How to Answer Passage Questions on the ACT English Test

By Lisa Zimmer Hatch, Scott A. Hatch

The ACT English Test passages look like standard reading comprehension passages — you know, the kind you’ve seen on tests for years. The difference is that these passages have many underlined portions. An underlined portion can be an entire sentence, a phrase, or even just one word.

Here are the details about what information you get on the English Test and what you’re expected to do with it.

The five passages cover a variety of topics. You may get a fun story that’s a personal anecdote — someone talking about getting a car for his 16th birthday, for example. Or you may encounter a somewhat formal scientific passage about the way items are carbon‐dated. Some passages discuss history; some, philosophy; others, cultural differences among nations. One type of passage is not necessarily more difficult than another. You don’t need to use specific reading techniques for these passages (as you do with standard reading comprehension passages). Just read and enjoy — and be prepared to answer the questions that accompany the passages.

The majority of the test is about examining underlined words in a sentence. Your job is to determine whether the underlined portion is correct as is or whether one of the three alternate answer choices is preferable. The answer choices are (A), (B), (C), and (D) for the odd‐numbered questions and (F), (G), (H), and (J) for the even‐numbered questions. Choices (A) and (F) are often NO CHANGE. You select that choice if the original is the best of the versions offered. Occasionally, Choice (D) or (J) says, OMIT the underlined portion. Choose that answer when you want to dump the whole underlined portion and forget that you ever saw it.

You should approach these types of questions methodically:

  1. Look for the obvious error or errors in the underlined words.

    These may include pronoun or punctuation problems, word choice issues, redundancy, and subject/verb agreement mistakes.

  2. Eliminate answer choices that don’t correct the error.

    If more than one choice corrects the error, choose the one that doesn’t create a new error.

  3. If you don’t see an error, examine the answer choices to make sure you haven’t missed something.

    If none of the alternatives are better than the original, choose NO CHANGE.

  4. Reread the sentence with the answer you’ve chosen inserted.

    Don’t skip this step. You may overlook a problem with your answer until you see how it works in the complete sentence.

Here’s an example to demonstrate how to use this approach.

  1. A full case of sodas, when opened by a horde of thirsty athletes who have been running laps, dont go very far.

    (A) NO CHANGE

    (B) do not go

    (C) doesn’t go

    (D) doesn’t get to go

The underlined part of the sentence contains a verb. Problems with verbs usually involve tense or subject/verb agreement. All the answers are in present tense, so the issue is probably subject/verb agreement. Find the subject that goes with “don’t go.” When you sift through the clauses and prepositional phrases, you see that the subject is case. Because case is singular, it requires the singular verb doesnt. Eliminate Choices (A) and (B) immediately because they don’t correct the error. Choices (C) and (D) correct the verb problem, but Choice (D) adds unnecessary words and makes the sentence seem silly. So Choice (C) is correct.