Pattern Recognition and the ACT English Section: ACT Tutor

Posted by Sujata Singhal on 7/9/13 9:52 AM

In this blog, I am going to do a quick and deep dive into the structure, content and mechanics of the ACT English section. I will also share some key verbal tips for standardized test preparation.

This section comes first if you are taking the ACT without the Writing portion; conversely, if you do take the Writing portion, the English section is the first of four multiple-choice sections.  The other three sections are Math, Reading Comprehension and Science Reasoning in that order. 

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On the English section, there are 75 questions that are partitioned between 5 passages.  Each passage has 15 questions associated with it.  Most of these questions want you to determine whether a certain underlined portion of the passage is correct as written in which case you would choose the first answer of four answers.  If the underlined portion were not correct as written, then you would select one of the 3 remaining answers that suggest the correction that fixes it. 

Question Types

While all of the questions are structured the same, there are different things the questions ask you to do. 

1. Grammar Rule Questions: Some will be as basic as making sure the underlined portion has the correct verb conjugation. 

For example, you could have a sentence that says the following:

Maria liked to go jogging, swimming and she biked every day.


  2. she went biking every day

  3. biking every day

  4. biked every day

Some of you may have noticed that we need to make the words jogging, swimming and ‘biked’ have the same form.  Why?  Because those words are a list of activities that Maria likes to do everyday.  Leaving the sentence as it is would be wordy and not in the proper grammatical form.  But, if choose C, then we create parallel structure, and the sentence is sweeter and more to the point.

Other grammar rules that can be tested include but are not limited to:

  • The use of ‘it’ versus ‘it’s’
  • The use of ‘who’ versus ‘whom’
  • When to use commas
  • How to use semicolons and colons
  • Subject-verb agreement
  • Modifying Phrases 

2. Content Questions: These questions will ask you to determine whether a sentence as written fits the overall tone or purpose of the essay.

Here is an example from PASSAGE V of the Practice Test 1 in The Real ACT Prep Guide, 3rd Edition. 

71. In this paragraph, the writer intends to recommend a number of specific ways to protect computer data against viruses.  This is to be the second recommendation.  Given that all of the choices are true, which one would best accomplish the writer’s intention?

  2. propose adding software that checks the spelling in the papers you write on your computer.
  3. Advise you to give your system frequent checkups with antivirus programs.
  4. Suggest that in order to protect your computer, you must be aware of the various ways to prevent viruses.

The Bottom Line

The more you take the time to do go through practice ACT English sections with a tutor/coach and by yourself the more you will become familiar with the different types of questions.  Over time, you will start recognizing patterns in way the test writers not only write the content questions but the grammar questions.  Furthermore, there are also answer choices that always tend to be more favorable on the content questions and with the help of a tutor you can learn how to recognize the patterns and eventually pick the correct answers every time!

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Tags: ACT