Strategy for Usage/Mechanics Questions on the ACT English

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  • 0:06 Introduction
  • 0:41 When to Use These Strategies
  • 1:54 Always Read the Whole Sentence
  • 3:56 Hear the Sentence in Your Head
  • 5:36 Don't Read the Whole Passage
  • 6:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Bayliss
Learn three strategies for Usage and Mechanics questions on the English section of the ACT exam. These strategies will help you avoid making careless mistakes. Using them successfully can lead to a higher score on the exam.


To be successful on Usage and Mechanics questions, you need to have a good grasp of correct English punctuation, grammar, word usage, and sentence structure. This sounds like a lot to master, but the truth is, most of the questions you'll encounter test you on rules of English you've learned and used for years. But the ACT is tricky! Even if you know more grammar than Grammar Girl, you still could get tripped up by some of the questions. In this lesson, we'll learn some strategies that are specific to Usage and Mechanics questions. If you apply these strategies, you won't get lured into any of the ACT's traps.

When to Use These Strategies

Before we start learning the strategies, let's review what a Usage and Mechanics question is. Remember, there are two types of questions on the ACT English: Usage and Mechanics and Rhetorical Skills. You can usually identify Usage and Mechanics questions just by looking at them. Most don't have a question at all - just answer choices. They usually have 'No Change' as an answer choice. The only exception to this rule is when the question asks you to choose the answer that would not be an acceptable answer. They are always indicated by underlining in the passage.

Rhetorical Skills questions test you on writing style, strategy, and organization. You can spot them quickly because they have an actual question and are often indicated by a number in a box instead of by underlining. They also tend to take up more space on the page.

The strategies in this lesson are specific to Usage and Mechanics. They won't work as well for most Rhetorical Skills questions, so make sure to quickly determine which type of question you're working on. There are some Rhetorical Skills questions that look a lot like Usage and Mechanics questions. When you see these types of questions, you can use the strategies in this lesson. Alright, let's learn some strategies!

Always Read the Whole Sentence

The first strategy is the most important one, and you should use it for every question. Always read the whole sentence. Sounds obvious, right? Actually, many students just read the underlined portion of the passage, and this gets them into trouble. Let's look at a few examples to see why.

six kids live at 100 Pine Street.

OK, this phrase looks correct to me. It sounds right when I read it out loud. If I saw this on the ACT, I would be tempted to choose 'No Change' and move on to the next question. But this is just the underlined portion. Let's zoom out and look at the rest of the sentence.

The family with six kids live at 100 Pine Street.

All of a sudden, this sentence is looking different. I see that 'family' is the subject of the sentence. If I put the subject and verb together, it would say 'family live.' That doesn't sound right at all. The correct answer would be:

The family with six kids lives at 100 Pine Street.

Subject-verb agreement is one of the big reasons why you should always read the whole sentence.

Here's another example. Let's start by zooming in on the underlined portion.

Jonah, runs quickly.

This sentence is definitely wrong. There's a comma between the subject and the verb, and that's a big comma rule no-no. I would choose an answer choice that removes the comma.

Would I get the answer right? Let's zoom out and look at the rest of the sentence.

Keith, who is on the track team with Jonah, runs quickly.

Now that I see the whole sentence, things are a little different. Keith is the subject of the sentence, not Jonah. Jonah is part of a non-essential clause, which is supposed to be set off by the commas. So the correct answer would be 'No Change.'

We spent a lot of time on this strategy because it's the most important one. Now, let's go over two more strategies for the Usage and Mechanics questions.

Hear the Sentence in Your Head

If you grew up speaking English, many of the questions will simply sound right, even if you don't remember the specific rules. For example, Keith running slowly. just sounds wrong. Reading is different from hearing, though, and sometimes your eye skips important parts of the sentence, especially if you're rushing to finish the test in time.

Our next strategy is to hear the text in your head as if it was being said out loud. Like our strategy to always read the whole sentence, this sounds more obvious than it is. When you read, your eye moves quickly over the text and may skip words. When you say something out loud, you're forced to say every word and will notice if something doesn't sound right.

Now, you can't speak out loud on the ACT, but you can consciously listen to the words in your head. It can help to move your lips silently, but make sure you don't say any of the words out loud - you don't want to get in trouble from the proctors.

Let's practice this. In a second, a sentence is going to appear on screen. Read it quickly, as if you were hurrying to get through the test.

The grass is greener at the other side.

Now, read it again a bit more slowly, so that you hear each word.

The grass is greener at the other side.

Reading it more slowly and listening to the words in your head, do you see the word that's wrong?

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