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The Hardest ACT English Question Types Ever

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If you’ve been hard at work studying for the ACT, you’ve mastered the basics of the test. But are you ready to tackle the hardest grammar, punctuation, syntax, and writing logic questions that ACT English will throw at you?

To help you prepare, we'll explain the hardest ACT English question types you'll face on the ACT. For each type, we'll give you at least one practice question you can use to test your knowledge (and explanations so you know how to find the right answer). 

Ready? Let's get started.

 

Why Should You Care About the Hardest ACT English Questions?

Of course it is good to be able to answer all the questions you'll see on the ACT. But, how deeply you should be concerned about acing the hardest questions depends on what your target score is. 

Are you trying to get as close to a perfect ACT score as possible? Getting above a 33 on ACT English leaves almost no room for error, so if you’re aiming for the highest scores, these are the questions you need to be able to answer correctly.

If you’re less concerned with getting the best possible score, then it’s good to know what the toughest questions look like because your strategy may be to skip some of them.

 

What Makes ACT English Questions Hard?

Surprisingly, questions aren’t hard because they test new or more complex material. Instead, what makes the hardest questions so challenging is that often, they ask you to do several types of thinking at the same time. 

Often, questions propose counterfactual ideas, where you have to keep in mind both the original and a completely different version of the text. For example, a regular reading comprehension question would ask what the main point of a passage is. Meanwhile, a difficult reading comprehension question would first present a scenario where the passage was altered in some way, and then ask how its main point would change as a result.  

Also possible are questions that test several different grammar, punctuation, and style issues at once. For instance, each suggested answer choice for a hard grammar-based question could be completely plausible rather than obviously wrong. You would have to comb the sentence for meaning and style, not just grammatical information, in order to answer correctly. 

Finally, questions can add a layer of complexity by switching from a detail-oriented to a big-picture focus. You could be asked to correctly complete a sentence in a passage - and then realize that your answer changes depending on how you interpret that passage!  

 

body_tangle.jpgComplexity is created when many simple things are layered on top of each other.

 

Spoiler Warning!

Before I show you the actual hardest questions, I think it's only fair to warn you. These questions are all from the official ACT practice tests (the PDF tests, not the online one on the ACT website)! 

If you’re the type of person who will see them once and remember them forever, maybe wait to read the rest of the article till after you’ve taken the practice tests in test-day conditions.

 

The Hardest ACT English Question Types

We've given you a few example questions of each tough question type below. Try to answer the questions in about 35 seconds — that’s how long you’ll have on the test. Once you're done, check out the answer and explanation that follows each question.

Since ACT English is an entirely passage-based section, all of these questions come from long passages, which we mostly haven’t included. But be aware: you'll have to wrangle those passages on the actual exam! 

 

Question Type 1: Grammar

You'll need to know many grammar rules to succeed on the ACT English portion. But some are tricker to master than others! The questions below will give you a chance to test your advanced grammar skills as you prep for the exam. 

 

Question 1

The two principal types of kayaks are: the easily maneuverable white-water kayak and the largest sea kayak.

  1. NO CHANGE
  2. very biggest
  3. more large
  4. larger

 

The Challenge

You have to know that you are only comparing two things, so you can’t use the superlative form of the adjective.

Answer: D

 

Explanation

When we compare a specific quality of several things, we can change the form of the adjective we use to show which object has more of that quality. For example, three tiny things can be ranked in size order:

  • Small
  • Smaller (the comparative form of the adjective “small”)
  • Smallest (the superlative form of the adjective “small”)

The rule is that if three or more things are being compared, then one of them can be labeled with the "-est" form of the adjective. But if only two things are being compared, then only the "-er" form of the adjective can be used.

In this case, we are comparing two things: we are ranking the “white-water kayak” and the “sea kayak” in size order. Since there are only two things, we can’t use either “largest” or “biggest” to describe the sea kayak, so answers A and B are out.

