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ACT Grammar

Teacher/Instructor Devorah Goldblatt
Devorah Goldblatt

Summa cum laude
Perfect scorer on the SAT & the ACT

Devorah is the founder of Advantage Point Test Prep and the author of the book “Boost Your Score” The Unofficial Guide to the Real ACT.

So you've definitely been in a restaurant bathroom right and you see a sign that looks like this, "Employees must wash hand's before returning to work," and you're thinking, "Oh my God there so many things wrong with this sign." First of all do they have ot be reminded, ouch. But second of all there is something else wrong here, something that has to do with the apostrophe. So lets get to our rules today and the we'll come back and talk about what's wrong with the sign.
Let's get started and we'll talk about the top skills that you need to tackle the punctuation questions you'll see on the ACT. We're going to talk about commas, and we're going to talk about apostrophes, because these make up the overwhelming bulk of punctuation questions you'll see. Let's look at commas first.
Comma rule number one. You're going to want ot use commas for lists or for small pause or shift in a sentence. Now you probably know this already, we're just going to do a quick review. So here we go. "Sarah, his girlfriend of three years, walked out on him after his Facebook addiction because too difficult to handle." As I read it, I paused a little bit right? You just take a breath there. "Sarah, his girlfriend of three years, walked out on him." That's kind of a spot where you would put a comma. This is the other example, "I bought eggs, cheese, bread and pretzels in the store," you know this, you know you stick in a comma for lists. By the way, don't worry about if there should be a comma before 'and' on the list, the ACT never tests that because actually there is disagreement about that between grammar experts.
Here's comma rule number two, use commas to separate a nonessential word, phrase or clause. Now what do I mean by nonessential? Back to 'Sarah,' the girlfriend that walked out because of the Facebook addiction. So we have "Sarah, his girlfriend of three years, walked out on him after his Facebook addiction became too difficult to handle." A nonessential phrase means, you can take the whole chuck out and the sentence still works as sentence and it still has meaning. Here you could just say, "Sarah walked out on him after his Facebook addiction became too difficult to handle." It's a nice piece of information to have that she was his girlfriend for three years but not necessary. Next one, "That day, which happens to be my birthday, is the only day I'm available to meet." Now I care that it's my birthday, do you care that's it's my birthday? Probably not. And you can pull that out and that sentences will still make perfect sense, so that's not essential to the meaning of the sentence.
So on the ACT when you see some sort of phrase underlined and you've got commas on both sides, ask yourself should they be there? And they should be there if it's not essential, if you can take it out and the sentence will still make sense.
Now here is our next rule, use a comma before a FANBOYS conjunction. You probably remember learning this is school, FANBOYS stands for; For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, and So. Now this are connecting words and they'll connect two sentence chunks that actually could be sentences on their own. Let's look at this one, "The game was over, but my friend refused to leave before getting Lebron's autograph." Now really the game was over? That's a sentence. "My friend refused to leave before getting Lebron's autograph," that's a sentence too. So anytime you have one of these words, the FANBOYS words, connecting two clauses that actually could be sentences alone, you always need a comma before and this by the way you guys, is the only time on ACT you will ever have a comma before 'And' so keep that in mind when you're looking at your ACT English section.
Okay, next comma rule, when in doubt, take it out. On the ACT it is overwhelmingly more common to pull a comma out or to not insert one at all on a punctuation question, than to ever put it in. So it should be really hard for you to put a comma in, you're going to always want to just take them out or not put them in at all. Here, "Although, Jim was tired, he finished the paper by the 6:00 a.m. deadline." And you think to yourself, do you need the comma? Always lean towards pulling it out. Here, we got that option, "Although Jim was tired, in D, he finished the paper by the 6:00 a.m. deadline." Right you know, there is no need to pause there you know, there's no, this although Jim was tired, you got commas on both sides. Another question you can ask yourself, should there be commas on both sides, is it an essential phrase like we talked about before right? Because two commas will separate a nonessential phrase.
