Verbs on the SAT and ACT: The 2 Rules You Need to Know

Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s Verbs Worksheet with FREE Practice Questions

Verbs are the second most heavily-tested grammar concept on the ACT and SAT.

This makes sense–we use verbs all the time in both conversation and writing! What’s more, verbs are an essential component of complete sentences, which have a lot to do with how we use punctuation in the English language.

As simple and useful as they may seem, however, verbs can appear in unfamiliar and challenging ways on ACT English and SAT Writing & Language.

To succeed on ACT and SAT Verbs questions, it’s essential to know 2 verbs usage rules and apply a key strategy.

In this post, we discuss both.

We also give you access to our free verbs worksheet, which includes additional guided examples, practice questions, and more. Grab it below.

Here’s what we cover in this post:


Where You’ll Find Verbs Questions on Either Test

Both the SAT and ACT directly test students’ knowledge of English conventions on the following 2 sections:

  • ACT English
  • SAT Writing & Language

Students can thus expect to find Verbs questions on either of these sections.

While the number of Verbs questions you’ll find on ACT English or SAT Writing & Language aren’t set in stone, we’ve analyzed data from officially released SAT and ACT practice tests and come up with the following estimates of Verbs questions on each test:

Verbs Questions on the ACT Verbs Questions on the SAT
5-11 2-6

Keep in mind that ACT English has nearly twice as many questions as SAT Writing & Language, with 75 questions to be completed in 45 minutes. SAT Writing & Language only has 44 questions, to be completed in 35 minutes.

Knowledge of verbs can help out students on another section of the test: the optional essay portion.

While the ACT/SAT essay doesn’t directly test your ability to use verbs correctly, essay graders do assess each student’s ability to use proper English conventions. Proficiency in proper punctuation, verbs usage, and transition words can be beneficial for a higher ACT/SAT essay score.

How do you know you’re dealing with a Verbs question on ACT English or SAT Writing & Language?

In general, you’ll see different tenses and forms of verbs in the answer choices, as in this example from an SAT practice test (#1):

ACT/SAT Grammar Rules_Verbs_Example

We’ll use this question in the guided example portion of this post.


Verbs in a Nutshell

What is a verb?

A verb is a word in the English language that expresses action, occurrence, or state of being. Verbs are an essential component of clauses, a string of words that includes a subject and a verb.

ACT and SAT Grammar Rules_ Verbs (1)

Verbs are also an essential component of complete sentences, which require a subject, a verb, and the complete expression of an idea. 

Each verb also comes in a variety of tenses and forms, depending on its usage.

  • Verb tense: the ‘time zone’ of a verb, indicating when this action, occurrence, or state of being is happening
  • Verb form: changes depending upon the subject of the verb

For the purposes of the SAT and ACT, you will not have to memorize every single verb tense for every single verb you know! In general, however, it’s wise to be familiar with the following frequently tested tenses:

  • past (indicating an occurrence that has already happened) –> I studied.
  • present (indicating an occurrence that is happening now) –> I study.
  • future (indicating an occurrence that will happen) –> I will study.

It’s also essential to be familiar with how verbs change their form depending on the subject with which they are associated. We call this subject-verb agreement, which we discuss at length in the next section.


The 2 Verbs Usage Rules You Need to Know

ACT English and SAT Writing & Language are only interested in students’ familiarity with the following 2 concepts:

  • Verb tense
  • Subject-verb agreement

That’s all! We’ll discuss the 2 verbs usage rules associated with these concepts now.

Rule #1: Verb tense must remain consistent

In general, the tense of the verb in question must match the tense of the surrounding context.

That context might mean the sentence itself. It could also mean a part of a sentence or the paragraph as a whole. This is why it is so important to read carefully for context when encountering any Verbs question on ACT English or SAT Writing & Language!

So, if a sentence begins with the phrase “In 1989,” we can assume that the tense of that sentence will be in the past, given that 1989 is a year that has already occurred.

If a paragraph is discussing an ongoing condition, such as “modern businesses’ efforts to maximize workplace efficiency,” we can assume that the tense of this paragraph will be, for the most part, in the present.

