Hire a tutor
ACT English Section: A Complete Guide

ACT English Section: A Complete Guide

8 min Read|May 24 2024
|Written by:

George Christofi


The ACT English section is your first encounter on the ACT test, serving as a critical gauge of your proficiency in English grammar, punctuation, and rhetoric. It's not just about knowing the rules of English but applying them in varied contexts to enhance written material. The section's format demands quick thinking and precision, rewarding those who can swiftly identify and rectify errors while maintaining coherence and style in passages. Understanding its structure and mastering its content areas are pivotal for anyone aiming to achieve a high score. With strategic preparation, you can navigate this section confidently, turning your knowledge of English into a tool for success on the ACT.

ACT English Format and Scoring

First, let's consider the format of the ACT English section and how it is scored.


  • Duration: 45 minutes segment
  • Number of Questions: 75 questions
  • Skills Assessed: Refining passages to improve clarity, usage, and consistency through two categories of questions: Usage/Mechanics and Rhetorical Skills.

ACT English Scoring

The ACT English section score ranges from 1 to 36, a composite derived from your raw score, which is the total count of questions answered correctly. This process involves adjusting your raw score to a scaled score. To learn more about how the ACT is scored, check out our guide to ACT scoring.

Subscores Categories

ACT English Scoring CategoryWeightage
Production of Writing29-32%
Knowledge of Language13-19%
Conventions of Standard English51-56%

Table Showing ACT Scoring Categories and Weightage

ACT English is scored using three categories:

  • Production of Writing: Assesses your ability to generate and organize ideas in writing. Accounts for 29-32% of your total score for the English section.
  • Knowledge of Language: Evaluates your understanding and application of language skills. Makes up for about 13-19% of your total score.
  • Conventions of Standard English: Tests grammar, punctuation, and usage. Accounts for 51-56% of your ACT English score.

Each subscore provides a count of correct responses, presented with a bar graph. This graph shows your performance percentage against the ACT Readiness Range, indicating the expected performance level for college readiness.

While colleges might not heavily weigh these subscores, they are useful for knowing which areas you may need improvement in if you're looking to improve your scores. For instance, if your subscore in "Conventions of Standard English" is low, you might focus on grammar exercises. Conversely, a lower "Production of Writing" score could prompt you to practice essay writing more intensely.

Understanding ACT English Types of Questions

The questions in the ACT English section can be broadly categorized into two main types:

  • Usage & Mechanics
  • Rhetorical Skills.

According to our expert ACT tutors, understanding the content and types of questions is the first step in effective preparation for each ACT section. Below, we expand on these categories before delving into them deeper in the following sections.


Grammar and Punctuation: At the core of the Usage/Mechanics questions are the rules of English grammar and punctuation. These questions test your ability to identify and correct grammatical errors, ensuring the clarity and precision of the sentences. For example, a question might highlight a common mistake in subject-verb agreement:

  • Incorrect: "The team of players are ready."
  • Correct: "The team of players is ready."

Sentence Structure: This facet focuses on the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences. It involves identifying issues like misplaced modifiers or improper use of conjunctions that can obscure the intended meaning. Consider the difference in clarity between these two sentences:

  • Incorrect: "Running through the park, the flowers smelled sweet."
  • Correct: "Running through the park, she smelled the sweet flowers."

Rhetorical Skills

Strategy and Organization: These questions evaluate your ability to organize ideas and structure passages effectively. They may ask you to choose the best placement for a sentence within a paragraph or to select a transition that improves the flow of ideas. For instance, determining the most logical sentence to introduce a contrasting point can test your understanding of passage organization.

Style and Tone: Here, the focus is on choosing words and structures that match the passage's intended tone and style. This might involve selecting a more formal or informal expression to suit the context or revising a sentence to make it more concise and impactful. For example:

  • Original: "The man was very tired because he hadn't slept well."
  • Revised: "Exhausted from a restless night, the man struggled to stay awake."

