How to Practice Writing Conventions for ACT, SAT | College Admissions Handbook


The ACT English Test and the SAT Writing and Speaking Test assess candidates in various conventions of standard English, such as punctuation, sentence structure and formation, and usage.

For many high school students, these aspects of the English language are far from second nature, and the effort required to improve this skill set can seem daunting. Fortunately, there are practical and enjoyable ways to hone your abilities in these areas:


Mentally Correct Text Messages

Texting is an activity many people do every day, so it can provide plenty of opportunities to hone editing skills, which is precisely what the ACT English and SAT Writing and Language sections need. Whenever you receive text, scan it for potentially misused or missing punctuation marks.

A common error in text messages, which also appears frequently on the ACT and SAT, is an incorrectly used apostrophe. There are two general cases in which apostrophes are used: contractions and possessives. Contractions are the shortened forms of two words, such as “n’a pas” for “don’t” and “they are” for “they are”. Possessive apostrophes show who owns what – among other types of relationships – as in “Jim’s dog”.

You add an apostrophe and the letter “s” when there is only one owner, as in the previous example of Jim’s dog. When there are multiple owners, as with “girls’ cats”, only an apostrophe is added, and it is added at the end. An exception to this rule are irregular plurals that do not end in s, as in “children’s shoes” and “people’s beliefs”.

When editing other people’s text messages, remember to keep the corrections to yourself unless you’re contacting a willing ACT or SAT candidate who wants to practice proper punctuation with you.

Edit one paragraph per day

Some students may mistakenly think that if they don’t overwhelm themselves with test prep, they’re not studying enough. But that’s not the case: the quality of your preparation trumps the quantity.

You can gradually build your punctuation skills by editing just one small piece of text a day.

For example, you can try paragraph correction sheets English for everyone, sorted by level of difficulty and accompanied by answer sheets to make sure you’re on the right track. The advanced worksheets are most similar in nature to the ACT English and SAT Writing and Language sections, but it’s perfectly fine to start with the Beginner or Intermediate level worksheets.

When editing, keep a close eye out for comma splices, the use of a comma to separate two complete sentences. Remember that at least one sentence contains a subject and a verb, as in “We tried”.

Comma splices are common errors in written English, and they are frequently tested on the ACT and SAT.

However, they can be corrected in several simple ways: by replacing the comma with a period; replacing the comma with a semicolon if the sentences are closely related; or by adding a coordinating conjunction, also known as the word FANBOYS (for, and, nor, but, or, still, therefore). For example, the comma splice in “You can stay, you can go” can be corrected by adding the word “or” in the middle: “You can stay or you can go”.

Deliberately include punctuation in your writing

Most people are quite comfortable with the rules that govern the use of periods, question marks, and exclamation marks. However, it may be less clear when to include a colon, semicolon, hyphen, or em dash.

To understand these less common but equally useful punctuation marks, challenge yourself to use a few correctly in your writing. For example, you might try to tactfully insert two semicolons in your English assignment or a well-placed colon in your next email.

Sentence structure and formation

Commenting on a canonical work

English conventions don’t always have to be learned consciously. You don’t need to memorize isolated grammar rules to become a better writer. On the contrary, you can perceive what makes sound writing by critically reading renowned works of literature.

If you’re not sure what to read, browse Encyclopedia Britannica’s list of 12 novels that have been described as the greatest books ever written and see if any pique your interest. Then read sections of the book while preparing for the test. Don’t rush, because the point is to think critically at the sentence level. Take the words slowly, observing the author’s writing style and what makes it effective.

For this exercise, you may want to have a pencil handy to circle structures that jump out at you as being particularly clear, concise, or expressive.

Use an AI-based writing assistant

You probably write a lot of emails during the school year. When you do, make sure you’ve downloaded an AI-based writing assistant like Grammarly to spot weaknesses in your posts.

Products like Grammarly — which has a free version — use artificial intelligence to detect redundancies, unclear referents, inconsistent verb tenses, colloquialisms, dangling modifiers, and other errors that can hurt the quality of your work. writing. If you subscribe to paid versions of such software, which can prove successful, you can see more detailed explanations of why the software’s suggestions are superior to your formulation.

Browse grammar-based jokes and memes

Humor is a fun but overlooked way to internalize grammar rules. For example, consider this list of clever grammar puns with the timeless format “A (fill in the blank) walks into a bar”. You can also search for memes about misplaced modifiers, unclear referrers, and Oxford commas. Not only are they meant to lighten your mood, but they can also help you remember abstract concepts via visual, nonsensical, and memorable examples.

Use of pronouns and other words

Listen carefully to the use of pronouns

The use of pronouns is a hot topic these days, with social movements prompting people to reconsider the way they speak and write. For example, feminist thought has called for the use of the female pronoun in generalizations such as “Every citizen should take advantage of their right to vote”. Traditionally, the masculine pronoun has been used in such statements.

On the other hand, some people have chosen by default to promote non-sexist discourse when referring to a singular person.

It is essential to recognize that the creators of the ACT and SAT currently only recognize he/him/his and she/her as singular pronominal forms. For example, the phrase “Every citizen shall exercise his right to vote” should read “his right to vote” on the ACT or SAT. Other words that take a singular pronoun include all, either, and neither.

Listen to the use of pronouns on TV and elsewhere and see if you can identify any phrases that would be considered incorrect on the ACT or SAT.

Clean up mistakes in your speech

Even native English speakers are known to make many grammar mistakes when speaking. In fact, some errors are particularly notorious, making them easy to identify in speech once you know what they are.

Start by looking through Duolingo’s list of “10 Common Mistakes Native English Speakers Make”. Notice the errors you are guilty of and try to make the suggested changes to your speech, which will carry over to your writing.

Studying English conventions doesn’t have to involve a boring test prep book. There are many dynamic ways to prepare for ACT English and SAT Writing and Language in everyday life.


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