Well that's pretty essential, that's the point, even though he was tired he finished the paper by the 6:00 a.m. deadline. You couldn't take the whole chunk out, it would just say, Although he finished the paper by the 6:00 a.m. deadline and then you'll be like, "So what happened next Devorah, tell me more." So it's essential. That's the other way you know that that comma needs to come out, there shouldn't be a comma on both sides and in fact there shouldn't be a comma there at all.
Let's talk about apostrophes. Now there are a lot of evils in the world today, one very minor one, the one that bothers me a lot, apostrophe abuse. I see students and just people in general, they put apostrophes almost in front of anything with and "S". Never do this, ever. There' only two times you going to care about apostrophes especially on the ACT, unless they got those rules that you need to know.
First possessives right? and you know this, if something belongs to somebody or something, it gets an apostrophe. And possessives always get an apostrophe "'s" unless that word is a plural word ending in "s", let me show you what I mean. "Mr Jones's iPod". So Mr. Jones is a singular person he get's an apostrophe "'s." Students sometimes have a problem with this 'cause they look at it and they say, "s apostrophe s." I though that wasn't allowed, it is, but only if that subject is singular. So Mr. Jones, one person, apostrophe s perfect. Next, "Sam's DVD," this you know, you know you got a subject apostrophe "s", singular perfect. Here plural ending in "s", and this is the case where you have "s" and just an apostrophe, "The Boys' jerseys." And that's when you would use apostrophes per possessives.
Alright let's talk about our next rule. Remember to think about contractions and contractions are when you've got two words smoosh together and the apostrophe shows that. "It's" is always it is or it has, and by the way that's the only time "It's" has an apostrophe. "It's" will never have an apostrophe for a possessive. So when you see "It's" think to yourself it is or it has, like, "It's been fun," you know, it has been fun. Another contraction, "You're" for example is you are and make sure you know that's different than "Your" something belonging to you. "They're" with an apostrophe is "they are", right we've got two words smooshed together, don't mistake that for "Their" something belonging to them.
Let's look at an example ACT apostrophe question, "The rabid squirrel had foam pouring out of it's mouth." Now you "it's" with an apostrophe, and remember we talked about how "It's" is never possessive "It's" is always it is, or it has. So even on the mouth belong to the squirrel "Its" is not going to have an apostrophe here. So "Its" would be the correct answer here, "Its" without an apostrophe. Alright, so those are the top comma and apostrophe rules that you need for the ACT.
We went over the top punctuation skills that you need on the ACT. Next we're going to talk about the top grammar rules that you need to know. First we're going to talk about subject-verb agreement, next we're going to talk about pronoun-noun agreement.
Subject-verb agreement, and you're probably going to be a little nervous, it sounds a little scary, let's talk about what it is. Any time you see a verb underlined, match it to its subject. Subject-verb agreement means that whenever you have a verb it has to match the subject it's talking about. Here, "Many high-ranking colleges are on the East Coast." "Are" is a verb, and by the way as in the side, any kind of version of to be in the English language, being, is, are, we Americans thing that just being is an action. So when you see is or are underlined that's a verb just like running, walking dancing those kind of verbs. So here we got "Are" a verb underlined and the subject needs to much, so what are, well colleges are, perfect. So we've got a plural subject, plural verb, nice. Next one, "The collection of prom dresses is going to be displayed at the Mall of America tomorrow." This is a really tricky one. Anytime you see a word like collection, group, committee, class, even an institution of some sort like the IRS, the bank, it's singular. So even though it's a collection of dresses and dresses are plural make sure you match that verb that's underlined back to the proper subject. It's not the prom dresses that are going to be displayed it's the collection of dresses. So this works, "The collection is going to be displayed at Mall of America.
So let's look at our second rule for subject-verb agreement. In most cases, the subject and verb are separated. This is really tricky, so you're going to have a verb, you're going to pick it up right away you're going to say, Oh! It's underlined, it's a verb they're going to ask me about this let me make sure it's matching to the right subject. But make sure you trace far back in that sentence at times to find out where that subject is. Here are some examples, 'Matt, along with his friends is going to a Superbowl party.' How tricky is that? You would think friends are going, this should be 'are' but it's not. Trace it back, it's Matt along with his friends, 'is' going to the Superbowl party.
