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Whether you are getting ready to take the ACT for the first time or you are re-taking the test to boost your previous score, brushing up on your reading, writing and language arts skills will give you confidence for the first section of the test – English. Even when rules about commas, semicolons and hyphens seem to whirl around your head in a giant tornado of grammar confusion, remember these golden nuggets that will take your English score from drab to fab.

Back to Basics

First, let’s review some logistics about the ACT English section. This portion of the test is the “lightning round” of the test in that you have 45 minutes to answer 75 questions – which leaves little time for dilly-dallying, daydreaming or second guessing. Before you evacuate the dance floor (or the testing room), it’s important to know that the questions on the English section are designed to be answered in the amount of time allotted; it’s all about knowing your rules and possible answer choices to eliminate the chance of getting tripped up on one question. Test-takers will be asked to read a passage and answer a series of related questions testing these two main subjects:

  • Usage and Mechanics (i.e. questions testing knowledge of grammar rules, agreement, sentence structure, etc.)
  • Rhetorical Skills (i.e. questions related to identifying the author’s purpose, style; restructuring paragraphs for fluency).

OMG: Oh My Grammar

Even if you’re feeling pretty rock solid on content related to Usage and Mechanics, here are some basic tenants to memorize for the test. Make flashcards for these rules, because they are not going away anytime soon.

The semicolon (;) can ONLY combine two independent clauses (a.k.a. two complete thoughts that could stand on their own).

I love reading The Prospect; the articles have been very helpful to me!
(Both sides of the semicolon could stand alone. A period could replace the semicolon to create two complete sentences.)

I love reading The Prospect; and the New York Times.
(The semicolon should be removed completely. The phrase “and the New York Times” could not stand alone, so the phrases should be combined to create one complete sentence.)

The colon (:) is different from the semicolon in that it separates a complete thought with an incomplete thought.

The Prospect has many different article sections: The Toolbox, College Life, Standardized Testing Resources and more.
(The first sentence can stand on its own, and the listed items following the colon are not an independent sentence.)

The Prospect’s article sections include: The Toolbox, College Life, Standardized Testing Resources and more.
(This is incorrect because both sides of the colon are dependent phrases. The colon should be completely removed, and the phrases should be combined to create one sentence.)

The dash (–) looks like a longer version of the hyphen (-), which is used to combine words.
The dash is used to separate an independent clause followed by either an independent or dependent clause. Of all uses of the dash, this form is the most common to appear on the ACT.

I love reading articles on The Prospect – especially ones about college life.

Comma Pep Talk

There is a plethora of comma rules and exceptions for special situations, but one key thing to keep in mind when dealing with adding or removing commas on the ACT is that if the sentence is clear without a comma, remove it. When taking practice tests and going through your answers, you will likely notice a pattern or commonality with all comma-related questions – on the ACT, many times, the question options that offer options to add commas are only there to trick you. Of course, there are times when the commas are actually needed, but remember not to neglect the answer choice that does not insert unnecessary punctuation.

Rhetoric and Organization

A chunk of questions on the English section will ask you to move sentences and phrases around in a paragraph to create the most clear passage possible. While ACT practice tests are certainly one of the most reliable and effective ways to prepare and learn from your mistakes, you can also look for other paragraph structuring worksheets. These exercises will give you a list of sentences out of order, and your task is to organize them in the most coherent way possible.

You will also be asked to identify the author’s purpose, style, theme and tone. Was the passage you just read a nonfiction piece that was made to inform and educate? Was it a short fictional story with characters and a storyline that was made to entertain? Was it a persuasive passage that presented an argument? These questions should be floating around in the back of your mind as you read through the passage.

No Bubble Left Behind

On the ACT, remember to answer every single question because you lose points for leaving questions blank. If you’re spending too much time on one question that you aren’t feeling too hot about, make your best guess and move on.

The English section of the ACT, just like the Reading, Science and Math sections, is scored between 1 and 36. You will also get English subscores for Usage/Mechanics and Rhetorical Skills; when looking to improve your score, pay attention to these subscores, because they will indicate what area(s) you may need to focus on.

Studying for any standardized test is a stressful, time-consuming process. Though it seems like a two-digit score has the power to control so many aspects of our future, getting a less-than-fabulous score does not mean the world is ending. When in doubt, take a deep breath, open your test booklet and conquer that English section with your newfound grammar confidence.

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the author

Darcy Schild is a rising sophomore Journalism major at the University of Florida. An Ohio native, Darcy is excited to share her experiences and advice as an out-of-state collegiate. When she's not blogging (at, you can find her critiquing fonts or admiring other people's dogs. Contact her at or on Twitter @darcyschild.

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