Educating yourself on these components not only prepares you for the types of questions you'll face but also arms you with strategies to tackle them. By practicing with specific examples and understanding the rationale behind each correct answer, you can develop a keen eye for common pitfalls and a stronger grasp of effective English usage and rhetoric.

Grammar and Usage

Understanding grammar and usage is pivotal for conquering the ACT English section. This part tests your knowledge of the foundational building blocks of English, focusing on correct grammar application, verb tenses, and pronoun usage. Let’s break down these concepts to ensure you have the tools needed to excel.

Subject-Verb Agreement

One common area of focus is ensuring that subjects and verbs agree in number. This might seem straightforward, but complex sentences can introduce confusion.

  • Example: In the sentence "The bouquet of flowers lends a pleasant scent to the room," 'bouquet' (not 'flowers') is the subject, requiring the singular verb 'lends.'
Expert Tip: Our English tutors often see students struggle with complex sentences. A helpful tip is to simplify the sentence in your mind or on scratch paper, isolating the subject and verb to check their agreement.

Verb Tense Consistency

Maintaining the correct and consistent tense throughout a passage is crucial. The ACT English section often includes sentences where verb tenses are inconsistent with the surrounding narrative.

  • Example: "She runs to the store yesterday" should be corrected to "She ran to the store yesterday" to match the past tense narrative.

Pronoun Clarity

Pronouns must clearly refer to a specific noun, and their usage must avoid ambiguity. The ACT tests your ability to choose the correct pronoun and ensure it clearly refers to its antecedent.

  • Example: In the sentence "When Sarah gave Ellen her book," it's unclear whether 'her' refers to Sarah or Ellen. Rewriting for clarity could involve specifying the owner directly.

Misplaced Modifiers

A modifier must be placed near the word it is supposed to modify. Misplaced modifiers can make the sentence confusing or unintentionally humorous.

  • Example: "Running to catch the bus, the backpack was left behind." This suggests the backpack was running, which is illogical. Correctly, it should be "Running to catch the bus, she left the backpack behind."

Parallel Structure

Using the same pattern of words to show that two or more ideas have the same level of importance is known as parallel structure. The ACT English section tests your ability to identify and correct deviations from parallelism in lists or comparisons.

  • Example: "She likes cooking, jogging, and to read" should be corrected to "She likes cooking, jogging, and reading" to maintain parallel structure.

Practice Strategy

Identify sentences or passages in your reading materials—whether in textbooks, online articles, or even social media posts—that demonstrate these grammatical concepts. Try rewriting sentences that contain errors, applying the rules you’ve learned. This active engagement with real-world text can make abstract grammar rules more concrete and understandable.

By familiarizing yourself with these common grammar and usage rules and practicing their application in a variety of contexts, you'll be well-equipped to handle the questions you'll encounter in the ACT English section. Remember, understanding the rationale behind grammatical structures is just as important as memorizing the rules, as it enables you to apply these concepts flexibly and accurately in test scenarios.

Mechanics of Writing

In the ACT English section, the mechanics of writing cover punctuation, the structure of sentences, and the grammatical integrity of the text. This area challenges test-takers to apply punctuation rules correctly and to structure sentences in a way that enhances clarity and readability. Let’s explore these components with examples to guide and educate on how to navigate these common pitfalls.


Correct use of punctuation marks is crucial for clear communication. The ACT tests your knowledge of commas, apostrophes, semicolons, and colons, among others.

  • Commas: Used to separate items in a list, after an introductory phrase, or to set off non-essential information. Example: "Before going to the party, Sam, who was already running late, decided to grab a quick coffee."
  • Apostrophes: Indicate possession or the omission of letters. Example: "Jen’s book" shows possession, while "it’s" is a contraction for "it is."
  • Semicolons: Join two independent clauses that are closely related but could stand as sentences on their own. Example: "He finished the project on time; his manager was very pleased."
"Learn the personality of each punctuation mark," our English tutors say. "For example, a semicolon is like a soft period, linking closely related ideas. Practice using different punctuation marks in your writing to see how they change the flow and clarity of your sentences."

