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What's Actually Tested on the ACT English Section?


Are you planning to take the ACT soon? Curious about what the English section is like? It's more than just correcting grammar and recognizing proper punctuation. In this post we will break down exactly what the ACT English section tests. 


What Is the ACT English Section Like?

The ACT English section is a 75-question, 45-minute test. That comes out to just 36 seconds per question! So you will have to work pretty quickly to complete each question before you run out of time.

Also, be aware this is always the first section of the ACT, so you need to be ready to tackle it very early on a Saturday morning. Do some warm-up problems at home so you’re not starting this section cold.

Each English test has five essays or passages, each of which is accompanied by a sequence of multiple-choice questions. Some of the questions ask about specific phrases or sentences in the passage, and some ask about a paragraph or the entire passage as a whole. We will explore what those questions specifically test below.


What Does ACT English Cover?

ACT English tests two broad content areas. The first is Usage and Mechanics (including punctuation, grammar, usage, and sentence structure). The second is Rhetorical Skills (including strategy, organization, and style). Usage and Mechanics requires fine-tuned punctuation and grammar knowledge. Rhetorical Skills focuses on your comprehending of the passage as a whole and your ability to maximize the passage's organization and style.

You'll receive a subscore for each of those two categories, though keep in mind that your overall section score is more important. (For more about how the ACT is scored, see our post!) So rather than worry about the subscore you'll get for each section, just use those two categories to help guide your studying.

Spelling and vocabulary aren’t tested on ACT English. And while grammar rules are tested, you will be working with passages, meaning you can use context to help you find the correct answers. You won't be expected to know tricky, obscure grammar rules in isolation.

Now let's look at each subsection in depth, and show you some practice questions to give you an idea of what you will face on ACT English.


Subsection 1: Usage/Mechanics

Think of this as the nitty-gritty, detailed portion of the English test. You have to know punctuation rules, grammar rules, and how to construct a sentence properly to do well on this part. One trick for these questions is to pretend you're editing a paper for class. Choose the answers that make the passage as clear and precise as possible. 


Punctuation (10-15%)

These questions test conventions of internal and end-of sentence punctuation. In other words, you have to understand correct comma, apostrophe, period, and semicolon use.

Punctuation questions emphasize the relationship of punctuation to meaning. In other words, how can you use punctuation to make sure the writing is as clear as possible? Make sure to take the entire sentence into account, even if the question asks about the punctuation of just a short phrase. Check out the example below to see what we mean.




Source: ACT Assessment Practice Multiple-Choice Test.


Although the question is asking about the correct punctuation to use for the phrase "charcoal gray suits," you have to take the entire sentence into account to make sure you choose the correct answer choice. The phrase comes at the end of a list of various subway passengers, ending with "a group of stockbrokers in crisp, charcoal gray suits."  Since commas are used to separate items in lists, you do not need to add a comma after the last item in a list. Thus, you can leave this phrase alone and select F., No Change.

In other words, our process here was to take into account the sentence as a whole, and use that to guide our punctuation choice. Never focus on just the short phrase when doing ACT English questions. Always make sure your answer choice makes sense in the entire sentence.


Grammar and Usage (15-20%)

These questions test your understanding of grammar rules like agreement between subject and verb, agreement between pronoun and antecedent, and agreement between modifiers and the word modified. Verb formation, pronoun case, and formation of comparative and superlative adjectives and adverbs are also tested. Finally, you have to be aware of idiomatic usage.

While we won't explain each individual grammar rule in this post, you can refer to our complete ACT grammar guide to get a more in-depth look at what you'll see on this section. And check out the example below to see what an ACT grammar question can look like.





 Source: ACT Assessment Practice Multiple-Choice Test.


The question is seeing if you can identify correct and incorrect forms of a verb tense. You have to decide which of the four answer choices would be incorrect. One simple way to do this is to plug each of the answer choices into the sentence and see if they fit correctly. By doing this, it's easy to pick out that choice H., "played," does not fit in the sentence, making it the right answer.

This question is an example of an ACT English question that asks you which choice is NOT acceptable in the sentence. Make sure you are reading these questions carefully so you don't make the silly mistake of choosing an answer that is acceptable in the sentence!


