ACT English & SAT Writing & Language Cheat Sheet

The Three Keys

ACT English and SAT Writing & Language are the easiest sections for adding points to your overall score. Improving your score on these sections is not rocket science – it simply requires willingness to put in some work.

Here are the three critical keys to increasing ACT English / SAT Writing & Language scores:

  1. Learn to identify the question types.
  2. Memorize the rules for the question types.
  3. Use the tactics for the question types.

Many of the questions on ACT English and SAT Writing & Language have no question stem – they just give you four answer choices, with no guidance as to how you should judge between them. However, the vast majority of questions DO fit neatly into very specific categories. The trick is learning to identify these question types. Only after you’ve determined the question type can you be certain of the particular issue being tested. Obviously, if you’re not sure of exactly what you’re being tested on, it’s going to be harder to find the correct answer! Thus, on ACT English and SAT Writing & Language, you should NEVER start working on a question until you have first identified the question type!

Once you’ve identified the question type, earning the point comes down to having the rules for that type committed to memory and using any applicable tactics.

Below, I provide you with everything you need to know in order to do the above steps. How meticulous you are in learning and applying this information will strongly impact your ability to increase your score. Students often fail to reach their fullest potential on ACT English / SAT Writing & Language simply because they get lazy – they’re not sufficiently diligent in learning to identify question types, memorizing their rules, and using their tactics.

Comma Questions

How to identify Comma Questions:

If all or most of the answer choices are identically or similarly worded, but with commas in different places (or omitted altogether), it’s probably a comma question.

Note – Sometimes a Comma Question answer choice will also contain another type of punctuation, such as a colon, semi-colon, or dash. For example, imagine you run across a question with the following hypothetical answer choices:

A) without the lens and broken to bits.

B) without the lens, and broken to bits.

C) without the lens and, broken: to bits.

D) without the lens, and it was broken to bits.

The above answer choices indicate a comma question because they are identically or similarly worded, with commas in different places (or omitted altogether). However, one answer choice also adds a colon (answer choice C). This type of situation confuses some people. Because of the colon (or semi-colon, or dash, etc.) in one of the answer choices, they’re unsure how to categorize the question.

When you find yourself with a set of answer choices like this – that is with answer choices that seem to indicate a Comma Question but with additional punctuation in one answer choice – it is best to proceed under the assumption that it is simply a comma question. Most likely, the additional punctuation (e.g., the colon in answer choice C) was just thrown in order to muddy the waters. Follow the rules for comma questions (detailed below). In most cases, doing so will yield the correct answer. Only worry about the additional punctuation (usually a colon, semi-colon, or dash) if applying the comma rules fails to eliminate three answers.

How to handle Comma Questions

THE COMMA QUESTIONS GOLDEN RULE: “NO COMMA RULE = NO COMMA.”

Both ACT English and SAT Writing & Language test the same seven comma rules. The Comma Question Golden Rule means that you should NEVER choose an answer with a comma in it unless you can justify the comma placement in that answer choice with one of the seven ACT/SAT comma rules (listed below). In other words, do not use your “ear” on Comma Questions. That is, you must not rely on your intuitive sense of where commas should or should not be placed.

I repeat – do NOT answer comma questions based on your sense of where there are “natural pauses” in the sentence, or where a comma (or lack of a comma) would cause the “flow” of the sentence to be “off”. In all likelihood, approaching comma questions in this manner will keep you from achieving your highest potential score.

If you want to master ACT English and SAT Writing & Language Comma Questions, it is absolutely critical that you base your answers on objective rules. This is why you should never choose an answer based on so-called “natural pauses” or because “it just sounds better if you put a comma there.” Those are subjective opinions, not objective rules. The more you treat ACT and SAT Comma Questions less like an intuitive art and more like rules-based math, the higher you will score. There are A LOT of comma questions on both exams, so it’s important to get this right!

Think of it this way: on the ACT and SAT, commas in answer choices are “guilty until proven innocent.” On a Comma Question, start with the assumption that every comma in every answer choice is wrong. A comma can be proven “innocent” (i.e., correct) ONLY if it is supported by one of the 7 ACT/SAT comma rules below. If there is no comma rule to justify a comma in an answer choice, that answer choice is eliminated!

(Does this mean that, on Comma Questions, sometimes the correct answer will be the one without ANY commas? Yes. Don’t be afraid of that type of answer choice. Even though it may seem a bit strange to go with NO commas on a Comma Question, it is sometimes correct to do so.)

