminate B.

Similarly, the phrase “blow off” in C is slang, which doesn’t fit in with the formality of the rest of the passage. We can rule out C as well.

D is the only option that’s left. When you put it in the sentence, it reads, “The school board members believed that wearing “play clothes” to school made the students lax and indifferent toward their school work, while more formal attire established a positive educational climate.”

This option matches the rest of the paragraph in formality, and it’s also grammatically and idiomatically correct. Therefore, D is the correct choice.




Here Are Some Practice Questions to Try on Your Own!

Choose the answer that correctly completes each sentence, paying particular attention to formality. I've explained the answers at the end of the article.

Smith’s example has inspired architects to donate their skills towards charitable projects. (1) Since 1998, the Association of Professional Contractors has presented an annual award recognizing the professional who best showcases a spirit of giving and community service. In 2004, the award was renamed the Robert Smith award. His parents, who were so instrumental in Smith’s professional success, were bursting with pride. (2)

While Smith’s architectural achievements remain prominent in Chicago for passersby to enjoy, it’s really great that the effects (3) of his generosity continue to make an impact and inspire others to follow his example.

    B. into projects that are really good for other people
    C. into charitable projects
    D. to charitable projects


    B. were super proud
    C. were proud of their son
    D. were appreciative of the illustrious honor bestowed upon their son


    B. the effects
    C. it is good that the effects
    D. DELETE the underlined portion





Answers: 1. D; 2. C; 3. B



1. As written, the sentence is idiomatically incorrect. We say that we "donate to," not "donate towards." Therefore, D is going to be the correct answer.

But even if that didn't jump out at you right away (idioms can be difficult!) there was at least one answer choice that you could have eliminated: choice B. This answer is an example of unnecessary wordiness, which is one of the signs of overly casual language. The other choices all use the word "charitable," which succinctly describes the projects being donated to.

Choice B, in contrast, says "projects that are really good for other people." Though this means the same thing, it is a much longer and more casual way of expressing the information, so this answer is incorrect.


2. As written, this sentence uses overly casual language. "Bursting with pride" is slang - it has an implied meaning that is different from its literal meaning (I hope his parents weren't literally exploding!). Choice B is also slang. The real definition of "super" is "good or excellent," but here it is used to mean "very" - which is a common casual use of the word.

On the other hand, choice D is too formal - it uses unnecessarily formal words (and is also too wordy!) to express a simple idea. Choice C is the best answer here. It's grammatically correct, and also directly and succintly completes the sentence without being too casual or too formal.


3. Here's another example of a too casual sentence. Can you see which trap of casual language it's falling into?

It has unnecessary commentary. It's very casual for the author of the passage to tell us that he thinks "it's really great." We can rule out A. Looking at the answer choices, you can see that C falls into the same trap, by telling us that "it is good."

We're down to B or D. D suggests that we should delete the underlined portion. However, if you read the sentence with the underlined portion eliminated, it's obvious that you create a fragment. Therefore the answer is B, which states the information clearly and directly, is grammatically correct, and is in the middle of the formality scale.


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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