In high school, I had a history teacher who was known for going off on tangents—he would start giving us his lesson on the French Revolution but end up telling us all about the Peregrine falcon. These facts were interesting, but they were hardly relevant to the issue at hand (how Marie Antoinette got her head chopped off).
Similarly, ACT English tests your ability to spot places where a passage veers off topic. Of course, it does so in it's own special way, which this post will cover! Here's what you'll need to understand to approach relevance questions with confidence:
- What relevance means on the ACT English section
- How you can spot relevance questions
- How to decide whether information is relevant
- Key ACT strategies for relevance questions
What is Relevance on the ACT?
ACT English prizes writing that is clear and concise, so the passages shouldn’t include any unnecessary information. Occasionally, questions will appear that test your ability to determine whether phrases or sentences are extraneous—these are relevance questions.
Keep in mind that relevance questions are very similar to redundancy questions, which are much more common. The two types of question operate on the same basic principle—cut anything you don't need—but relevance questions are about whether information adds to the point of the paragraph, while redundancy questions are about whether a word or phrase is repeating something that's already been said.
How to Spot Relevance Questions
Relevance questions aren't formatted any differently from the majority of ACT English questions, so they can be a bit tricky to spot. However there are two main clues you should watch for: some of the answers have a lot more words than others and the answers provide information that doesn't appear elsewhere in the passage.
Let's look at an example question from a real ACT:
There's nothing obviously wrong with this sentence, so we need to look at how the answer choices are different from each other: they all add information about the Navajo.
Given that the information provided by the three answer choices is basically the same but the phrasing is different, it would be easy to conclude that this is a wordiness question. However, we first need to determine whether the extra information is relevant.
The additional phrases in answers B, C, and D all describe the size of the Navajo—this information isn't given anywhere else, so it isn't redundant, but that doesn't mean it's necessary.
The size of the Navajo has nothing to do with their creation of a linguistic code, which is what the paragraph is about. As such, this information is irrelevant and shouldn't be included. A is the correct answer.
Now that we've established that relevance questions are ones in which some of the answers introduce new information, let's talk about how to decide whether the information is relevant.
How to Determine Relevance
The key to relevance questions is that you must not assume that more information is necessarily better. Though you may find providing as many details as possible a good strategy for your essays in school, doing so on the ACT English section will hurt your score.
So how do you determine if a piece of information is relevant? There are two issues to consider:
- Is the info related to main topic of of the sentence or paragraph?
- Does the sentence or paragraph still make logical and grammatical sense without it?
If the answer to the first question is no, then don't even worry about the second one—the information isn't relevant and should be omitted. (This principle applies to most of the relevance questions on the ACT, including the example above.)
Test items that do require you to consider the second question are a bit more challenging. If a piece of information seems like it might be relevant, consider whether it's necessary for your understanding of the passage. Does it clarify a previous point or introduce a key detail? If not, it probably isn't relevant.
This concept may seem complicated, but it's actually not too bad. Let's look at an example of relevant versus irrelevant information:
Irrelevant: Leonardo da Vinci, who is played by Patrick Godfrey in the movie Ever After, is the quintessential Renaissance man.
Relevant: Leonardo da Vinci, a famous artist, inventor, and scientist, is the quintessential Renaissance man.
The first underlined section adds information, but the actor who played da Vinci in a movie is not related to the fact he was a Renaissance man (someone who has great expertise across a variety of topics). The underlined portion of the second sentence, on the other hand, provides information that clarifies why da Vinci is a famous Renaissance man.
An example of da Vinci's work.
Let's work through this process on an ACT-style practice question:
Julia wanted to move into her brother's room after he graduated from high school, but she wasn't able to because he ended up living at home for his first year of college.
A. NO CHANGE
B. because he ended up living at home.
C. because he decided to major in biology.
D. OMIT the underlined portion, ending the sentence with a period after to.
At fist glance, this question might appear to be a wordiness question, since choice B shortens the original underlined portion. However, if you look closely at the different answers you'll see that they each provide different information—this fact makes it a relevance question.
Our next step is to summarize the main idea of the sentence: Julia wanted to take her brother's room but couldn't because he was still living in it. We can eliminate choice C, since the brother's choice of major is clearly not relevant to this topic.
The remaining choices involve deciding how much of the information in the original version is relevant: all of it, the first half of it, or none of it.
Let's start by deciding whether we should omit the whole underlined portion. What does this section of the sentence tell us? Why Julia can't have the room. The sentence would still make grammatical sense without this part, but it would be lacking a key piece of information, so we can eliminate D.
Finally, we have to choose between A and B. The correct choice is A because the phrase "for his first year of college" connects back to the fact that Julia was planning on taking her brother's room after he finished high school and helps to explain why she wasn't able to do so.
Most ACT English relevance questions will be much simpler than this one, but the process you use to answer them is the same.
It's important to keep in mind that even though most of the time the extra information will be irrelevant and need to be cut out, it will sometimes be necessary, so you always have to read the information carefully and decide.
Key ACT English Strategies for Relevance
Now that we've covered in depth how to spot and approach relevance questions, let's quickly review the main strategies you will need on the test.
#1: Watch for underlined sections where some of the answers include extra descriptive information.
#2: Omit information that isn't related to the main idea of the sentence or paragraph.
#3: Keep information that clarifies an important point or introduces a key detail.
If you follow these basic rules, relevance questions will be a snap!
Practice Your Skills!
After all that discussion, it's time for you to try out some relevant ACT English practice. Post your questions in the comments!
1. Because owls rely on their wings to hunt, wing injuries are major issues for the birds, which are nocturnal.
A. NO CHANGE
B. the nocturnal birds.
C. the birds.
D. the birds, which hunt at night.
2. Emily, who'd never been on a roller coaster before, was frightened by the height of the ride.
F. NO CHANGE
G. who loved amusement parks
H. a young woman
J. OMIT the underlined potion
3. Holi is an Hindu festival during which revelers throw colored dye into the air. Yom Kippur is the Jewish New Year. This practice, which results in participants skin and clothes being temporarily colored, has been adopted in the US for large parties and fun runs.
A. NO CHANGE
B. Another Hindu holiday is Diwali.
C. Everyone has a lot of fun.
D. OMIT the underlined portion.
Answers: 1. C, 2. F, 3. D
You made through that lesson! Onwards! (Image: Xiaojun Deng/Flickr)
Check whether you need to study any grammar concepts with this handy guide to what's actually on the ACT English section.
Practice makes perfect—test your skills on one of these free practice tests!
Want to improve your ACT score by 4 points?
Check out our best-in-class online ACT prep program. We guarantee your money back if you don't improve your ACT score by 4 points or more.
Our program is entirely online, and it customizes what you study to your strengths and weaknesses. If you liked this English lesson, you'll love our program. Along with more detailed lessons, you'll get thousands of practice problems organized by individual skills so you learn most effectively. We'll also give you a step-by-step program to follow so you'll never be confused about what to study next.
Check out our 5-day free trial:
Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
Alex is an experienced tutor and writer. Over the past five years, she has worked with almost a hundred students and written about pop culture for a wide range of publications. She graduated with honors from University of Chicago, receiving a BA in English and Anthropology, and then went on to earn an MA at NYU in Cultural Reporting and Criticism. In high school, she was a National Merit Scholar, took 12 AP tests and scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and ACT.