Why am I stressing so heavily the importance of using rules instead of intuition on comma questions? Because in my decades of experience as a master test prep tutor, I have learned nothing if not this: Students LOVE to disregard the Comma Question Golden Rule. At least at first, almost everyone is convinced that they can rely on their “ear” on Comma Questions. As a result, their score suffers. Don’t be that person! Always remember: No Comma Rule = No Comma!

Got it? Great! Now, on to those comma rules!

The ACT and SAT only test 7 comma rules. If you learn and APPLY these 7 rules, you can master Comma Questions. There are lots of Comma Questions on every exam, so knowing how to handle them is potentially worth a lot of points. (Note – the first two rules come up much more often than all of the other rules combined. Even if you just master these first two rules, you’ll still be adding points to your score!)

The 7 ACT/SAT Comma Rules:

COMMA RULE 1: NON-ESSENTIAL PHRASES

THE RULE: when a non-essential phrase comes in the middle of a sentence, it must be surrounded by commas.

IMPORTANT: This is BY FAR the most frequently tested comma rule on both ACT English and SAT Writing & Language.

A lot of people think that a non-essential phrase is just a part of a sentence that contains information that isn’t essential, or important. That’s actually a dangerous way to define non-essential phrases on the ACT and SAT (dangerous because it will cost you points). The reason is that there is no objective standard for what constitutes “essential” information. You say the info isn’t very important, so it could be left out of the sentence. Your fellow test-taker says it’s too important to leave out. Who can say for sure that one of you is 100% correct and the other 100% wrong? It comes down to a matter of opinion. And, as we’ve already pointed out, Comma Questions aren’t based on subjective judgements but rather objective rules.

On the ACT & SAT, think of a non-essential phrase as simply part of a sentence that can grammatically be taken out. (BTW – “phrase” just means a group of related words). How do you know if a part of the sentence can grammatically be taken out? Simple: read the sentence without that phrase, then ask yourself if what’s left would be a complete sentence on its own. In other words, after you’ve removed the phrase, could the remainder stand alone as a (grammatically correct) sentence? For example, consider this sentence:

                                                “My student, a guy named John, is prepping for the ACT.”

In that sentence, if you removed the phrase “a guy named John”, you’d still be left with a grammatically correct sentence:

                                                “My student is prepping for the ACT.”

Thus, the phrase “a guy named John” is non-essential, so it must be surrounded by commas.

COMMA RULE 2: DEPENDENT + INDEPENDENT CLAUSES

THE RULE: When a dependent clause precedes an independent clause, you must put a comma between them. Another way of saying this is that you must use commas between a dependent clause and an independent clause, when the dependent clause comes first.

IMPORTANT: This is the 2nd most commonly tested comma rule. This rule and the non-essential phrases rule account for the overwhelming majority of Comma Questions on both the ACT and SAT.

A dependent clause cannot stand alone as a sentence. For example, “Whenever I go to town” could not stand by itself as a complete sentence, so we call it a dependent clause. On the other hand, an independent clause can stand alone as a sentence. For example: “I visit Alex.”

Now let’s see this comma rule in action. If you put the two example clauses above in a sentence, and you put the dependent clause first, you must put a comma between them:                                                                         

                                                            “Whenever I go to town, I visit Alex.”

COMMA RULE 3: ITEMS IN A LIST

THE RULE: You must use commas between items in a list of 3 or more.

For example: “I like apples, pears, kiwi, and bananas.”

COMMA RULE 4: INTERCHANGEABLE ADJECTIVES

THE RULE: You must put a comma between two adjectives that can switch places with each other.

For example, we can say “the beautiful, enchanting reef” or we can say “the enchanting, beautiful reef.” The adjectives can switch places with each other, so you must put a comma between them.

On the other hand, we can say “the beautiful coral reef” but we cannot say “the coral beautiful reef.” In this case, the adjectives “beautiful” and “coral” can’t switch places with each other, so you don’t put a comma between them.

COMMA RULE 5: USING FANBOYS TO JOIN INDEPENDENT CLAUSES

THE RULE: You must put a comma before one of the FANBOYS when you’re using it to join two independent clauses in one sentence. The FANBOYS are “for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.”

For example, “I am hungry” is an independent clause, since it can stand alone as a sentence. Also, “I’m going to eat” is an independent clause. You can join two independent clauses in one sentence with a comma plus one of the FANBOYS:

                                    “I am hungry, and I’m going to eat.” or “I am hungry, so I’m                                                                       going to eat.”

                                    (If you don’t include the comma, it’s a run-on sentence. That’s bad!)