Some adjectives need the words “more” and “most” to indicate comparison. For example, you can’t say “this actor is woodener than that one,” you have to say “this actor is more wooden than that one.” But in this case, “large” does easily take the "-er" form, so answer C is out, and answer D is the right one.

 

Question 2

The Navajo language is complex, with a structure and sounds that makes them unintelligible to anyone without extensive exposure to it.

  1. NO CHANGE
  2. makes it
  3. make it
  4. make them

 

The Challenge

Because this question is testing both subject/verb agreement and noun/pronoun agreement, it's easy to get tripped up by it.

Answer: C

 

Explanation

We are asked here to figure out two things: whether the verb “make” should be singular or plural and whether the pronoun "them" should be singular or plural. Let’s take these one at a time.

A verb has to match its subject. In other words, a singular subject takes a singular verb, while a plural subject makes the verb plural. In this case, to figure out the right form of the verb "make," you have to first determine what is doing the making. What is making Navajo language complex? The structure and sounds. So, since the subject is plural, the right verb is "make," eliminating answers A and B.

Similarly, a pronoun has to match the noun that it's linking back to. Here, you have to analyze: what is being made complex by the structure and sounds? The Navajo language. Since this noun is singular, the underlined pronoun should be too, making C the correct answer.

 

Question 3

The county cleared this path and paved it with packed gravel, so they would have a peaceful place to hike and bike.

Which of the following alternatives to the underlined portion would NOT be acceptable?

  1. path, paving
  2. path and then paved
  3. path before paving
  4. path paved

 

The Challenge

This question is hard for two reasons. First, because your brain is trained to assume that most answers are wrong, so this reverse question format - where most of the answers are correct - is challenging. And second, because each suggested option tests your knowledge of a different piece of grammar.

Answer: D

 

Explanation

To find the unacceptable alternative, let’s first figure out the meaning of the original sentence. Two things happened: first the county cleared the path, and then the county paved it. So any answer choices that express this sequence of events would fit the sentence, and thus not be the "wrong" answer that we are looking for here. Answers A, B, and C all express the same idea in slightly different ways, creating perfectly grammatical phrases.

Now let’s see what happens when we plug in answer J. We get this weird sentence: 

“The county cleared this path paved it with packed gravel…”

This is clearly a run-on sentence, so answer J is our odd man out.

 

 

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The ACT English section also tests your vocabulary. 

 

Question Type 2: Vocabulary

The ACT English test also tests your vocabulary skills. One of the tougher types of questions you'll see asks you to choose the most correct word in a scenario. It's easy to get tripped up here—you'll have to choose the best option. So read carefully! 

 

Question 1

In some agricultural parts of Japan, for instance, these three stars are commonly referred to as Karasuki and represent a three-pronged plow.

Given that all the choices are true, which one provides a detail that has the most direct connection to the information that follows in this sentence?

  1. NO CHANGE
  2. distant
  3. populated
  4. historic

 

The Challenge

Questions where there is no logically “wrong” answer are hard because you can’t easily eliminate answers by a quick glance. Here, you have to extract the correct information from the sentence and fit it to the vocabulary offered.

Answer: A

 

Explanation

Since the question asks us to connect an adjective to what the sentence is about, let’s first figure out what is being described. The bits of information we have are:

  • Something about stars
  • A foreign word for the stars
  • The stars look like a type of plow

Now, let’s see which word choice connects with one of these pieces of information.

“Distant” means far away. Certainly the stars are far away, but in this sentence “distant” would modify “parts of Japan” and nothing in the sentence discusses geographic distances of any kind.

“Populated” means inhabited, or where people live. That doesn’t go with anything else in the sentence.

“Historic” means important because of past events that happened there. Again, this doesn’t connect with anything in the sentence.

The original word “agricultural” means having to do with farming. And that goes directly with the fact that the stars represent a “three-pronged plow,” a type of farming implement.

