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ACT/SAT English Tips

Dr. Marshall’s Tips for the English/Writing section of the ACT/SAT.




Period and semicolon


Period (.) and semicolon (;) are the same. If they appear as separate options on a question, you can cross them both out. If you see these options:

A. shot. Joe

B. shot, Joe

C. shot; Joe

D. shot Joe


You can eliminate A and C because they are essentially the same thing.

A. shot. Joe

B. shot, Joe

C. shot; Joe

D. shot Joe

It is often the case that comma or nothing is the best option after you eliminate period and semicolon, but at this point you’ll have to read the sentence to decide between B and D.



Use commas to separate inessential information from a sentence. Do not think in terms of pauses or breaking up long sentences. Simply ask yourself if there is something in the sentence that can be taken out without changing the meaning of the sentence. . If so, enclose it in commas. If not, no commas.

 “The comment, it seemed, was irrelevant.”

You can take “It seemed” out without losing anything, so surround it with commas. Another way to think about is whether you can put parentheses around it.

“The comment (it seemed) was irrelevant”

If that looks right, commas will work.

Comma vs Period/Semicolon

If you are considering a semicolon or period, ask yourself if you have two complete sentences, one on each side. If so, you can use it. If not, don’t.

The opposite is true for commas. If you have two complete sentences, you can not use a comma. You have to use a period, semicolon or conjunction (and, or, for, nor, but, yet, so)in that case.

With words like howevertherefore, or indeed, put commas around them if they are in the middle of a sentence. If they appear between two sentences, you must put a semicolon before them.

Colons (:)

Colons introduce information. Before the colon, you must have a complete sentence. After the colon can be anything. Lists are common after colons, but many lists do not have colons before them and many colons have something besides a list after them.


I am going to the store for three items: bread, flour and milk.

I am going to the store for one item: coffee.

I am going to the store for a particular reason: to flirt with the cute cashier that works there.


I am going to the store to buy bread, flour and milk.

I am going to the store for coffee.

I am going to the store to flirt with the cute cashier.


Why no colons here? Because you can not stop after “buy” or “for” or “to flirt.”


Em Dashes (—) 

Most of the time you want two dashes. If a dash is an option, look for another one in the sentence. If you see one, choose it; if not, don’t. Anything between dashes can be taken out.


“My English tutor — a wonderful and effective teacher — has taught me much about grammar.”

Exception: You will have only one dash if it appears at the end of a sentence (the period takes the place of the second dash).

“I have learned a lot of my English tutor — a wonderful and effective teacher.”


 Other Grammar and Style Tips

  • The shortest answer is almost always best.
  • DELETE is your friend. Start with it, but beware that it may result in an incomplete or run-on sentence.
  • Always read the entire sentence from beginning to end.
  • Find the subject and verb and make sure they match. To find the subject, eliminate any nouns inside prepositional phrases

“The bats with the twitchy ears in the cave are cute.”

The verb is “are” instead of “is” because the subject is “bats,” which is plural.

“The bats with the twitchy ears in the cave are cute.”

Another way to do it is ask “What is or are cute?” The answer to that question is the subject.


  Who is the subject of a clause. Whom is an object (direct object, indirect object, object of  a preposition). The ACT very rarely uses whom, so if you’re confused, choose who.


Rhetorical Skills Questions

 These are the questions that test not grammar but style and rhetoric. They ask where phrases should go, whether sentences are relevant to main topics, or which word choices are best.  These are annoying because, unlike the Usage/Mechanics questions,  there are no hard and fast rules for them.  But there are strategies for doing well on these.

Underline the keywords in the questions and answer accordingly. Do not worry about how the sentence sounds.


Given all the choices are true, which one best establishes the tone of approval that is sustained in the rest of the paragraph?

A. I was bewildered when I arrived

B. When I pulled up to the place that I had been curious about,

C. Having asked for information about the resources available,

D. When I checked in at the attractive gatehouse — a surprise in itself —


The keyword in the question is approval. Notice I didn’t even reproduce the entire sentence or paragraph. It doesn’t matter. Only one of these options includes a positive adjective, and that is (D). The word “attractive” implies approval, even if the sentence is awkwardly constructed. Doesn’t matter. Just answer the question.


Yes/NO. Sometimes at the end of a passage, there is a question asking about the entire passage. It usually has two YES and two NO options. For these, go back to the title and first sentence of the passage, and answer YES or NO in your head. Then go back and read only whichever one you chose. You will be right most of the time.


Add/Delete. These can be tricky. Most of the time they want you to leave the sentence as it is, but not always. For delete questions, physically cross out what they want to delete, read it, and ask yourself if some info is needed. For add questions, read the sentence before and after where they propose the addition, and see if they flow together. If they do, do not add the sentence.