COMMA “RULE” 6: OXFORD COMMA

The so-called Oxford comma simply refers to putting a comma before the word “and” in a list of 3 or more.

For example, “I like apples, pears, kiwi, and bananas.”

In the sentence above, the comma before “and” is called an Oxford comma.

But here’s the thing, while the ACT and SAT always USE Oxford commas throughout the exam, ACT English and SAT Writing & Language do NOT actually TEST you on Oxford commas.

“Wait … if I’m not being tested on Oxford commas, why do I need a comma rule for them?”

The short answer is because Oxford commas will sometimes appear in answer choices (even though you’re not being tested on them), and according to the COMMA QUESTION GOLDEN RULE, you must ALWAYS cite a comma rule to justify any commas in your answer choices! (You haven’t already forgotten about the COMMA QUESTION GOLDEN RULE, have you???)

Allow me to further explain: Not all publications use the Oxford comma. Whether to use the Oxford comma is a question of style, not strictly grammar. The style guides of certain publications require their writers to use Oxford commas. For other publications, NOT using the Oxford comma is what their style guide dictates.

The style guides for the ACT and SAT both call for using the Oxford comma.

Because the Oxford comma is always used in all ACT/SAT passages, sometimes it will appear in answer choices. In such cases, the ACT/SAT aren’t actually testing you on the Oxford comma. If an Oxford comma appears in an answer choice, it’s simply there because the ACT/SAT style guide calls for using Oxford commas at all times.

So, to reiterate, you won’t be TESTED on the Oxford comma. In other words, the tests won’t present you with identically worded answer choices, one with an Oxford comma and one without, and ask to choose which is correct. For example, you would never see the following two answer choices in a comma question:

A) I like apples, pears, kiwi, and bananas.

B) I like apples, pears, kiwi and bananas.

The ONLY difference between the two above answer choices is the Oxford comma (not used in B but used in A). That would mean you were being tested on whether it’s correct to use the Oxford comma or not to use it, because you’re forced to choose an answer solely on the basis of the Oxford comma. The test won’t put you in this situation because it does not actually test you on the Oxford comma.

“Okay, so if I’m not being tested on Oxford commas, why do I need a so-called “rule” for Oxford commas?”

Good question. Remember what I said above:

On ACT English and SAT Writing & Language, commas in answer choices are “guilty until proven innocent.” Assume that every comma in an answer choice is wrong unless it is supported by one of the 7 comma rules. If there is no comma rule to justify a comma in an answer choice, that answer choice must be eliminated.

Remember: “NO COMMA RULE = NO COMMA.”

ACT English passages and SAT Writing & Language passages always use the Oxford comma. So, sometimes an Oxford comma will happen to appear in an answer choice. But they’re not actually testing you on the Oxford comma. They’re testing you on some other issue. If, based on that other issue, you think the answer with the Oxford comma is correct, you still need a “comma rule” to support that comma! This is because, ANY TIME you choose an answer with a comma in it, you MUST have a rule to justify that comma placement. (Remember – the reason it’s so important to always rely on rules with commas is to prevent you from relying on your intuition. Using your “ear” on comma questions will get you into trouble!)

If you’re still confused about having a “rule” for something on which you’re not even being tested, don’t worry. You will do GREAT as long as you simply remember that any time you choose an answer with a comma in it, you MUST back it up with one of the 7 comma rules!

COMMA “RULE” 7: INDEPENDENT + DEPENDENT CLAUSES

This “rule” applies to sentences that are the inverse of Comma Rule 2. ACT English and SAT Writing & Language will often put a comma between an independent and dependent clause when the independent clause comes first.

For example, “Tonight I’m going to watch Breaker Morant, which is one of the greatest films of all time

This “rule” is similar to Comma Rule 6. The SAT/ACT do not actually test you on the comma between independent and dependent clauses when the INDEPENDENT clause comes FIRST.

Again, these exams don’t test you directly on this issue. In other words, the test will *never present you with identically-worded answer choices, the structure of one answer choice being INDEPENDENT CLAUSE + COMMA + DEPENDENT CLAUSE, and the structure of the other answer choice being INDEPENDENT CLAUSE + [NO COMMA] + DEPENDENT CLAUSE.

However, sometimes, ACT English passages and SAT Writing & Language passages put commas between independent and dependent clauses (when the independent comes first). And sometimes, when the passages use a comma in this way, the comma will happen to appear in an answer choice. In such cases, they’re not actually testing you on the comma. They’re testing you on some other issue. If, based on that other issue, you think the answer with the comma is correct, that is fine. You have a “comma rule” to justify choosing the answer with this comma placement.