 

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There's logic to the English language (even if it doesn't seem like it)! This sample logic question will test your puzzle-solving skills. 

 

Question Type 3: Logic

Logic questions ask you to look at the structure of a sentence and determine if it makes logical sense. You'll need to think about how each part of a sentence works together to answer these challenging questions. 

 

Question 1

Unbricking a kiln after a firing is like a person uncovering buried treasure.

  1. NO CHANGE
  2. someone
  3. a potter
  4. OMIT the underlined portion.

 

The Challenge

Illogical comparisons can be very tough to spot unless you are familiar with what to look for.

Answer: D

 

Explanation

The basic rule is that you can only compare things that are alike in some way. For example, you can compare pears and plums (both fruits!), but you can’t compare a pear to a person eating a plum.

One trick to spotting illogical comparison questions is to look for words like “than” or “is like” that signal that something is about to be compared to something else. This something else needs to immediately follow the words “than” or “is like.”

So, what’s being compared here? “Unbricking a kiln.” Even if you don’t know what that means, it’s clearly an action of some sort.

The original text (answer A) compares this action to “a person.” An action is clearly not like a person, so that’s out. Once you realize this, you can see that answers B and C are also out, since all they do is replace the word “person” with alternate versions.

Only answer D removes the illogical comparison, so that the sentence now compares “unbricking” to “uncovering” – two similar actions.

 

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Textual analysis requires you to put your thinking cap on. Here are some stylish choices for you. 

 

Question Type 4: Textual Analysis

Textual analysis questions ask you to look at the bigger picture of a passage or sentence and infer what the author means. To answer these questions, you'll need to put yourself in the shoes of the author. Looking for elements like tone, theme, and language can help...and so will practicing your skills on these tough questions. 

 

Question 1

Wearing Jeans in School

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 lax and indifferent toward their school work, while more formal attire established a positive educational climate. When twelve-year-old Kevin Bannister wore a pair of blue jeans to school, he was sent home for violating the dress code.

Kevin and his parents believed that his constitutional rights had been violated. The United States District Court of New Hampshire agreed to hear Kevin’s case. His claim was based on the notion of personal liberty—the right of every individual to the control of his or her own person—protected by the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment. The court agreed with Kevin that a person’s right to wear clothing of his or her own choosing is, in fact, protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. The court noted, however, that restrictions may be justified in some circumstances, such as in the school setting.

So did Kevin have a right to wear blue jeans to school? The court determined that the school board had failed to show that wearing jeans actually inhibited the educational process. Furthermore, the board offered no evidence to back up its claim that such clothing created a negative educational environment. Certainly the school board would be justified in prohibiting students from wearing clothing that was unsanitary, revealing, or obscene. The court remained unconvinced, therefore, that wearing jeans would actually impair the learning process of Kevin or of his fellow classmates.

Kevin Bannister’s case was significant in that it was the first in the United States to address clothing prohibitions of a school dress code. His challenge initiated a review of students’ rights and administrative responsibility in public education.

Suppose the writer’s goal had been to write a brief persuasive essay urging students to exercise their constitutional rights. Would this essay fulfill that goal?

  1. Yes, because the essay focuses on how Kevin encouraged other students to exercise their constitutional rights.
  2. Yes, because the essay focuses on various types of clothing historically worn by students as a freedom of expression.
  3. No, because the essay suggests that the right to wear blue jeans was not a substantial constitutional right in the 1970s.
  4. No, because the essay objectively reports on one case of a student exercising a particular constitutional right.

 

The Challenge

After spending time examining this passage on a sentence level for all the other questions associated with it, it's pretty challenging to have to zoom out and think about what is actually being said here. Plus, the answers all hit plausible notes.

Answer: D

 

Explanation

You’re being tested on how well you understand overall authorial intention – what the purpose and point of a given piece of writing are.

So what features would an essay urging people to act have in it?