Here's another example. This by the way, huge pet peeve of mine, I see this in medical buildings all the time and I'm thinking you guys should really know better. 'The use of cellular phones and pagers is prohibited in this building.' I always see it, the use of the cell phones and pagers are prohibited. Actually use, this is correct, use should be is, so the use of cellular phones and pagers is prohibited in the building. If you wanted to just say 'cellular phones and pagers are prohibited' that's fine. But it's not the cellular phones and pagers, it's the use of them and use is singular, so use goes to is. 'The use of cellular phones and pagers is prohibited in the building.'
Okay, next, sometimes the subject and verb are close together. This is more rare on the ACT. Usually you don't have to search for the subject. Once in a while they are nice to you; they'll show up right next to each other. Like here, 'many high ranking colleges are on the East Coast.' Colleges are on the East Coast, perfect, okay. 'The new football stadium rises over the lake.' One stadium rises, so your subject matches your verb and they're right next to each other.
Let's look at an example so we can put all these rules together. 'High above the Hudson river rises the gleaming skyscrapers. This is a tricky one, think about it for a second. So it sounds good, the Hudson river rises, right? The river rises, but what's rising here? So we've got a verb underlined, we really need to make sure that it matches the right subject. So it's not the river rising, it's the skyscrapers rising, right? So skyscrapers are plural and two skyscrapers rise, does that make sense? So we need to change this, we shop through our answer choices and here we go, 'high above the Hudson river rise the gleaming skyscrapers.'
Let's go to our next rule that we need for our grammar questions. Pronoun-noun agreement. And pronouns by the way are words that really take the place of nouns, things like their, hers, his, she, it. Here's an example, 'Doug went dumpster diving in an attempt to find his lost retainer.' So 'his' is a pronoun 'cause it's taking the place of Doug. Without pronouns, it would sound really redundant, we would say things like, 'Doug went dumpster diving in an attempt to find Doug's lost retainer.' So pronouns are words that just take the place of nouns so life doesn't get boring. And here 'his,' that's a pronoun, matches up with 'Doug' Doug is a him, a guy, his lost retainer, perfect. When you're still on the ACT, when you see a pronoun underlined, make sure it's matching up to the right noun.
Pronoun-noun agreement rule number two: Remember that 'someone,' 'everyone,' or 'everybody' needs a singular pronoun. Now this is something that you hear all the time in life and we all just say things like this and they're incorrect. 'Someone lost their shoe on senior ditch day.' You probably say this, right? I know I do but when you see a word like 'someone' or 'everyone' or 'everybody' that's a singular word even though it's talking about a collective group of people. Same with those sneaky words I talked about earlier, things like 'collection,' 'committee,' 'group,' all singular 'cause it's one group of people so 'someone' would need would need his or her 'cause it needs a singular pronoun to match up with the noun. So instead of 'someone lost their shoe on senior ditch day,' it should be 'someone lost his or her shoe on senior ditch day.'
Let's take another example ACT question: 'The IRS finally revamped their website.' And again this is an error we all make but the IRS, even though we think of it as lots of people, it's singular, it's one institution so the IRS needs a singular pronoun, not a plural one and a good pronoun that's singular for a thing would be 'its,' right? But back to apostrophes, we have two choices for 'its.' Should 'its' have an apostrophe or not, think about it for a second. No, right? 'Cause 'its' never gets an apostrophe for possessive, it only gets an apostrophe if it's 'it is' or 'it has' a contraction. And that's not the case here so the right answer would be B. 'The IRS finally revamped its website.'