As I pointed out above – If you’re still confused about having a “rule” for something on which you’re not even being tested, don’t worry. You will do GREAT as long as you simply remember that any time you choose an answer with a comma in it, you MUST back it up with one of the 7 comma rules!

*Actually, not "never", but very close. In my 10+ years of teaching these exams, I've seen this happen ONCE (with IND + DEP clauses, not Oxfords) on ONE ACT question.

Redundancy Questions

How to identify Redundancy Questions:

Answer choices will unnecessarily repeat things. For example, they’ll say something like “My company has an annual picnic every year.”

“Annual” means every year, so it is redundant to say you have an annual picnic “every year.”

If you notice that even one answer choice creates a redundancy, it’s very likely that you’re dealing with a Redundancy Question. All you have to do is find and eliminate the other two answer choices that create redundancies.

How to handle Redundancy Questions:

This question type is very straightforward: simply pick the answer that doesn’t express something already stated in the passage. (This is usually the shortest answer choice.)

Simple as. Still, there are a couple things you must keep in mind:

First – The answer choices are not always redundant in the same way. One answer may be redundant because it repeats Idea X, while another answer choice is redundant because it repeats Idea Y.

Second – The full redundancy isn’t always contained in the answer choice itself. That is, an answer may be wrong even though the answer itself is not redundant. For example, imagine encountering the following answer choice on a Redundancy Question:

A) Harry was a cat.

There’s nothing redundant about that answer choice itself. But what if, in the previous sentence, the passage had already stated that Harry was a cat? Then, that answer choice would be redundant. Thus, on Redundancy Questions, simply looking at an answer choice will not always be enough to identify a redundancy. You will often need to check the context in the passage. But don’t go overboard on checking context. Usually, any redundancies will be fairly close to the question. On the vast majority of Redundancy Questions, checking a couple sentences before and after the question is sufficient.

Third – Don’t “split hairs” on Redundancy Questions. If two words basically mean the same thing, that will be considered redundant. Thus, our approach to this question type is a departure from how we do things on SAT/ACT Reading, where agonizing over subtle differences in the meanings of words is our stock in trade!

Fourth – Redundancy Questions can be hard to identify. You’d think that noticing repeated ideas would be easy. Unfortunately, redundancy is often overlooked. Thus, if you’ve been staring at a question for a while and still can’t figure out the question type, check specifically for repeated ideas. They are often “invisible” unless we are directly searching for them.

Relevance Questions

How to identify Relevance Questions:

These questions say that the writer is considering adding a certain phrase or sentence, or that the writer is considering deleting a certain phrase or sentence. (Or, sometimes, they’ll ask whether the writer should keep a certain phrase/sentence.) They then ask if the writer SHOULD do so. (The easiest way to identify Relevance Questions is that they are the ONLY questions that contain the word “should“.)

KEY: On a relevance question, you must decide whether the writer SHOULD add/keep/delete the phrase/sentence.

This is important to remember because other question types will say that the writer is considering adding or deleting something. However, those other question types will NOT ask you to decide whether the writer SHOULD do so. That is how you tell the difference.

How to handle Relevance Questions:

For the underlined phrase/sentence to count as relevant, it must be directly related to an idea expressed somewhere else in the paragraph, and yet not be redundant. That is, the underlined phrase/sentence cannot merely restate an idea from the paragraph – it must add a closely related supporting detail, elaboration, example, etc.

NOTE – The ACT and SAT have a very strict, narrow standard of “relevance”. So let me repeat what I said above: it is NOT good enough for a phrase/sentence to be related to the passage as a whole. To add, keep, or not delete, it must be closely related to an idea expressed somewhere else in the paragraph.

Follow these steps:

  1. Read the entire paragraph.
  2. Compare the underlined phrase/sentence to the paragraph.
  3. Ask yourself if it is directly related to an idea expressed somewhere else in the paragraph (without being a mere redundancy).

REMEMBER: RELEVANCE TO THE PASSAGE AS A WHOLE ISN’T GOOD ENOUGH. THE PHRASE/SENTENCE MUST BE DIRECTLY RELATED TO THE PARAGRAPH!

Example:

Say you’re reading a paragraph that expresses the idea that dogs are useful for protection. The paragraph contains the following sentence, and the question asks if it should be deleted: “My friend’s dog, Jana, is also furry and friendly. Like her, lots of dogs are great for cuddling.”