Sentence Structure

The ACT English section tests your ability to identify and correct issues in sentence structure, such as run-on sentences and sentence fragments.

  • Run-on Sentences: Occur when two or more independent clauses are connected improperly. Example Correction: Change "She loves to read she goes to the library every week." to "She loves to read; she goes to the library every week."
  • Sentence Fragments: Are incomplete sentences that lack a subject, a verb, or both. Example Correction: Change "Running late for the meeting." to "She was running late for the meeting."

Get expert help with the ACT

The world's leading online ACT tutors trusted by students, parents, and schools globally.

4.92/5 based on480 reviews

Misplaced and Dangling Modifiers

A common issue in sentence structure is the misplaced and dangling modifier, which occurs when the modifier (a word, phrase, or clause that describes something else) is separated from the word it is supposed to modify, leading to confusion or unintended meaning.

  • Misplaced Modifier: Example: "On her way home, the rain began to fall on Susan." should be "On her way home, Susan felt the rain begin to fall."
  • Dangling Modifier: Example: "After finishing the assignment, the TV was turned on." should be "After finishing the assignment, she turned on the TV."

Practice Strategy

To master the mechanics of writing, actively engage with written material by identifying sentences that correctly use punctuation and those that do not. Rewrite incorrect sentences to practice applying punctuation rules and correcting sentence structure. Additionally, when reading, pay special attention to how authors use modifiers, and try to create your own sentences that mimic this correct usage.

By understanding these key components of writing mechanics and practicing their application, you'll improve both your ability to spot errors and your overall writing skills. This knowledge will be invaluable not only for the ACT English section but for your academic and professional writing endeavors.

Rhetorical Skills

The Rhetorical Skills questions on the ACT English section test your ability to effectively use language to communicate ideas in writing. This section evaluates your understanding of strategy, organization, and style, focusing on how effectively you can improve a passage's clarity and impact. Here's how to approach these aspects with examples to guide you.


These questions assess your ability to choose the most effective approach to convey an idea or argument. This might involve selecting the best evidence to support a claim, determining the most logical placement for a sentence, or identifying the purpose of a paragraph within the context of the passage.

  • Example: A question may present a sentence that introduces a counterargument and ask where it best fits within a passage to strengthen the author’s position.


Organization questions test your ability to structure ideas logically. You might be asked to identify the best introductory or concluding sentence for a paragraph, rearrange sentences to improve flow, or determine the most coherent order for a series of paragraphs.

  • Example: You may be given a paragraph with sentences detailing steps in a process out of order and asked to select the option that correctly sequences the steps.


Style questions focus on word choice, tone, and conciseness. They require you to choose alternatives that enhance the passage’s readability and effectiveness, such as replacing jargon with clear language, selecting a more appropriate word for the tone of the passage, or eliminating redundancy.

  • Example: A sentence in the passage might read, "The scientist made an observation that the plant grows more quickly in sunlight than in the shade." A question could ask you to choose a revision that makes this sentence more concise, like "The scientist observed that plants grow faster in sunlight."
Expert Tip: For style questions, our IB tutors recommend practicing rewriting sentences to match different tones. Adjusting a sentence to sound more formal or informal, based on the context, is a valuable skill that can help with these questions.

Practice Strategy

To hone your rhetorical skills, engage in active reading of diverse materials, such as essays, opinion pieces, and articles. Analyze the author’s strategy, organization, and style, considering how these elements contribute to the effectiveness of the piece. Practice rewriting sentences or paragraphs to improve clarity, logic, or impact, focusing on the principles of good rhetorical skills.

By developing a keen understanding of how language can be used strategically to communicate ideas, and by practicing these skills in a variety of contexts, you'll be well-prepared to tackle the Rhetorical Skills questions on the ACT English section. This practice will not only improve your test scores but also enhance your overall writing and critical thinking abilities.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Beyond the mechanics of grammar and punctuation, the ACT English section challenges test-takers with nuanced pitfalls that can catch even well-prepared students off-guard. To navigate these hurdles effectively, consider the following additional strategies and tips.