  • It might be organized around a bit of activism.
  • It might tell the story of some protest or challenge to the order of the day.
  • It would have a clear point of view of who/what is right and who/what is wrong in a given situation or problem.
  • It would most likely either start or end with a directive to go out there and do something.

Does this passage do those things? It does tell the story of a legal challenge to established order. But it doesn’t do any of those other things. And, even if you can’t immediately picture what an essay urging action would sound like, you can check out the descriptions of this passage in the answers to see whether any of them actually fit what you just read.

Answer A is wrong because there is no mention of Kevin interacting with other students in any way.

Answer B is wrong because aside from jeans, there is no mention made of any other self-expressive clothing choices made by students.

Answer C is tempting because it agrees that the essay is not urging anyone to do anything, but the answer also says that the passage picks a side in the fight over whether jeans are a constitutional right. But the essay does no such thing, so this answer is out.

Answer D is the only one that actually describes this essay: it’s a simple, chronological, fact-based, neutral account of one court case.

 

Question 2

[1] Our son has started playing organized T-ball, a beginner’s version of baseball. [2] “Organized” is what parents call it, anyway. [3] Joe is seven, living in those two or three years when children can manage to throw a baseball a few feet but when what they’re really interested in are things closer at hand: bugs, butterflies, dirt (if they’re in the infield), grass (if they’re in the outfield). [4] Children of that age still think nothing of doing little dances in the outfield, often with their backs to home plate and, consequently, the batter. [5] It’s not as if the outfielders’ positions matter much, though—the ball never gets hit hard enough to reach there.

The writer wishes to add the following sentence in order to emphasize the uncertainty already expressed about an idea in the paragraph:

I still have doubts.

The new sentence would best amplify and be placed after Sentence:

  1. 1.
  2. 2.
  3. 3.
  4. 4.

 

The Challenge

This question is hard because you have to recognize the sarcasm in the sentence before you can figure out that the author doesn’t mean what is written literally.

Answer: B

 

Explanation

This question is testing your ability to detect authorial mood and voice.

In this case, the sentence “I still have doubts.” has to back up something that the author disagrees with or doesn’t believe in. The best way to solve this is to go option by option to see which sentence is the one where skepticism is introduced.

The first sentence (answer A) is completely factual. The author tells us about her son’s new activity, and explains that T-ball is a type of baseball. None of this is in dispute, so putting “I still have doubts” after this wouldn’t make sense.

Sentence 3 is also quite fact-based. We learn the son’s age, and then get the author’s generalization about the inability of young kids to focus on the game. This is an opinion that the author clearly believes in, so putting “doubts” after this would be wrong.

Sentence 4 continues the theme of distractibility, with a funny image of outfielders dancing around while the ball is in play. The author doesn’t doubt that this is the case – it’s clearly a description coming from personal experience.

Sentence 2, on the other hand, is riddled with sarcasm and humor. We can tell because the word “organized” is now in quotation marks, separated out as being untrue. The phrase “what parents call it” signals that despite being called organized, T-ball is anything but. Finally, the adverb “anyway” signs the author’s shoulder shrug at the fact that other parents can see any organization on the field – a shrug that is followed by a bunch of evidence of how little attention the kids are paying to the game in progress. Right after sentence 2 is the perfect place to emphasize the author’s disagreement with the sentence “I still have my doubts.”

 

Question 3

A lot of people hate to ride the New York City subways, but I love them because I like to get places fast. A musician balancing a cello case, two Buddhist monks in saffron robes, and a group of stockbrokers in crisp, charcoal gray suits get on at Wall Street. A passenger placidly sews while the subway train flings and jolts. A teenager who’s holding a shoebox containing a kitten as tiny as a gingersnap smiles as a line of girls in frilly white communion dresses file by. About three and a half million people a day ride the subways, and I think maybe I’ve met them all.

At this point, the writer wants to provide one reason why she likes to ride the subways. Which choice is most relevant to the information provided in this first paragraph?