Should the writer delete the sentence? Well, is it directly related to an idea expressed somewhere else in the paragraph?

Hmm … the sentence is about dogs, and it is about what dogs are good for. But that’s what the whole passage is about. This particular paragraph is specifically talking about dogs being good for protection. So, no, the sentence is not relevant to this paragraph. Thus, we should delete it. (If they asked whether the sentence should be added, you’d say no, it should NOT be added.)

If the sentence shouldn’t be added or if it should be deleted (ie, it’s not relevant) choose the answer that says it shouldn’t be added or it should be deleted “because it distracts from the primary focus” or “blurs the paragraph’s focus” or “is only tangentially related” or similar language.

RULE OF THUMB FOR RELEVANCE QUESTIONS: “WHEN IN DOUBT, LEAVE IT OUT.”

The ACT/SAT use a very strict, narrow standard on relevance questions. So, if you’re really struggling to decide whether a sentence/phrase is sufficiently relevant to a paragraph, the safest bet is to assume it is not and leave it out.

“Spec” Questions

How to identify Spec Questions:

These questions are specific to the passage (thus the name “spec”). For example, if a passage is about The Life and Times of Joe Smith, a spec question will simply ask something specific about that topic, such as:

“At this point, the writer would like to provide information about Joe Smith’s daily activities. Given that all the choices are true, which one best accomplishes this purpose?”

How to handle Spec Questions:

There are three things to keep in mind when solving a spec question:

1) The most common reason people miss Spec Questions is that they overlook key words in the question. Of course, reading questions carefully is always advisable. But it’s especially critical on Spec Questions. These questions spell out the exact criteria you need to find the correct answer. However, people tend to overlook these words and phrases, despite the fact that they are literally staring them in the face. Or, if people don’t overlook them, they just don’t take them literally enough.

On Spec Questions, students often get the wrong answer because they are distracted by concerns other than the criteria in the question (for example, worrying about the “style” or “flow” of certain answer choices). Thus, a major key to success on Spec Questions is to focus solely on the criteria in the question stem (i.e., exactly what the question is asking you to find) and to take that criteria very literally.

For example, there is an ACT Spec Question that asks you to choose the answer which “describes the shape” of something called a “blue hole.” There is an answer choice that says blue holes “dot the waters” of the Bahamas and another answer choice that says blue holes “darken parts of” the Bahamas.

Which is correct? Well, what is the criteria in the question? In other words, what does the question ask you to find? It asks you to find a SHAPE. Okay, so which answer does that? Which answer describes a shape?

The first one: “dot the waters”. A dot is a shape.

“Duh”, right? Yet many, many smart students choose the other answer. I’ve seen it happen hundreds of times. Nearby the question, the passage does describe the holes as dark, and a lot of students think “darken” flows better (whatever that means). But that’s NOT the criteria in the question. “Darken” is not a shape, and the question clearly asks for a shape!

This may all seem too straightforward and obvious. I mean, all I’m really saying is to read the question and follow the instructions, right? True. Yet even smart students mess up Spec Questions ALL THE TIME. The lesson here is to never underestimate your ability to miss what’s right in front of your eyes, especially on a Spec Question! On these questions, you must therefore read the question twice, and UNDERLINE the question’s key criteria (the thing that must be present in the correct answer).

One last thing to keep in mind is that Spec Questions often have two or more criteria. Even if students catch the first one, they will often miss the other/s. Don’t let that be you! Read twice and underline!

2) If two or more choices answer the question, the more specific answer (i,e., the one with more details and/or examples) will be correct. For example, consider the following two answers to the question above:

                        A) Joe studies and cooks every day.

                        B) Joe researches the flight patterns of unladen European swallows and bakes pudding pie every day.

Both answers tell us about Joe’s daily activities. Which is correct? Well, which one is more specific? That is to say, which provides more details/examples? B does, so it is the correct answer.

3) Because the more specific answer is correct on spec questions, the Shorter is Better Principle does not apply on this question type. We’ll talk more about this principle later. (The Shorter is Better Principle applies to most other question types. It’s simply that, when two answers have no grammar errors and essentially express the same idea/s, the shorter one will be correct.)

