What’s on the ACT English Test?

You may be wondering what to expect when you open the ACT exam booklet for the first time, especially with the ACT English Test section. After you have bubbled in your personal information, the proctor will ask that you flip to the first section: English. This section of the test consists of 75 questions and has a time cap of 45 minutes. This means that you must complete each question in a little over 30 seconds. The test is structured into five passages with multiple choice questions. While it may seem intimidating at first, one of the best ways to prepare for a standardized test is to know what to expect. Below you will find information regarding the test content as well as helpful tips to conquer the ACT English section.

Go out and conquer this test section!

Part One: Usage and Mechanics

A large portion of the ACT English section tests students on usage and mechanics. This includes everything from punctuation rules to verb tense. The good news is that time spent simply refreshing your memory on usage and mechanics can really help improve your ACT score as it makes up over half of the English section. Below you will find a review of several grammar concepts that you can expect to see on the ACT English.

Fragments vs. Complete Sentences

A sentence must consist of a subject and verb as well as convey a complete thought. Almost all grammar rules trace back to this fundamental concept, so it is important that you understand exactly what constitutes a complete sentence. A tricky question that you might see on the ACT English test is several linked prepositional phrases disguised as a sentence.

Example: The beautifully designed architecture of the magnificent cathedral with large columns and stained glass windows.

Despite the details provided and the lengthiness, this phrase is not a sentence and is actually considered a fragment.


Commas have a total of six different uses. Some are used more often than others, but you can expect to see all usage types on the ACT English.

1. Interruption/Appositive: An interruption, also known as an appositive, is a way of separating additional information from the sentence. The interruption must be separated from the sentence by enclosing it with commas.

Example: Kim, a softball player, is headed to her afternoon practice.

2. Introductory Clause: An introductory clause provides information to “set the stage” for the sentence that follows. It does not have its own subject and verb and must be followed by a comma.

Example: Upset by the bad call, the crowd began yelling loudly at the referee.

NOTE: Be careful that the subject modified by the introductory clause is located immediately after the comma. The example below is incorrect because the referee was not upset by the call, the crowd was.

Example: Upset by the bad call, the referee was being yelled at by the crowd.” This is incorrect.

3. List: Commas are also used to separate items in a list. It should be noted that the comma before the word “and” is technically optional, but the ACT tends to leave it in.

Example: I went to the grocery store and picked up eggs, bread, and milk.

It is important to look for “parallel language” when distinguishing the correct form for a list. The words should be listed in a similar pattern rather than awkwardly mismatched. A “bad” example is given below.

Example: I like to run, go biking, and swim on occasion. This is a bad example.

Example: I like running, biking, and swimming. This is a good example because the list follows the same structural word pattern.

4. Separating sentences with a coordinating conjunction and comma: Commas can also be used to separate complete sentences. If both sides of the punctuation are complete thoughts with subjects and verbs, then they can be separated with a comma and coordinating conjunction, or “FANBOY” words. (FANBOY words: For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet)

Example: I spent the day browsing through antique shops, and I bought several unique picture frames.

FANBOY to the rescue!

5. Separating adjectives: Adjectives provide descriptions for nouns used in a sentence. However, when more than one adjective is used then they must be separated by a comma.

Example: The large, brown dog chased me the entire way home.

Be aware that both adjectives need to describe the noun. The example below provides an instance where the first adjective describes the second adjective making the first word an adverb instead. This is often seen in colors: bright blue, lime green, etc.

Example: The dark brown dog chased me the entire way home.

6. Afterthoughts: Afterthoughts function similarly to the introductory clause we discussed earlier. They provide additional information to expand on the content discussed in the sentence.

Example: The baseball game was a blowout, fifteen to zero.


Dashes have two conventional uses in grammar. You will notice that these are identical to two of the concepts previously discussed with commas.

1. Interruptions/appositives: Dashes can be used in place of commas for interruptions. However, the interruption must be enclosed by two commas OR two dashes. You cannot have both a comma and a dash for an interruption.

Example: Rachel- a musician- practiced every afternoon.

2. Afterthoughts: A dash can also be used in place of a comma for an afterthought.

Example: Charlie’s hair was different than that of his blonde family- dark and curly.


Colons have three total uses with some overlap with the previously discussed concepts for commas and dashes

1. Lists: Colons can be used to separate a descriptive list from the sentence. The colon must follow a complete sentence.

Example: I went to the grocery store and purchased several items: eggs, bread, milk, and flour.

2. Afterthoughts: In addition to commas and dashes, colons can be used for afterthoughts.

Example: Rachel was overwhelmed with the feelings that accompanied applying to college: stress and excitement.

1. Separating sentences: Colons can be used for separating complete sentences if the second sentence restates or explains the first.