  1. NO CHANGE
  2. I never know what I’ll see there.
  3. they are so much cheaper than taxis.
  4. they are places of enormous quiet and calm.

 

The Challenge

This question challenges you to find the common theme of the paragraph and then circle back to apply it to this sentence. It's easy to get it wrong because each of the answers is a completely plausible way to end the sentence - if you don't connect it to the rest of the passage.

Answer: B

 

Explanation

Each answer option would create a totally different topic sentence for this paragraph. Your job is to use the paragraph to find clues for what a relevant topic sentence would be here

The passage that follows the sentence is basically a long list of different people that the author has seen riding the subway: a musician, monks, stockbrokers, someone sewing, a teenager, and girls. Let’s see whether one of the answer choices sets up this list.

Answers A and C are about the advantage of the subway as a mode of transportation. They’re true, but they aren’t what this paragraph is about.

Answer D actually is about the environment inside the subway, but the paragraph describes a crazy mishmash of people and things, while “quiet and calm” are adjectives better suited to a library than public transit.

Answer B is the only one that gives us an intro to what is to come in the rest of the paragraph.

 

 

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Mastering the toughest ACT English questions requires knowing which tool to use for the job. 

 

How to Tackle the Hardest ACT English Questions

Now that you've seen what the ACT English section is ready to dish out, how can you get ready to meet its most difficult challenges?

Take Complexity Step By Step. Most of the hardest questions are difficult because they layer several rules, ideas, or concepts into one pile. Whenever this happens, your best bet is to untangle each part of the question and solve it on its own. Not only are you less likely to make mistakes if you work in simple steps, but often, solving one part of the question will lead you to find the right answer for the other parts as well.

Use the Process of Elimination. Another useful technique is to cross out the answers you know are wrong. After you've done this, look at what's different about the remaining answer choices. Often, you will realize what the question is testing by looking at these left-over answers and comparing the changes they suggest with the original text.

Balance Your Time Wisely. Earlier in this article, I told you that you would have only about 35 seconds to solve each ACT English question. But that's only if you spend the same amount of time on each of the questions in this section of the test. A better approach is to do a first pass through the section to solve the easiest questions as quickly as you can while still being precise. Then, you will have more time left to devote to the questions that need extra attention and care.

Trust Your Gut. If all else fails, try covering up all the answer choices (including the underlined original text), and read the rest of the passage. See if you can form your own opinion about:

  • the logical progression of the passage structure
  • the way the different sentences, or the different parts of one sentence, relate to one another
  • how you would fill in the blank space yourself

Then, try to find the answer choice that most closely matches your own thoughts, rather than being distracted by the answer choices. 

 

The Bottom Line

  • The most challenging questions on ACT English are difficult because they:
    • Check your understanding of more than one grammar, editing, or punctuation skill at the same time.
    • Have several answer choices that seem correct on first glance.
    • Force you to flip between detail-oriented, sentence or phrase-level observation and passage-wide comprehension.
    • Present counterfactual information.

  • Some ways to tackle these hardest questions on the test are:
    • Simplify multi-layered questions by solving each component by itself. 
    • Use the process of elimination to cross out obviously wrong answers, and then figure out what the question is testing by comparing the remaining answers to one another.
    • Balance your time wisely to have more time to spend on the most difficult questions. 
    • Try covering up the answer choices and rewriting the underlined piece of the passage yourself.

 

What’s Next?

Shooting for the top score on the ACT? Check out our article on 9 strategies to a perfect score on ACT English, our guide to getting a perfect ACT score, and a discussion of how many questions you can miss and still score a 36.

Need to study more for ACT English? Check out our guides for the best way to prepare for ACT English and boosting your overall ACT score in 10 days.

Wondering how you’ll stack up when you take the test? We’ve got an explanation of what a good/bad/excellent ACT score looks like, and advice on finding a target score.

 

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Dr. Anna Wulick
About the Author

Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.



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