Verb Tense Questions

How to identify Verb Tense Questions

Verb Tense Questions are fairly easy to identify: all of the answers will be the SAME verb in DIFFERENT tenses. For example:

A) run

B) are running

C) had run

D) ran

The above answer choices are all the same verb: “run”. However, in each answer choice, the verb “run” is expressed in a different tense. For the purpose of increasing your score on the ACT or SAT, it’s not important that you know all the different names of the tenses. But, in case you’re curious:

  • “Run” is the simple present tense. (e.g., “Today, I run.”) The simple present tense is also sometimes called a verb’s “base form.”
  • “Are running” is the present progressive tense. (e.g., “Right now, the students are running.”)
  • “Had run” is the past perfect tense. (e.g., “In the month before today’s race, the students had run the course several times to get in shape.”)
  • “Ran” is the simple past tense. (e.g., “Yesterday, I ran.”)

As I said above, I only provided the names of the tenses in my example answer choices to satisfy your curiosity. In order to do well on ACT / SAT Verb Tense Questions, it’s not critical to know the names of the tenses. (Also, keep in mind that there are other verb tenses aside from the ones in the above example. These other tenses could also appear in answer choices on Verb Tense Questions.)

Before telling you how to handle Verb Tense Questions, I need to address a special case: the verb “to be”. This verb can be confusing for many students. Imagine that while taking the test, you ran across the following answer choices:

A) was happy

B) will be happy

C) am happy

D) have been happy

Do those answer choices indicate a Verb Tense Question? Remember, in a standard Verb Tense Question, all of the answers must be the SAME verb in DIFFERENT tenses. Are they?

Yes. All of the above answer choices are the same verb – the verb “to be” – in different tenses. Thus, the above answer choices indicate a Verb Tense Question. (The verb “to be” is unique in that it has more (and more varied) forms than other verbs. Here are the different forms of the verb “to be”: “am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been”.)

How to handle Verb Tense Questions:

Test takers have a strong tendency to just “wing it” on Verb Tense Questions. That is, many don’t feel it necessary to employ specific tactics. Instead, they rely on their intuition. Consequently, they unnecessarily miss one or more Verb Tense Questions and thus fail to achieve their highest potential score.

As so often on the ACT and SAT, actually achieving your highest potential score comes down to a choice: gratify the natural human tendency toward laziness and false pride (“Smart kids like me don’t need these rigid tactics!”) or muster the grit and humility to memorize and use the tactics. Take it from someone who has tutored hundreds of students for the ACT and SAT: the highest scorers are always the ones who fully embrace the tactics. The fable of the Tortoise and the Hair is a true story!

Since you’re still reading this ACT/SAT Grammar Cheat Sheet, I’ll assume you’re one of the truly smart people and are thus eager to learn the two-step procedure for tackling Verb Tense Questions. Here it is:

  1. Identify the established verb tense.
  2. Unless there is some OBVIOUS reason to change tenses, choose the answer in the same tense as the one you identified in Step 1. (IMPORTANTA – This does occasionally happen on the test, but it’s rare.)

Simple enough, right? Yet, for many students, Step 1 raises the question of how to identify the current verb tense. To start exploring this problem, read the following two sentences from a hypothetical passage, along with the following hypothetical answer choices, which indicate a Verb Tense Question:

“After quickly waving goodbye to his friends and family, the newly promoted soldier, no longer a lowly cadet who simply takes orders from others, proudly stood on the platform to receive his medal. He ______________ with pride.”

A) was beaming

B) had beamed

C) will beam

D) beamed

To handle such a question, most students will start plugging in answer choices to see which one sounds most “natural” or “flows” the best. But this intuitive approach often leads to lost points. For example, answer choice A doesn’t sound too bad: “He was beaming with pride.” However, on a Verb Tense Question, answer choice A would be wrong. Why? Because we are supposed to stick with the already established tense (unless there’s an OBVIOUS reason to change tenses). Answer choice A does not do that.

So, how do we figure out the established verb tense?

Let’s take a look at each verb in our hypothetical passage. Starting from the beginning of the first sentence, what is the first verb we encounter?

“After quickly waving goodbye to his friends and family, the newly promoted soldier, no longer a lowly cadet who takes orders from everyone else, proudly stood on the platform to receive his medal. He ______________ with pride.”

A lot of students will say that it’s “waving”. However, that is wrong. As it is actually used in the sentence, the word “waving” is not a verb. In order for words ending in “ing” to be verbs, they must be preceded by a form of the verb “to be”. For example, we do not say: “Jane waving at her friends.” Rather, we would say, “Jane IS waving at her friends” (“is waving” is the verb). Or, “Jane WAS waving at her friends” (“was waving” is the verb). Because “waving” is not even being used as a verb in our (pretend) passage, it cannot establish the verb tense. (For those curious, “waving” in the example sentence is actually a participle.)