Example: Brent purchased an ultra-durable backpack: it was reinforced with double stitching and water resistant.

Semicolons and Periods

Semicolons and periods can both be used to separate complete sentences.

Example: The oak tree stood tall and magnificent in the field; its branches provided excellent shade for the hot, summer day.

Example: I went on a twelve-hour hike through the winding trails of the mountains. I was exhausted when I finally got home.


Apostrophes frequently appear on test questions for the ACT English test. There are three uses for possession and one for contractions.

1. Singular possession: Singular words require that the apostrophe be placed prior to the “s” at the end of the word.

Example: Rachel’s backpack was extremely heavy.

2. Plural possession: Plural words require that the apostrophe be placed after the “s” at the end of the word.

Example: The three girls’ play area was extremely cluttered.

3. Possession in words already plural: If a word is already indicated as plural due to different spelling (women, men, etc.), then the apostrophe goes before the last “s” in the word.

Example: The women’s restroom needed to be cleaned.

4. Contractions: An apostrophe can be used to indicate the combination of words.

Example: She doesn’t want to attend the Mardi Gras ball tonight.


The ACT English frequently tests on verb usage. It is important to identify whether a subject is singular or plural in order to identify the correct verb.

Example: He sits.

Example: They sit.

Additionally, be sure that you read multiple sentences to identify what the proper verb tense is. However, watch out for verbs embedded in prepositional phrases as they may not be the same tense as the rest of the passage.


Questions often pop up on the English section asking whether a pronoun should be singular or plural. It is important to identify the correct noun the pronoun is referring back to in order to succeed in these questions.

Example: Each of the boys took his seat on the bus. “Each” is singular and needs the singular pronoun “his”

Example: All of the boys took their seats on the bus. “All” is plural and need the plural pronoun “their”

Part Two: Organization and Rhetoric

The remaining content tested on the ACT English test section focuses on organization and rhetoric. These questions require that you think about the passage as a whole rather than individual sentences. You will find a guide to several question styles below that require you to take into account the style, organization, and ideas of the passage.

Sentence and Paragraph Organization

The ACT English test has questions that ask about the organization of sentences within a paragraph. It is important to look for logical transitions between sentences. They should reflect back on the ideas of the sentence prior and successfully set up the ideas of the next sentence. It is important to maintain fluidity throughout the paragraph. Additionally, questions may ask about the best sentences to introduce or conclude a paragraph. Focus on the main idea of the paragraph and passage to successfully answer these questions.

Similar to sentence organization, paragraphs must follow logical patterns. Ideas should transition smoothly from paragraph to paragraph in order to deliver a clear main idea. Pay attention to the order of events and development of ideas when identifying the correct paragraph organization.


Transitions help an author shift between ideas and topics. There are three general types of transitions: addition, contrast, and cause/effect. Addition transitions further expand or emphasize a topic while contrast transitions show another point of view. Cause/effect transitions show the relationship between topics. It is vital that the entire sentence and even the sentences before and after are considered when answering these questions. Context is needed in order to identify the correct style transition. Additionally, if two answer choices are both the same transition type then they cannot both be right. You can rule both answers out if this is the case.

  • Addition Transition Examples: Also, indeed, additionally, furthermore, etc.
  • Contrast Transition Examples: However, yet, nevertheless, despite this, etc.
  • Cause/Effect Examples: Therefore, consequently, thus, as a result, etc.

I think this is a cause/effect example…

Conceptual (Yes/No)

Conceptual questions test on your understanding of the main purpose, topic relevance, and essay audience. These questions consist of yes/no responses and supporting arguments. The entire passage must be considered in order to correctly answer these questions. Questions often ask whether or not information should be kept, added, or deleted. Consider whether or not the information contributes to the main idea and is relative to the passage audience before choosing an answer. Additionally, you should ensure that the information aligns with the style and tone of the passage.

Concision and Tone

The ACT English also has questions regarding stylistic content, specifically with regard to concision and tone. It is best to use only words necessary to convey an idea. This eliminates redundancy and enhances communication. In other words, shortest is usually best. Furthermore, the tone of the essay should always be maintained when selecting answer choices. This means that if the overall tone is “fun and carefree” then an answer choice that is “cold and analytical” would not be the best fit. The types of adjectives used throughout the passage are typically the best indicator of the overall passage tone.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully this information provides clarity into what to expect on the ACT English section. Although this information gives a solid baseline, a little more help can go a long way! We recommend that you schedule a test prep consultation with one of Testive’s Student Success Advisors to discuss your college plans and test prep needs. We would love to help you reach your goals!

By |2020-03-30T15:18:31+00:00March 30th, 2020|ACT, Uncategorized|

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