Overlooking Context

  • Problem: Focusing too closely on individual words or phrases without considering the entire sentence or passage context can lead to incorrect answers.
  • Tip: Always read the surrounding text before selecting an answer. This ensures you understand the context and how the sentence fits within the overall passage.

Misinterpreting the Question

  • Problem: Sometimes, questions are phrased in a way that might lead to misunderstanding what is being asked, particularly with rhetorical skills questions.
  • Tip: Carefully read each question and answer choice. Look for keywords or phrases in the question that indicate what it’s specifically asking about, such as "most logically" or "best adds emphasis."

Second-Guessing Yourself

  • Problem: Changing answers from correct to incorrect based on second-guessing can lower your score.
  • Tip: If you have a strong initial instinct about an answer, stick with it unless you find clear evidence to the contrary upon review. Practice tests can help you build confidence in your first instincts.

Ignoring Conciseness

"Brevity is the soul of wit—and of the ACT English section," ACT tutors often remind students. "Practice trimming down sentences to their essential components to get a feel for this."
  • Problem: Longer, more complex answers might seem more sophisticated but often, the ACT English section prioritizes conciseness and clarity.
  • Tip: When faced with two seemingly correct answers, lean towards the more concise option, provided it conveys the information effectively and accurately.

Neglecting Practice in Weaker Areas

  • Problem: It's natural to practice more on sections where you feel confident, but neglecting weaker areas can limit your score improvement.
  • Tip: Use practice tests to identify your weak areas, then focus your study on those topics. This targeted practice can lead to significant improvements in your overall score.

Assuming Outside Knowledge Is Required

  • Problem: Some questions might seem like they require outside knowledge, but the ACT English section is designed to be self-contained.
  • Tip: Trust that the correct answer can be determined using only the information provided in the passage. Avoid overthinking or applying external knowledge unless it’s directly relevant to applying grammar or rhetorical principles.

Relying Solely on "What Sounds Right"

  • Problem: While having a good ear for the English language can be helpful, relying solely on what "sounds right" can lead to mistakes, especially with more nuanced grammar rules.
  • Tip: Develop a solid understanding of grammar rules and rhetorical principles. This way, you can confidently choose answers based on knowledge rather than intuition alone.

By being aware of these pitfalls and adopting strategies to avoid them, you can refine your approach to the ACT English section. Practice, coupled with a thoughtful review of your mistakes, will help you develop a more effective and accurate test-taking strategy, boosting your performance on exam day.

Strategies for Success

Tackling the ACT English section with confidence requires more than just a solid understanding of grammar rules and writing mechanics; it demands strategic preparation and a savvy approach to test-taking. Here are key strategies to help you navigate this section more effectively and boost your score.

Familiarize Yourself with the Test Format

  • Key Insight: Knowing the structure of the English section, and the ACT exam format in general, inside and out can significantly reduce test-day anxiety and improve your time management.
  • Action Steps: Review the breakdown of question types and passages. Practice with full-length practice tests under timed conditions to get used to the pace and pressure of the test. "Understand not just the types of questions asked, but also the rationale behind each correct answer," our College Admissions tutors recommend.

Practice Active Reading

  • Key Insight: Active reading helps improve comprehension and retention, critical for parsing complex sentences and identifying subtle errors.
  • Action Steps: As you practice, underline or highlight key information in passages and questions. Make notes of errors you identify before looking at the answer choices, which can help you choose the correct answer more confidently.

Develop a Systematic Approach for Each Question Type

  • Key Insight: Different question types require different approaches. Having a specific strategy for grammar, punctuation, strategy, and style questions can make your review process more efficient.
  • Action Steps: For grammar and punctuation questions, check each option against the rule it tests. For rhetorical skills questions, consider the passage's overall organization and purpose before choosing an answer.

