ACT English: Commonly Tested Grammar

To score high on the ACT English section, you need to memorize and practice the most commonly tested grammar (and punctuation) rules and concepts. The good news is that are really not that many rules that you need to know.

Probably the best book on the market that covers these rules is Erika Meltzer's The Complete Guide to ACT English (a MUST book for students who want to score 30+ in this section). Nowadays, at least in California, students are no longer taught grammar (or punctuation) at least not to the level tested by the ACT. To raise your score, you have to know these rules.

Most Commonly Tested ACT English Rules

Rule #1: It's vs. Its

I know. Some of you are thinking, this is SO easy, but I placed it number one because it is also SO easily missed by students. Remember: 1) IT'S = IT IS; 2) ITS = Possessive; 3) ITS' = ALWAYS WRONG (not a word). This rule is tested at least once on EVERY ACT.

Rule #2:   Period = Semi-Colon

Although there are stylistic differences in choosing a period (.) vs. semi-colon (;), the ACT English only tests the functional purposes of punctuation, and in both cases, these forms separate two independent clauses (or two sentences). ALWAYS. So if you would not place a period there, do not place a semi-colon either.

Bonus: A comma + and/but can also separate two independent clauses. However, you can NEVER use a comma to separate two sentences. Again, never do that. Another common error on the English section.

Rule #3: "Being" = Usually Wrong

In general, the less words the better, is the way to go on the ACT. When "being" is used to construct the verb, it usually becomes wordy and passive, so avoid this word unless all other options are clearly wrong.

For Erika Meltzer's "Grammar Cheat Sheet", which lists these rules and more, click here.

ACT English and Reading: Must Haves

Erika  Meltzer's Complete Guide to ACT English is very comprehensive, perfect for those wanting to score 30+Her book gives nice summaries, but more importantly, tons of practice questions on specific grammar topics, like semi-colons vs colons, who vs. whom, subject-verb agreement, you get the picture. If you are looking to raise your ACT English section on the ACT, this is a great resource.

Her book gives nice summaries, but more importantly, tons of practice questions on specific grammar topics, like semi-colons vs colons, who vs. whom, subject-verb agreement, you get the picture. If you scored low on the English section of the ACT, this is a great resource.

The ACT Reading can be a very tough section for students, mainly because of the timing issues. What I like about Erica Meltzer's other book The ACT Guide to Reading also very good. 


I like that that she does not propose one "magical" reading solution, but instead provides to students several options. There is no "one size fits all" approach to the ACT Reading section, so I appreciate her offering several approaches and letting the student figure out which one works best.

More Grammar Rules


Rule #4: Could Have, Not Could Of

How do students miss this one? It is how they sound that confuses students. When we speak we typically contract "could have" to "could've" (which sounds a lot like "could of"). I get it, but don't make this mistake. Also, other words like would, should, might work similarly. Again, an easy point if you are paying attention.

Rule #5: Who vs. Which

Here is another favorite of the ACT. Remember WHO = People and WHICH = Everything Else. Pretty simple and another easy point.

Bonus: The difference between That vs. Which are also frequently tested. Just remember that WHICH requires a comma before the word whereas THAT does not.

Rule #6: Two Commas = Non-essential Clause

Correctly using commas on the ACT can be tough. Students either use too many or too few. What to do? If you review Rule #2 and Rule #6 you will be in pretty good shape. Here is the trick for deciding whether to use two commas: if you cross out the words between the commas, does the sentence fall apart?If YES, you have an essential clause (so two commas are NOT appropriate). If NO, then you have directly identified a non-essential clause and two commas would be appropriate there. 

Bonus: Two dashes work similarly as two commas, setting apart a non-essential clause. The other thing to remember with dashes is that they typically come in pairs, so you should not combine the dash with a comma. 

Great FREE Grammar Resource

If you visit Erika Melter's website, The Critical Reader, you will find lots of great tips for the ACT English and Reading sections. One of my favorites is her in-depth SAT/ACT Grammar and Punctuation Rules summary. Since the ACT and SAT are now very similar in the English/Reading sections, if you memorize these rules, it can help on BOTH tests (and in life too).

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