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Mastering the ACT: Grammar, Grammar, Grammar

The English section of the ACT is by far the easiest section for most students to improve with focused tutoring. The English test is broken up into five passages, each of which has 14 to 16 questions for a total of 75 questions. The allotted time to complete the English test is 45 minutes, which amounts to nine minutes per passage.

The test is broken up into two general types of questions: content questions and grammar questions. We'll tackle content questions in a later post. For now, it's all about grammar.

In order for students to nail the English test, the first key is to master the basic grammar concepts tested on the exam. Then, students need to learn how to recognize what concepts are being tested and apply the rules to choose the best answer.

Here are the need-to-know concepts to nail your English score:

1. Less is more. Simpler is better. Short (and specific) is sweet.

2. When in doubt, leave the comma out. Commas are used in three primary ways on this test:

  • In a list: "I quickly grew impatient with the wheezing, tinny notes that I produced with my harmonica."

  • After introductory phrases: "In 1988, she designed a memorial to honor individuals killed in the civil rights movement."

  • Around a parenthetical: "Joe Mauer, who was born in Saint Paul, plays first base for the Minnesota Twins."

3. Em Dashes (—) work just like the parenthetical commas. Hot tip: Look to see if there is another em dash in the sentence. If so, the answer with the em dash has a good chance of being correct.

  • Rather than barking, nipping, or biting, these dogs often used “the eye”—a commanding stare inherited from the dogs’ wolf ancestors—to quietly intimidate stubborn sheep into rejoining the flock.

4. Remember the name rule. You don’t need a comma when you are introducing a person’s name.

  • I met my teacher Mr. Porter by the entrance to the lobby.

5. Semicolons (;) are the same as periods.

  • Not much had changed in Pleasantville; the town still looked just like it had 20 years ago.

Make sure the portion before and after the semicolon can stand as complete sentences (subject, verb, direct object).

If two choices are exactly the same except one has a period and one has a semicolon, you can cross them both out. They can’t both be right; thus, they most both be wrong.

6. Colons (:) introduce a phrase that modifies or defines the word/phrase directly preceding the colon.

  • A liberal arts education creates citizens: people who can think broadly and critically about the world.

7. It’s vs. its: "It's" always means "It is."

  • It’s a nice day outside.

  • The dog walked over to its bowl.

8. Tense questions: Look for the tense of the other verbs in the paragraph. Keep the tense consistent.

9. Subject/Verb Agreement

  • "The pile of pencils is on my desk." Singular subject/singular verb (pile, is)

  • "The pencils are on my desk." Plural subject/plural verb (pencils, are)

10. Who vs. Whom

Who = He, she, it, they

  • Who is taking you to the dance? He or she is taking me to the dance.

Whom = Him, her, or them.

  • Whom are you going to the dance with? I am going with him or her.

(The answer is almost always who)

11. Active (Good) vs. Passive (Bad) Voice

Subject → Verb

  • Active (Good): I picked up the pencil.

  • Passive (Bad): The pencil was picked up by me.

12. Homonyms: Then is like when. Than is a comparison.

13. Possessive apostrophes: If the noun ends in "s," the apostrophe goes at the end.

  • Desdemona is in love with one of Othello’s officers.

  • My parents’ house is painted red.

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