The key is to mine your context for clues that indicate what the tense standard is.

Here are some examples of those verb tense clues:

  • Another verb in that tense in context (i.e., “studied,” “will walk,” or “breathes”)
  • A time clue (i.e., “In 1989,” “last year,” or “in the coming decade”)
  • A transition word or phrase (i.e., “meanwhile,” “lastly,” or “at first”)

Rule #2: Verbs must match their subjects

This is the heart of subject-verb agreement: verbs must match their subjects!

But what do we mean by “match”? Verbs must match their subjects in form. Here’s what that generally breaks down to:

  • A plural noun must have a plural verb
  • A singular noun must have a singular verb

A plural noun is a noun that indicates more than one of some thing, idea, or individual: horses, children, mosses. A singular noun indicates that there is only one of some thing, idea, or individual: horse, child, moss.

Now, even though we don’t always think of verbs in terms of their singularity or plurality, a verb will change form depending on whether its noun is plural or singular.

Take a look at the following examples to see this in action:

  • The horses run across the field.
  • The horse runs across the field.
  • These mosses are hard to identify.
  • This moss is hard to identify.

In the first two examples, the plural noun (horses) matches the plural verb (run), while the singular noun (horse) matches the singular verb (runs). Run and runs are different verb forms. In the second two examples, the plural noun (mosses) matches the plural verb (are), while the singular noun (moss) matches the singular verb (is). Are and is are different verb forms.

Here’s a table that contains sample English verbs in plural and singular form (tenses vary). Notice how, in general, singular verbs often end in an s (although this does not apply to every tense), while plural verbs do not end in an s.

Plural Verbs Singular Verbs
are is
were was
have has
want wants
speak speaks
teach teaches
pursue pursues
cultivate cultivates
say says
believe believes

Now, our ears are pretty good at “hearing” when agreement is off. Notice, for example, how “wrong” these phrases sound when you read them out loud or in your head:

  • Horses runs across the field.
  • The moss stick to the tree.
  • Mary deliver the book to her friend.
  • Cross-contamination are common.

These all sound “wrong” to our ears because the agreement is incorrect. You can apply the same test to verb and subject combinations on the ACT or SAT, and eliminate those that clearly don’t sound “right.”

Other Tips

There are a few other considerations to keep in mind as you prepare to tackle Verbs questions on both the ACT and the SAT.

Be concise

Both ACT English and SAT Writing & Language care about your ability to write concisely. This means using as few words as possible to make a point or express an idea.

Because of this, in general, long verb phrases like I would have been studying or They will be studying are very rarely correct. The same goes for verbs ending in -ing (studying, walking, breathing). Prioritize the shortest verb choice in your elimination strategy.

Ask yourself: is this the most concise way to express this idea?

Be active

It is possible to craft sentences in active voice or passive voice. We won’t go too far into this concept in this post, but it’s important to note that both the ACT and the SAT reward students who think in active voice.

Active voice constructions tend to be more concise than passive voice constructions. They use fewer words and they have the added benefit of, well, sounding much more active than their passive voice alternative!

Here are some examples that prove this point:

  • Active voiceMary delivered the textbooks to her friend on Tuesday.
  • Passive voiceThe textbooks were delivered by Mary to her friend on Tuesday.

Notice how the passive voice construction here uses more words and makes the direct object (textbooks) the subject, as opposed to Mary, who is the one delivering those books. Active voice constructions make the actual subject the focus of the sentence, and often result in a simpler verb or verb phrase.

When navigating Verbs questions on the SAT or ACT, be on the lookout for active voice. This will often mean prioritizing the most concise expression.

Watch out for “being”

If you see the word being in the answer choices, it is likely incorrect. It is very difficult to use this specific verb in a way that is both concise and active!

Get rid of excess words

The SAT and ACT love cramming in a bunch of words between a subject and a verb, to make it all the more confusing for a student to identify the appropriate subject and test for agreement.

Here’s a good example of that:

The committee’s decision to allocate extensive funds to water treatment strategies was significant.