We talked about the top punctuation and grammar rules that you need on the ACT. Now let's talk about the top sentence structure rules that you need for ACT success. Remember as I go over them that there are 18 sentence structure questions out of 75 English so these are really important. We're going to talk about run-ons and sentence fragments, misplaced modifiers and parallelism. These are the three top concepts tested on the sentence structured questions. First run-ons and sentence fragments. 'I didn't go to the concert. Even though I was impressed with his videos on YouTube.' These most students really have an intuitive feel for. You kind of know this should be a complete sentence, I should rework this. How about a run-on? Keep an eye out for really long sentences that feel like they should just end somewhere, somewhere sooner than where they do end. 'Even though I was impressed with his videos on YouTube I didn't go to the concert since I just couldn't afford the tickets after splurging on a Hummer limousine for prom night.' A lot of words, you could stop that somewhere in the middle and make that into two sentences. So on the ACT keep a close eye out for run-ons and for sentence fragments.
Parallelism, that's our next topic. Faulty parallelism is when different grammatical forms are used to express equal ideas. What do I mean by that? Well here is an example, 'Julie enjoys cheerleading, swimming and to play tackle football.' It doesn't sound amazing, right? Why? Well because 'cheerleading' and 'swimming' are gerunds, meaning you just need to know words that end in '-ing.' So once you're expressing an idea with a bunch of '-ing' words, make sure they are all '-ing' words. A better way to say this would be 'Julie enjoys cheerleading, swimming and playing tackle football.' So that's parallelism, making sure all the ways that you express an idea line up especially in the list.
Misplaced modifiers is our next skill we need to review. If there is a word or phrase describing something, make sure it's close enough to the word that it needs to modify. So a modifier just means a chunk of words that is describing something about another word or maybe a person. Here is an example: 'Josh packed his favorite jeans in his duffel bag, which he planned to wear during spring break.' Something's wrong with this sentence, right? It almost sounds like he's going to wear his duffel bag during spring break. So you will need to rework the sentence a little bit, maybe something like, 'Josh packed his favorite jeans which he planned to wear during spring break in his duffel bag.' So the modifier here is what she planned to wear on spring break. It's describing what's going to happen, and it needs to be next to his jeans, not next to his duffel bag. So keep an eye out for misplaced modifiers.
Let's look at an example of a real ACT question: 'Sizzling on the grill, Dana smelled the Copper River salmon.' She started to make the salad that would be served along with the fish. Now since this example is actually showing up with a little bit of context, I'm going to first go through the three questions we talked about in our English strategy episode. So you're going to ask yourself, does it belong here? And we know it does because after the salmon she's making a salad, that sounds good, it sounds like it should be there and are there any grammatical errors? Not so much and we already know it's a sense question, it's about modifiers. It almost sounds like Dana is on the grill, really creepy. It should sound like the salmon is on the grill so if you look, we're going to find the answer choice that moves the modifier to the right spot.
The 'sizzling on the grill,' that modifying phrase should be closer to the salmon and really not close to Dana so which of these sounds best? Well, we could omit it but we know we talked about, it belongs here, we should keep it. How about: 'Sizzling on the grill. Dana smelled the Copper River salmon.' Not great, it was fine as one sentence, right grammatically it worked. How about: 'Sizzling on the grill, Dana smelling the Copper River salmon,' ouch and it almost does more to the original than we really wanted. How about this: 'Dana smelled the Copper River salmon sizzling on the grill.' Perfect, the sizzling on the grill right next to the salmon and now we know, thankfully it's the salmon on the grill, not Dana. Now we've done a review of the top sentence structure rules you need for the ACT. Let's wrap this up.
In this episode we talked about punctuation and focus on apostrophes and commas since those show up the most. We talked about grammar and talked about things like subject-verb agreement and pronoun-noun agreement and we looked at some examples. Last we talked about sentence structure and talked about fragments, run-ons, parallelism and misplaced modifiers. So now let's talk about our sign. 'Employees must wash hand's before returning to work.' We know something's iffy about that apostrophe. Well, we'll ask ourselves, is hands possessive? Is anything belonging to the hands? No, so we don't need an apostrophe for that reason. Is it a contraction? Remember two words smooshing together should it be hand is and the apostrophe is signaling that, no not at all. So we can cross off our apostrophe. Alright so you might still have to read about hygiene in these bathrooms, but at least we won't have to worry about grammar.