Learn to Eliminate Wrong Answers

  • Key Insight: The ability to quickly eliminate incorrect answer choices can streamline your decision-making process and increase your chances of selecting the correct answer.
  • Action Steps: Look for common distractors, such as non-parallel structure or overly wordy choices. If an answer choice corrects one error but introduces another, it’s wrong.

Review and Learn from Your Mistakes

  • Key Insight: Every mistake on a practice test is an opportunity to learn. Understanding why you got a question wrong is crucial for avoiding similar mistakes in the future.
  • Action Steps: After each practice test or quiz, spend time reviewing each incorrect answer. Identify the rule or principle you overlooked or misunderstood, and study that area more closely before attempting another practice test.

Prioritize Time Management

  • Key Insight: With 75 questions to answer in 45 minutes, time management is critical. You need to move quickly, but also allow yourself enough time to consider each question carefully.
  • Action Steps: Develop a pacing strategy that allows you to spend more time on passages or questions that are challenging for you. Consider spending less time on the initial read-through to save more time for answering questions.

Use High-Quality Study Materials

  • Key Insight: "Not all practice materials are created equal," College Admissions tutors warn. The quality of your study materials can greatly impact your preparation effectiveness. High-quality materials mimic the style and difficulty of the actual test.
  • Action Steps: Use official ACT practice tests and reputable prep books. Online resources can also be valuable, especially those that offer explanations for each answer.

By integrating these strategies into your study plan, you're not just preparing to succeed on the ACT English section; you're also cultivating skills that will serve you well in college and beyond. Remember, consistent practice, combined with strategic preparation, is key to improving your performance and achieving your desired score.


As you wrap up your preparation for the ACT English section, keep in mind the essence of what makes for successful test-taking: understanding, practice, and strategy. The journey to achieving a high score involves more than just learning rules; it's about applying them in a way that enhances both your comprehension and your ability to communicate effectively. Your dedication to studying and practicing will undoubtedly pay off, not just in your ACT scores but in your overall mastery of the English language. Remember, confidence on test day comes from the hours of hard work you've put in. Trust in your preparation, stay calm, and approach each question with the knowledge and skills you've honed. Good luck!


How often is the ACT offered annually?

The ACT is scheduled seven times a year in the United States, U.S. territories, and Puerto Rico, with six international test dates annually, ensuring wide accessibility for students around the globe. This scheduling provides ample opportunities for juniors and seniors in high school to find convenient times to take the exam as part of their college application process. It's critical for students to plan their test dates in advance, considering their college application deadlines, to ensure scores are received on time. The selection of dates includes months throughout the school year and the summer, offering flexibility for students with varying schedules and extracurricular commitments.

Can I retake individual ACT sections?

As of the latest updates, the ACT does not permit the retake of individual sections to improve overall composite scores. Students aiming to enhance their scores must register for and retake the entire exam. This policy encourages a holistic approach to test preparation, as students must maintain or improve their proficiency across all sections. Strategic planning for retakes, considering potential score improvements and the timing relative to college application deadlines, becomes essential for those looking to boost their composite scores.

Are ACT practice tests free?

The ACT organization and various educational resources offer free practice tests to aid students in their preparation. These practice materials are designed to mirror the format and types of questions on the actual test, providing crucial insight into the exam's structure and content. Engaging with these practice tests allows students to identify areas of strength and weakness, refine their test-taking strategies, and build confidence ahead of their test date. This accessibility to preparatory materials plays a significant role in democratizing the test preparation process, offering all students the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the ACT irrespective of their financial resources.

How long is the ACT with breaks?

The ACT, inclusive of breaks, extends to approximately 3 hours and 35 minutes, incorporating a 10-minute break after the Math section and a 5-minute break post the multiple-choice sections for test-takers also completing the Writing section. This overall duration increases to around 3 hours and 50 minutes for those opting for the essay, accounting for the additional writing time. These breaks are strategically placed to help students manage their stamina and maintain peak performance throughout the duration of the test, acknowledging the mental endurance required.

What calculators are allowed on the ACT?