In this sentence, the subject is decision and the verb is was. Notice how many words appear between these two parts of speech, however, making it fairly difficult to identify the appropriate noun.

It can be helpful here to cross off this excess verbiage to make things more clear:

The committee’s decision to allocate extensive funds to water treatment strategies was significant. 

Verbs Questions Strategy

We have a very simple, memorable strategy students can use when approaching a Verbs question on ACT English or SAT Writing & Language.

When you see a Verbs question, follow these 4 steps:

  1. Identify the tense of the surrounding context
  2. Identify the noun of the verb in question, if necessary
  3. Eliminate rule-breakers
  4. Plug in your final choice

It is possible to encounter Verbs questions that strictly concern tense or only focus on agreement. However, it is very common for either test to incorporate both concepts in one question!

That’s why we encourage students to check for both tense and agreement on every Verbs question they encounter.

We’ll apply this 4-step strategy to 2 example questions from officially released practice tests in the next section.

You’ll also be able to apply this strategy to the 10 practice questions in our free Verbs worksheet!


Verbs Questions: 2 Guided Examples

We’ve already mentioned this first example question, in the first section of this post. This is taken from the CollegeBoard’s Official SAT Practice Test #1. Find all 10 of the CollegeBoard’s officially released SAT practice tests here.

Guided Example #1: SAT Verbs Question

ACT/SAT Grammar Rules_Verbs_Example SAT Verbs Question_ACT and SAT Grammar Rules

Identify the tense of the surrounding context

We can tell that this is a Verbs question because the answer choices contain different tenses and forms of the verb contain. When we read for full context, we find 2 simple present tense verbs: consider and is.

We also see that this underlined portion is part of a list, which means that we should follow parallel structure, a concept we discuss further in our 3 Rarely Tested Grammar Rules on the SAT and ACT post.

Identify the noun of the verb in question, if necessary

We are discussing Greek yogurt here, referred to as “it” in context. This is a singular noun.

Eliminate rule-breakers

We can eliminate any answer choices that are not in present tense: D, which is in the future tense (will contain). We can also cross off B, an -ing verb, as the verb tense in context is in simple present, not present participle form (the fancy name for an -ing verb).

Parallel structure means that we have to maintain consistency with the verb forms in this list, meaning that the additional it in answer choice A is unnecessary. We can eliminate A.

Plug in your final choice

Here’s what our sentence sounds like with C as the proper choice: Nutritionists consider Greek yogurt to be a healthy food: it is an excellent source of calcium and protein, serves as a digestive aid, and contains few calories in its unsweetened low- and non-fat forms. Great!

Guided Example #2: ACT Verbs Question

Here’s a Verbs question taken from an officially released ACT practice test (#1). We’ll work through this for our second guided example.

Verbs on the SAT and ACT_Sample Question

Identify the tense of the surrounding context

We can tell that this is a Verbs question because the answer choices contain different tenses and forms of the verb build. When we read for full context, we find 2 past tense verbs: separated and compacted. This means that we should prioritize past tense verbs in our answer choices.

Identify the noun of the verb in question, if necessary

This may not be necessary, depending on whether or not this question concerns agreement, but the subject of the verb in question is grains, a plural noun.

Eliminate rule-breakers

Let’s cross off answer choices that aren’t in the past tense first: B (present), C (future), and D (present). This leaves us with A, which is in the past tense: built.

Plug in your final choice

Here’s what our sentence sounds like with A as the proper choice: These grains built up, then compacted, forming the limestone that makes up the islands. Great!


Download PrepMaven’s Verbs on the ACT/SAT Worksheet

Now you’re primed for additional Verbs practice, which you can get right now for free with our Verbs Worksheet!

Verbs on the SAT/ACT

With this worksheet, you’ll get: 

  • A recap of the 2 Verbs rules and strategy we discussed in this post
  • 2 more guided examples of questions from official practice tests
  • 10 practice questions with detailed answers/explanations 


Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate M.

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University (B.A. in English Literature and Interdisciplinary Humanities) and Boston University (M.F.A in Creative Writing). Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.