Okay – if “waving” isn’t a verb in this situation, then what IS the first verb we encounter?

At this point, many students will say that the verb must be “promoted”. But that’s also wrong. The word “promoted” certainly CAN be used as a verb. For example: “The boss promoted his best employee to Senior Manager.” In that sentence, “promoted” expresses an action taken by the sentence’s subject (the boss). However, in our example “passage” above, the word “promoted” is used not to express action by the subject of the sentence (the soldier), but simply to describe a noun (which in this case also happens to be the subject). Words that describe nouns are called adjectives, so in our example passage, “promoted” is functioning not as a verb but as an adjective. (Again, for any grammar nerds who are curious, more specifically it is a participial adjective because “promoted” is also a participle.)

Let’s keep looking. What’s the next candidate for a verb? I’ll repost the “passage” again so you don’t have to keep scrolling up and down:

“After quickly waving goodbye to his friends and family, the newly promoted soldier, no longer a lowly cadet who takes orders from everyone else, proudly stood on the platform to receive his medal. He ______________ with pride.”

How about “takes”? Well, it’s true that “takes” is here being used as a verb. Unfortunately, there’s a problem – we cannot use THIS verb to establish the verb tense for the whole sentence. The reason is that, in this sentence, the verb “takes” is inside a relative clause. (A relative clause is a clause that starts with a relative pronoun, such as “that”, “which”, or “who”.) There’s no need to get deep into the weeds on grammar here (sorry, grammar nerds). Just remember that, when trying to determine the established verb tense, you should not rely on a verb that is inside a relative clause. Again, for the purposes of the test, think of a relative clause as simply a clause that begins with “who”, “which”, or “that”.

Okay, what’s the next candidate?

If you said “stood”, you’re correct! The word “stood” is being used as a verb, and it also determines the established tense. We could say that “stood” is the sentence’s “main” verb because it expresses the action of the sentence’s subject (which is “soldier”).

Now that you’ve identified the verb that establishes the tense (“stood”), can you figure out which answer choice is in the same tense?

A) was beaming

B) had beamed

C) will beam

D) beamed

It’s answer choice D: “beamed”. Both “stood” and “beamed” are in the simple past tense. There’s no obvious reason to change tenses, so the correct answer will be the verb that’s in the established tense.

Subject-Verb Agreement Questions

How to identify Subject-Verb Agreement Questions

(NOTE – To understand this section, you must first understand Verb Tense Questions. So, if you haven’t studied those yet, do so before proceeding with my treatment of Subject-Verb Agreement Questions. I explain Verb Tense Questions directly above.)

On both ACT English and SAT Writing and Language, Subject-Verb Agreement Questions look very similar to Verb Tense Questions. Because these two question types have similar-looking answer choices, students often handle them in the same way. Unfortunately, this mistake leads to lost points. They are distinct question types and require different tactics.

Here’s how to identify Subject-Verb Agreement Questions:

  1. At first glance, they look like Verb Tense Questions.
  2. BUT – Subject-Verb Agreement Questions have two answer choices that, though they are the same verb, are in the SAME tense. (Remember, on a Verb Tense Questions, the verb tenses are different in ALL of the answer choices.

For example, imagine you come across a question with the following answer choices:

A. lock

B. is locking

C. has locked

D. locks

Looks like a Verb Tense Question, right? But notice – there are two answer choices that are actually in the same tense. Which answer choices are those? If you said Answer Choice A and Answer Choice D, you’re correct. They are both in present tense. (Yes, there is something different about Answer Choice A and Answer Choice D, but it isn’t the tense. They have different “numbers” (i.e., one is singular and the other is plural). This will always be the case on Subject-Verb Agreement Questions – the two answers in the same tense will have different “numbers”, meaning one will be plural and the other singular)

How to handle Subject-Verb Agreement Questions

Here’s the process for solving this question type:

  1. Eliminate the two answers that are NOT in the same tense as each other (in our above example, you would immediately eliminate Answer Choice B and Answer Choice C because they are in different tenses. In other words, on a Subject-Verb Agreement Question, the correct answer will always be one of the answer choices in the same verb tense as each other (i.e., one of the answers that differ from one another only in “number”).
  2. Identify the True Subject, avoiding the Decoy Subject.
  3. Select the Answer that fits (i.e., that “agrees”) with the True Subject.

In the below example exercise, I’ll show you what I mean by the “True Subject” and the “Decoy Subject”.

“Sarah, who buys one lottery ticket each year on her birthday, has now won the lottery twice and is feeling utterly shocked. The chances of someone purchasing just a single ticket per year and winning the lottery even once ______ highly unlikely.”

