ACT English: Everything You Need to Know

Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s Grammar Workbook

ACT English is the first section of the ACT. It comes right before ACT Math, and it’s a long one — it contains 75 questions to be completed in 45 minutes.

Timing can definitely be a challenge for students on this section. ACT English also requires students to have a solid knowledge of 13 core grammar rules and writing strategy.

What do you need to know about English on the ACT? And what can you do to improve your English score? We’ve got the answers!

Plus, we give readers access to our free grammar workbook, a fantastic resource for test-takers navigating this section for the first time. Grab it below.

Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s Grammar Workbook

  • All 13 grammar rules tested on ACT English
  • Additional guided examples for each question type
  • Practice 10+ questions per grammar concept
  • Check your performance with detailed answers and explanations

Click here to download a copy of our workbook!

Here’s what we cover:

  1. The ACT English Section in a Nutshell
    1. Format
    2. Passage and Question Types
    3. Scoring
  2. How to Improve Your ACT English Score
  3. Bonus: PrepMaven’s Grammar Workbook

1) The ACT English Section in a Nutshell

ACT English: Everything You Need to Know

Here’s what ACT, the organization that writes the test, says about ACT English:

The English test measures your understanding of the conventions of standard English (punctuation, usage, and sentence structure), production of writing (topic development, organization, unity, and cohesion), and knowledge of language (word choice, style, and tone).

What does this actually mean?

In simpler language, the English section tests your knowledge of English language and grammar rules and how to express ideas in a clear, organized way when writing.

ACT English spends about half of its time asking questions about straight-up grammar rules. The other half concerns how you write. Let’s take a look at the format of the test to see this in action!

Format

ACT English is the first section of the test, appearing right before ACT Math (which comes before ACT Reading).

There are 75 questions on this section, to be completed in 45 minutes. These questions are attached to five passages of 15 questions each, all roughly the same length. The questions are embedded throughout the passages (unlike Reading, where the questions appear at the end of each passage).

The premise for each question is the same, regardless of whether or not it’s testing grammar rules or production of writing. You’ll analyze and/or change an underlined portion of a sentence, entire paragraph, or passage.

In this example, test-takers must pay attention only to the phrase “winter months:”

For questions that ask test-takers to pay attention to an underlined portion of a sentence, keep in mind that you must only focus on that portion — you can’t change any text that isn’t underlined!

Passage and Question Types

The genres of English passages vary widely. Each passage will have a title, but it won’t contain any other contextual information (as passages do on ACT Reading). You’ll find subjects ranging from ancient history to personal narrative on this section!

These passages won’t be super dense, the way they can be on the Reading section. For example, this passage is about Hindi cinema.

ACT categories English questions into three types:

  • Production of Writing
  • Knowledge of Language
  • Conventions of Standard English

These categories may seem pretty broad, which is why we’ve broken these question types into the following concrete concepts they test:

As you can see from this chart, Conventions of Standard English (i.e., grammar) questions will test your knowledge of standard written English grammar, punctuation, and other rules — basically these 13 grammar rules.

Production of Writing and Knowledge of Language questions will ask you to improve the effectiveness of communication in a piece of writing. These questions will often have a question in front of them, as you can see in this example:

Most Conventions of Standard English questions won’t have a question in front of them:

In general, this often means that Production of Writing and Knowledge of Language questions take more time to complete than English Conventions questions. They often require a firm understanding of context, rather than rote grammar rules, main ideas, and how topics are developed in a passage.

Scoring

How is ACT English scored? Every section on the ACT is scored on a scale of 1-36. So, 1 is the lowest score you can earn on this section and 36 is the highest score. 

The test graders calculate this based on section-specific algorithms that boil down to converting your raw score (the number of questions you get right) to a number between 1 and 36.

All ACT section scores are averaged to generate a composite score on a scale of 1-36. You can find out more about how this works in our ACT scoring guide.

There is no wrong answer penalty on the ACT. This means that you don’t lose points for getting a question wrong on English — you simply do not get any points. Students can use this to their advantage by never leaving a question blank on this section!

How many questions do you have to get right in order to achieve a high score? The answer: it depends.

Even though the ACT is a standardized test, no two English sections are the same in terms of difficulty and content. A 30 on one English section likely doesn’t equate to a 30 on another. 

The key to improving your ACT English score thus lies in maximizing your raw score — the more questions you ace on this section, the higher your odds are of earning a competitive score.

We’ll talk more about how to improve your English score later on in this post. If you want more insight into what counts as a “good” ACT score overall, check out our other post on the subject.

If you’re enjoying this post, you’ll love our grammar workbook, which contains fantastic practice for the 13 grammar rules tested on ACT English. It’s free and you can grab it below right now!


2) How to Improve Your ACT English Score

The English section on the ACT can be challenging! Students face 75 questions on this section, the highest number of questions per section on the entire test, and they only have 45 minutes to work through them.

English is also a content-based section, meaning that it does require outside content knowledge.

So what can you do to improve your English score?

