– ACT English –

If you speak English, then why is ACT English so hard!?

If you’re fluent in English, it might be a bit frustrating to realize that you’re not always getting a 36 on the ACT English section. What gives?

There are three elements at play here.

  • Even though you speak English fluently, you’re probably not AWARE of the rules that you use automatically. Think about tying your shoes – you do it every single morning, but I bet that you’d have a really hard time describing how to do it to someone else (right now, without looking at your laces, try to imagine doing it – it’s harder than it sounds!). It’s one thing to be able to use the past perfect tense – it’s another thing to be able to identify it or substitute it when duty calls.
  • There are a bunch of small, random rules that you might not know. Do you know the difference between “between” and “among?” (Between can only be used for two things – among is used for three or more things). Do you know how to use the word “whom?” None of this stuff is hard to learn – but there’s a lot of it, and it adds up. If your school has taught you all the ins and outs, that’s awesome – unfortunately, most schools don’t!

Both of these factors are significant, but they pale in comparison to the third:

  • Proving that something is “grammatically correct” is impossible – yet it’s what every student tries to do on this section!

This takes a little bit of explaining.

Your whole life, you’ve been trained to find right answers. It’s how you take every quiz and every test. When you’re smart, you’re right. When you’re dumb, you’re wrong. Right?

Here’s the only issue: the entire concept of “proving a sentence right” doesn’t even make sense.

For instance, do me a favor: try to prove that the following sentence is “grammatically correct:”

The man went into the store and bought himself some chocolate with his own money.

Actually take the time to do this. Try proving that it’s right. Spend fifteen seconds doing so. When you’re finished, keep reading.

Here’s what you may have noticed in your attempt to “prove the sentence right:” the only way to prove that a sentence is grammatically correct is to prove that it DOESN’T CONTAIN ANY ERRORS.

In other words: your job is NOT to find the RIGHT answers – your job is to KILL THE WRONG ANSWERS.

This subtle shift in thinking makes all the difference in the world.

If you want to get an amazing ACT English score, you need to continually remind yourself that three of the answers STINK.

Often, the right answer on an ACT English problem won’t be the answer that “sounds good,” but simply the only answer that doesn’t totally screw up the rules of the English language.

For instance, take a look at the following sentence:

When we were kids, we had gone to the Grand Canyon all the time.

Answer choices:

B) we are going
C) we went
D) we go

If you were forced to solve this problem in a vacuum, it might be a little bit difficult. Unless you know the exact rules of the past perfect tense, it might seem weird, but you might not be 100% sure what was wrong. But when you compare options, you start to realize something:

A sounds funny.
B is in the future tense, but this is talking about the past. DEAD.
C doesn’t sound wrong at all.
D is in the present tense, but this is supposed to be in the past. DEAD.

Suddenly, you’re not being asked to delve into the complexities of the English language – you simply need to realize that three of the answer choices stink. B and D clearly do, and A sounds sort of horrible. C doesn’t stink at all, and the fact that it isn’t wrong is the same fact that makes it right by default.

By the way – A is wrong because it’s in the past perfect tense, which references events that take place before the past. It wouldn’t make sense to use here (and if you want a full guide on every relevant English fact that you’ll need to know for this test, I highly recommend that you check out Green Test Prep, which will walk you through the full process).

The harder the questions get, the more this strategy comes into play.

We’ve all seen the “context” problems on the ACT English section – the universally-hated problems that ask things such as:

If the author is trying to prove that his grandpa was actually a gentle soul despite outward appearances, would sentence 5 be a proper way to end the paragraph?


Considering the layout of the entire passage, where’s the best place to put sentence 3 in paragraph 2?

At times, these questions can seem subjective (based on opinion). And if you’re looking for the right answer, they’ll give you a ton of trouble. But remember: these questions are not subjective at all, because three of the answer choices are objectively, factually WRONG.

Rather than looking at the answer choices and trying to argue over which ones make the most sense, simply remember that three of the choices are GOD AWFUL. They do not make sense. They are wrong – for a fact.

Suddenly, you start looking at the answers in a different light. Rather than parsing out the merits in each one and randomly evaluating which one has the most merits, you’re simply looking for any screwups whatsoever. If the answer makes even the tiniest error, it’s wrong. It’s not right. Kill it, then repeat the process two more times until you’re left with the not wrong answer.

Easier Said Than Done

Right now, I’d like you to grab any ACT materials you have lying around, or use this link to check out a free online copy of the ACT:


Go through a few problems and try this out. You’ll immediately notice how much easier the entire process becomes.

This is the cornerstone of the entire ACT English strategy. If you can master this one skill, you’ll see your English score skyrocket. However, using it when you need to is much easier said than done. You’ve been hardwired to find right answers. Obsessing over wrong answers is far less intuitive, and far less automatic. But if you can practice this one skill, you’ll see a huge difference in your scores.

Your ACT English Foundation

Of course, there are tons of additional tips, tricks, strategies, and facts that’ll help you to do better on this section. However, all of them stem from this initial strategy. If you can get it down, you’ll have the most important element of your ACT English training within your arsenal.

Next up, let’s learn:

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