The ACT's calculator policy allows for most graphing calculators, all scientific calculators, and four-function calculators, provided they do not have built-in computer algebra systems. This policy is designed to ensure fairness and integrity in the testing process, preventing any advantage that could arise from the use of advanced computational tools. Students are encouraged to consult the ACT's official list of approved calculators prior to the test day to ensure compliance and avoid any issues during the examination. This approach balances the need for computational tools with the test's focus on assessing mathematical reasoning and problem-solving skills under standardized conditions.

Is the ACT English section adaptive?

The ACT English section follows a linear, non-adaptive format, meaning all test-takers receive the same questions, regardless of their individual performance levels. This standardized approach ensures that every examinee is evaluated under the same criteria, providing a fair and equitable assessment of their English language and grammar skills. Unlike adaptive tests that adjust difficulty based on the test-taker's responses, the ACT's consistent question set allows for a direct comparison of scores across different test administrations, reinforcing the reliability of the exam's outcomes.

Do colleges prefer ACT or SAT?

Colleges and universities in the United States express no preference for the ACT over the SAT, accepting scores from both exams for admission considerations. This neutrality affords students the freedom to choose the test that best aligns with their strengths and testing preferences, facilitating a more representative demonstration of their academic capabilities. Decisions between the two tests should be based on personal comfort with the exam formats, content emphasis, and practice test performances, rather than perceived advantages in college admissions. This flexibility supports a more inclusive and accessible college application process.

How is the ACT scored?

Each of the four mandatory sections of the ACT (English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science) is scored on a scale of 1 to 36. These section scores are averaged to calculate a composite score, which represents the overall performance of a test-taker. If the optional Writing section is taken, it is scored separately on a scale of 2 to 12 and does not affect the composite score. This scoring system emphasizes the importance of consistent performance across all areas tested, providing a comprehensive assessment of a student's academic readiness for college-level work. The clear and transparent scoring rubric aids students and colleges alike in understanding and interpreting the results within the context of each student's academic readiness for college-level work.

Can I use notes during the ACT?

The use of notes or any unauthorized materials during the ACT is strictly prohibited to maintain the integrity and fairness of the testing process. Test-takers are allowed to bring only approved items, such as pencils, a permitted calculator, and a valid photo ID, into the testing center. This policy ensures that all students are assessed under equal conditions, relying solely on their preparation and knowledge. The prohibition of notes and other aids underscores the importance of thorough preparation and familiarity with the test material, as students must draw entirely on their understanding and problem-solving skills during the exam.

Are there penalties for wrong answers on the ACT?

The ACT scoring model does not penalize test-takers for wrong answers, adopting a "rights-only" scoring approach. This policy encourages students to attempt every question on the exam, as guessing can only potentially increase their score. By eliminating the penalty for incorrect answers, the ACT aims to reduce test-taking anxiety and encourage a more strategic approach to answering questions, especially when test-takers are unsure of the correct response. This scoring strategy is designed to more accurately reflect students' knowledge and skills, providing a fair measure of their academic capabilities without the added pressure of strategic omissions.

Need help from an expert?

4.92/5 based on480 reviews

The world’s top online tutoring provider trusted by students, parents, and schools globally.

Study and Practice for Free

Trusted by 100,000+ Students Worldwide

Achieve Top Grades in your Exams with our Free Resources.

Practice Questions, Study Notes, and Past Exam Papers for all Subjects!

Need Extra Help?

Looking to ace the ACT English section? Connect with our ACT tutors for personalized guidance and expert tutoring to elevate your journey to success!



Professional tutor and Cambridge University researcher

George Christofi

Written by: George Christofi

Oxford University - Masters Philosophy

George studied undergraduate and masters degrees in Classics and Philosophy at Oxford, as well as spending time at Yale. He specialises in helping students with UK and US university applications, including Oxbridge and the Ivy League. He writes extensively on education including on schools, universities, and pedagogy.

Get Expert Help
background image

Hire a tutor

Please fill out the form and we'll find a tutor for you

Phone number (with country code)

Still have questions? Let’s get in touch.