  1. seems
  2. will seem
  3. seem
  4. are seeming

Which answer is correct? Let’s go through the process:

First, we can identify this as a Subject-Verb Agreement Question because, though at first glance it looks similar to a Verb Tense Question, when we look closer we notice that two of the answer choices are in fact the same verb in the SAME tense (with only their numbers being different). These are answer choices 1 and 3. We know that on a Subject-Verb Agreement Question the correct answer will be one of the answers in the same tense as each other. So, we immediately eliminate answer choices 2 and 4.

Next, we need to find the True Subject, not allowing ourselves to get tricked by the Decoy Subject. By “True Subject”, I simply mean the actual subject of the sentence, which we need to narrow down to a single word. The subject of any sentence is the noun that does the action of the verb (Or, in sentences with non-action verbs, the subject is the noun being described by the verb’s “state of being”. Example: “Janice was happy when she heard the news.” Being happy isn’t really an “action”. Rather, we describe it as a “state of being”. Janice is the one feeling happy – i.e., “Janice” is the noun being described by the verb’s state of being – so “Janice” is the subject of the sentence.)

So, in our exercise above, what is the True Subject? Well, which one word is the noun that is doing the action of the verb? We have the verb narrowed down to seem/seems. So, exactly who or what is the sentence saying seem/seems highly unlikely? (I’ll repeat the sentence and answer choices, so you don’t have to keep scrolling up and down.)

“Sarah, who buys one lottery ticket each year on her birthday, has now won the lottery twice and is feeling utterly shocked. The chances of someone such as herself purchasing just a single ticket per year and winning the lottery even once ______ highly unlikely.”

  1. seems
  2. will seem
  3. seem
  4. are seeming

Some students will say the True Subject is “winning”. “Winning” matches with “seems” (i.e., we would say, “Winning seems unlikely” not, “Winning seem unlikely”). Thus, these students would go with Answer Choice 1. And, when you read the last part of the sentence, it sounds natural: “… winning the lottery even once seems highly unlikely.”

But Answer Choice 1 is wrong. In the above example, “winning” is what I call the Decoy Subject – it’s a noun that the test writers place close to the underlined verb, in the hope that you’ll mistake it for the subject and thus choose the wrong answer. (Some of you are probably wondering why I’m calling “winning” a noun. Isn’t it a verb? But remember what I said above in the discussion on Verb Tense Questions: a solitary “ing” word isn’t a verb. After all, we wouldn’t say, “Sprinter Joe winning the race!” but rather, “Sprinter Joe IS winning the race!”. In order to function as verbs, “ing” words need to be preceded by a form of the verb “to be”. For any curious grammar nerds, in our example above, “winning” is a gerund, which is when you add “ing” to a verb (e.g., win + “ing”) and use that as a noun.)

Some students will also think “purchasing” is the subject. And, when you read just the second half of the sentence, it sounds natural enough: “… purchasing just a single ticket per year and winning the lottery even once seems highly unlikely.” But, wrong again. For the same reason as “winning” was wrong.

So which word is the True Subject? In this sentence, the thing that seem/seems highly unlikely is actually “chances”. So, “chances” is the True Subject.

The final step in the process is to select the answer that fits (i.e., the verb that “agrees”) with the True Subject. Believe it or not, at this stage I’m going to advise you to do something that I almost always warn you NOT to do. I’m going to suggest that you use your “ear”!

Why would I do such a thing? When it comes to singular versus plural forms, nouns and verbs are mirror-images of each other. To make a noun plural, you add “s”. Everyone knows that. But not so many people realize that you add “s” to verbs in order to make them singular. This is counter-intuitive and can get confusing in the heat of battle (yes, the ACT/SAT is war!) Thus, once you’ve identified the True Subject, simply use your auditory imagination to place it next to the remaining answer choices and “listen”. In this case, assuming English is your native language, it’s almost always safe to use your ear:

“Chances seems highly unlikely” or “Chances seem highly unlikely”? The answer should be obvious.

Warning! Do not interpret what I just said as a general license to use intuition on ACT English or SAT Writing & Language! Permission to use your ear is hereby granted exclusively for the final step of Subject-Verb Agreement Questions! Transgress my dictates at your peril!

But Wait, There’s More!

Wow! This post is getting wayyy too long! Rather than force my readers to scroll endlessly to find the info they’re seeking, I’m going to start adding new question types as separate posts and linking them here:

How to Master ACT and SAT Placement Questions

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.