Some ACT English questions are about choosing the best answer not based on grammatical correctness, but rather style or tone.
Quite frequently on the test, you’ll come across a phrase or sentence that isn’t technically grammatically incorrect, but nevertheless is confusing, wordy, or poorly written. Your job in these instances is to help the writer out with his or her style. Not everyone can be as cool as you.
(Shakespeare knew a lot about style.)
In other instances, you’ll need to change a word or phrase that clashes with the tone of the essay. Or you might need to eliminate ambiguous pronoun references, redundant material, or awkward expressions. Since there aren’t hard rules about style, style questions on the ACT can sometimes be a little trickiest, so let’s break down the common types roughly from the easiest to hardest errors to spot.
If you don’t know to be looking out for redundancy, you may not catch these errors. But once you know to watch out for them, points galore!
Here’s an example:
Annually, I donate to the scholarship fund each year.
Since “annually” means every year, we don’t need to say “each year.”
Most of the time, redundancy questions are easy to spot as long as you make sure to read before and after the underlined portion in case the repetitiveness is elsewhere in the sentence.
A BIG CLUE to look out for is an answer choice that says “OMIT the underlined portion.” That doesn’t always mean you should, but it is a big flashing signal that you very well might be dealing with a redundancy question and that omitting the underlined portion would fix it.
Sometimes a pronoun might not be grammatically incorrect, but it is unclear to whom or what the pronoun is referring to. Take a look at this example:
Because Samantha is less interested in her Calculus homework than in her English reading assignments, she sometimes neglects it.
Now, you may be thinking that logically “it” is referring to Samantha’s Calculus work because she is less interested in it. But this isn’t good enough for the ACT. We have two things that “it” could be referring to–Calculus homework or English reading assignments–so we need to clarify what “it” is referring to. Here’s one way to do it:
Because Samantha is more interested in her English reading assignments, she sometimes neglects her Calculus homework.
Sometimes an underlined portion will be in the wrong style for the essay in which it appears. Maybe it’s too formal for a personal narrative about the writer’s first pet. Maybe it’s too informal for a serious biographical study. Generally speaking, most of the tone errors on the test fall into the second category. When in doubt, choose the phrase you would turn in in a paper to your English teacher (in other words, standard written English).
This question type isn’t incredibly common on the ACT, but you should be aware of it. Here’s an example:
Instead of presenting a rebuttal to my argument, she simply nodded and went that it sounded fine.
Some people tend to use “went” in informal conversation describing dialogue they had with others, but it’s not grammatically correct. We would need to replace this phrase with something along the lines of “muttered,” “replied,” or “responded.”
Quite often on the ACT, you’ll be asked to pick the phrase that best illustrates a certain situation. In this case, you are always looking for the most specific, most vividly detailed response. Take a look at the following ACT example:
The weather forecast prepared us for a deluge of rain; instead we emerged from our vacation tired of sunshine.
Which choice most effectively uses ironic imagery to emphasize that the weather was the opposite of what was expected?
A. NO CHANGE
B. basking in
C. having received our fill of
D. soaking wet
Since we are looking for “ironic imagery,” our best and most vivid descriptor is answer choice D “soaking wet.” Obviously you can’t literally be soaking wet in sunshine, but that is what makes it ironic. And most importantly, it is the most vivid expression of the bunch.
Wordiness and Awkward Expressions
One of the most common types of style questions asks students to choose the clearest expression of a phrase. Sometimes these questions can be very easy: three of the answer choices are noticeably confusing or awkward. At other times they can be quite tricky because, again, this is a matter of trusting your ear over finding specific grammar errors.
Here’s an ACT test example:
No one meteorological model is fully being able to account for the sweltering summers that have brought nearly fifty consecutive days of triple-digit highs to some parts of the country.
A. NO CHANGE
B. is able to be accountable to
C. can fully account for
D. has been able to account fully for
The answer is C. It uses the least amount of words and chooses active voice over passive voice. When in doubt, choose the shortest answer choice. But BE CAREFUL. Just because an answer choice uses fewer words doesn’t mean there isn’t an error in it that makes it wrong. So avoid the temptation to always choose the shortest phrase until you check it thoroughly for grammar mistakes.
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About Kristin Fracchia
Dr. Kristin Fracchia currently focuses on our MCAT and LSAT Prep, but she also has expertise in a wide range of standardized tests, including the ACT, SAT, GRE, and GMAT, as well as college and grad school admissions. With a PhD from UC Irvine and degrees in Education and English, she’s been working in education since 2004. She enjoys the agony and bliss of long distance trail running, backpacking, hot yoga, and esoteric knowledge.
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