There are many ways to boost your ACT English score, which we explore more fully in another post. For now, however, the secret to doing well on English lies in both strategy and content knowledge.

It’s extremely important to establish a strategic approach for all sections of the ACT, precisely because it is a standardized (and thus predictable) test. 

Here are five of our best strategies for succeeding on this difficult section, no matter where your strengths lie. Find even more strategies in our 10 ACT English Strategies to Get a High Score post.

Strategy #1: Read the full text.

Unlike the ACT Reading test, students do not need to have an in-depth understanding of the passages in order to be successful on the English test. 

That being said, Production of Writing and Knowledge of Language questions will often require students to consider context and main ideas of sentences, paragraphs, or the passage as a whole. 

Check out this Production of Writing question, for example. To answer it successfully, test-takers have to have a general sense of the passage’s main idea and purpose!

For this reason, skimming can be detrimental to test-takers. Read all of the words of the passage, even if they do not contain any underlined portions.

It is also a good idea to keep the big picture in mind as you work through paragraphs and passages.

Strategy #2: Identify the concept the question is actually testing. 

Identifying question types and the concepts they’re testing can be important in terms of eliminating answers strategically.

We’ve mentioned that one key difference between Production of Writing and Conventions of English questions often has to do with whether or not there’s a question in front of the answer choices.

But what else can you do to identify question types?

Take a look at the answers. Compare them to one another – how do they differ? What’s changing between them?

Do some answer choices include a plural subject, while others make the subject possessive? If so, this could be a question about apostrophes. Do some answer choices seem much longer than others? This could be a question about concise writing.

Once students have identified the guiding principle of a given question, it becomes much easier to identify the error and correct it. 

In this example, we see answer choices including different iterations of “there,” “their,” “passed,” and “past.” This is an idioms question!

Strategy #3: Prove answer choices wrong.

Remember that for every English Conventions question, there will only be one answer that is grammatically correct. In addition to finding the right answer, it’s important to check every other answer and identify why that answer choice is grammatically incorrect.

If students ever feel that there are two or more grammatically correct answers, they need to look closer because they are probably missing something.

The ACT loves to include “nearly correct” choices that appear solid at first glance, which is why it’s important to check every answer carefully. Students should be able to definitively rule out all but one choice. 

The Production of Writing and Knowledge of Language questions can be a little trickier because more than one answer may be grammatically correct, but only one will communicate the author’s intention most clearly.

Strategy #4: Shorter is often better.

In general, if more than one answer is grammatically correct, the shortest answer will be the right one. The ACT loves to test wordiness and how to avoid it – in general, shorter is always better.

In this example, J is by far the shortest answer choice. That doesn’t guarantee it’s correct, but a quick scan of the other answer choices shows that it is definitely the most concise!

By extension, if there’s ever an answer choice that says “DELETE the underlined portion,” students should check this one first. It is not always correct, but it has a high likelihood of being the right answer.

Remember that process of elimination is your best friend. If you’re ever stuck on the Production of Writing questions, compare the answer choices to one another to see how they differ. If every piece of information included in an answer choice isn’t absolutely necessary, then you’re probably better off cutting it out. 

Strategy #5: Know your grammar rules.

Yes, you will have to know how to use a semicolon on ACT English — and other standard grammar rules. Hit the ground running for your ACT English prep by getting comfortable with the 13 grammar rules tested on this section.

With these rules, keep in mind that the ACT will test them in predictable ways. As you prep, you’ll start to notice, for example, that it will test apostrophe usage in mostly the same way from test to test. The same goes for all of the other grammar rules!

A Word About “No Change”

Almost every ACT English question includes an answer choice that reads “No Change.”

Students are often wary of choosing this option, but in reality, it should be treated like every other answer choice.

The layout of the Writing and Language section necessitates a “No Change” option so that the passages can be read in their entirety without gaping holes. Yet the underlined information is no more or less likely to be correct than any other answer choice. 

When you’re selecting your answer, read the full underlined portion included in the text and treat it just like any other answer choice!

How does it differ from the other answers? What rule is the question testing on, and how does the original phrase match up to that rule? 

Remembering to check the original text is especially important for the Production of Writing and Knowledge of Language questions: what was originally in the passage may very well have been the shortest answer, and so don’t disregard it when you’re trying to play the “shorter is always better” card! 


3) Download PrepMaven’s Grammar Workbook

We’ve covered everything you need to know to jumpstart your ACT English prep in this post.

Now it’s time to start tackling those English Conventions you’ll see on this section. You can do that right now with our grammar workbook, a free resource for ACT test-takers needing some extra grammar practice!

Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s Grammar Workbook

  • All 13 grammar rules tested on ACT English
  • Additional guided examples for each question type
  • Practice 10+ questions per grammar concept
  • Check your performance with detailed answers and explanations

Click here to download a copy of our workbook!


Greg & Kevin

Greg and Kevin, Princeton graduates (and brothers) with over 20 years of education experience, are co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They apply research-backed problem-solving skills to the test prep and college preparation process. They also place a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service for successful college preparation.