Sentence Structure (20-25%)

These questions test your understanding of relationships between and among clauses, placement of modifiers, and shifts in construction. So while the previous two question types tested punctuation and grammar in short phrases, these questions your ability to understand the relationship between clauses in order to form correct sentences. Check out the example below to see what this looks like.




 Source: ACT Assessment Practice Multiple-Choice Test.


Even though the question only looks like it's asking about a few words, it's actually testing your ability to link the clauses "About three and half million people a day ride the subways" and "I think maybe I might have possibly have met them all."  As it stands, these clauses have been grouped next to each other with nothing to link them, so choice A (No Change) can't be correct. So now you have to decide the word that best links the two clauses. Testing the choices in the sentence, only choice B. "subways, and" makes sense. The conjunction "and" links the two clauses as a sequence. The other two choices, "which" and "actually," would imply comparison which doesn't make sense in context.

In short, make sure to keep an eye on the sentence as a whole and find the answer that makes the relationship between clauses as clear and natural as possible.


Subsection 2: Rhetorical Skills

Think of this as the “big picture” part of the ACT English test. Rather than correcting individual sentences, you are now thinking about the passage and argument as a whole. You have to find the answer choices that make the ideas, organization, and style of the passage the clearest. We'll dive into the subcategories below.


Strategy (15-20%)

Strategy questions test how well you can develop a given topic by choosing words or phrases that match an essay's audience and purpose. You also have to judge the effect of adding, revising, or deleting supporting material. Ask yourself, does the extra material add to the argument, or just confuse it?

You have to judge the relevance of possible additional statements in context, and choose whether to include them or not. For these questions, you have to take the entire passage into account and carefully consider whether the possible revision clarifies or confuses the passage's message. For example, check out the example below, which asks about the entire passage.

body_strategy-2.jpg Source: ACT Assessment Practice Multiple-Choice Test. 


You have to figure out two things: first, whether or not you should make the addition, and second, why you should or should not. We won't make you read the entire passage for this post, but when faced with a style question like this, consider the material the passage has already introduced. Would adding the sentence enhance the passage's point or confuse it? Only choose to add a statement if it directly ties to information already introduced in the passage.


Organization (10-15%)

The organization questions test how well you organize ideas and choose effective opening, transitional, and closing sentences. These questions tend to focus on the beginning and ends of paragraphs, so again, it's important to have a solid grasp of the passage's meaning as a whole to do well here.

Here's an example of what an organization question might ask:




Source: Preparing for the ACT, 2014-15.


Given the content of the paragraph, you need to find the choice that most naturally leads into the first sentence. The paragraph starts with a description of biking that leads into a longer description of nature. Although this makes choice C, "Nature always impresses me," tempting, you need to make sure the first few sentences still make sense. In this case, "Bicyclists streak past" best introduces the description of bikers. This makes the answer A, "No Change."

For organization questions, make sure to consider both the paragraph's overall point, but also think about how to make smooth, logical transitions.


Style (15-20%)

These questions test how well you select precise and appropriate words and images, maintain the level of style and tone in an essay, manage sentence elements for rhetorical effectiveness, and avoid ambiguous pronoun references, wordiness, and redundancy. Again, it's important to have a solid grasp of the passage's tone and meaning to get these questions right.





Source: Preparing for the ACT, 2014-15.


The question asks you to choose a phrase that communicates the narrator's "positive, friendly attitude." The phrase in the passage, "moves slowly," as well as choice C, "proceeds carefully," are pretty neutral, so you can eliminate them. Choice B, "travels safely," is positive but not particularly friendly. This leaves choice D, "purrs softly," as the correct answer.

For style questions, make sure you focus on identifying the passage's tone and choose words or phrases that add to it.


What’s Next?

Not sure if you’re up to speed on grammar rules? We have a complete guide to all of the grammar you need to know for ACT English.

Ready to try some practice questions? Check out our links to free, official ACT practice tests to try out a full English section for yourself.

Want to ace this section? We have nine strategies to get a perfect 36 on ACT English.



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Halle Edwards
About the Author

Halle Edwards graduated from Stanford University with honors. In high school, she earned 99th percentile ACT scores as well as 99th percentile scores on SAT subject tests. She also took nine AP classes, earning a perfect score of 5 on seven AP tests. As a graduate of a large public high school who tackled the college admission process largely on her own, she is passionate about helping high school students from different backgrounds get the knowledge they need to be successful in the college admissions process.

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