Common Word Choice Errors To Avoid: ACT® English

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The ACT® exam includes an English test. This test lasts a total of 45 minutes and includes 75 multiple-choice questions. Many of the questions are formatted as follows:

Every question number is tethered to a point in a passage. To find the point in the passage that the question refers to, you will find two formats. The most common format will be a segment of underlined text with the correlating question number tagged below it. 

When answering Question 1, you will go back into the passage and find underlined material that is tagged with a number 1.

The second format to know concerns larger portions of the text, or sometimes the text as a whole. The number that correlates the question to a point in the text may come at the end of a paragraph (or a chunk of text) and refer to preceding sentences, lines, phrases, or paragraphs. 

If the question does not concern a specific underlined portion of the text, then you will not find underlined material to look back on. Instead, the number will be inside a box. You can expect many multiple-choice questions to have “no change” as an option within the answer choices.

What Are Word Choice Questions?

One specific question type that you can expect in the ACT English section focuses on word choice errors. These questions require you to pinpoint word choice errors and select an answer choice that could replace and improve the underlined word. 

Sometimes word choice errors occur when a word is not logical to the sentence or surrounding contexts. Other word choice errors occur when the word’s definition does not make sense for its usage. 

You will need to be aware of grammar rules (like apostrophe usage, possessive nouns, word conjugation, and subject-verb agreement) to pinpoint errors and make corrections accurately.

Errors With Grammar Rules

The first error type to review concerns your knowledge of grammar rules.
Here are some common errors to take note of:

“Have” vs. “of”

Example: She wished she could of traveled more while living abroad.
Choose the best answer.
    a. NO CHANGE
    b. could have
    c. could
    d. Did

Of is not a helping verb. If you come across an underlined text that says “could of,” “would of,” or “should of,” then a correction is necessary. These phrases should say “could have,” “would have,” or “should have.” The grammar rule to know for these phrases is that “of” is not a helping verb.

If “of” is being used as a helping verb, then a correction is necessary.
Here is what the improved sentence looks like:
She wished she could have traveled more while living abroad.

“Than” vs. “then”

Example: If the students had studied more for the English exam, than they could have seen more substantial improvements during their retake of the exam.
Choose the best answer.
    a. NO CHANGE
    b. then
    c. so
    d. OMIT the underlined portion.

“Than” is used to introduce a comparison. It is also used to introduce an exception.
“Then”  is used to talk about time. If “then” is being used to compare two things or introduce an exception or contrast, a change is necessary.

If “than” is used to talk about time, then you will need to make a correction as well. It is a simple rule, but missing it will completely change the logic of the sentence.

Here is what the improved sentence looks like: 
If the students had studied more for the English exam, then they could have seen more substantial improvements during their retake of the exam.

Apostrophes and Possessives

Example: The jury has been in deliberation for three days, but its expected to announce a decision in the next hour.
Choose the best answer.
    a. NO CHANGE
    b. it’s
    c. it’s
    d. one’s

The underlined text “its” translates to the possessive form of “it.” Using “it” in the possessive impacts the logic of the sentence. A change is necessary, so answer A can be eliminated. Looking at answer B, we see that an improvement can be made by replacing “its” with “it’s.” “It’s” is a contraction of “it is.”

Replacing the underlined text with “it is” improves the logic of the sentence. Answer B is a great option. Answer C does not make sense, as “its’” is not a word. Answer D replaces “its” with “one’s.” “One’s” operates as either a possessive of “one” or a contraction of “one is,” and neither option functions well for the subject of the sentence.

Here is what the improved sentence looks like: 
The jury has been in deliberation for three days, but it’s expected to announce a decision in the next hour.

Subject-Verb Agreement

Example: Her laugh are contagious, and soon after, everyone was giggling.
Choose the best answer.
    a. NO CHANGE
    b. is
    c. were
    d. seem

The underlined verb “are” does not make sense when referring to the noun “laugh.” “Are” refers to a plural. A change is necessary, so answer A can be eliminated. Answer C offers the past tense verb “were,” which also does not make sense in reference to the singular noun “laugh.” Answer B offers the singular verb “is.”

A plural subject must agree with a plural verb, and a singular subject must agree with a singular verb. B is correct.

Here is what the improved sentence looks like: 
Her laugh is contagious, and soon after, everyone was giggling.

Errors With Definitions

You will have to improve word choice for the logic of the sentence and the strength of the writing. If one word is underlined, be sure that its definition is logical to the meaning of the sentence.

You may need to evaluate surrounding sentences to ensure that you fully understand the context in question. This error requires an understanding of basic definitions that vary based on context.

Some word choice errors occur when the underlined word does not match the tone of the passage or inserts an improper connotation for what the passage conveys.

Example: The roses’ putrid scent filled the home, bringing back happy memories of walks through her grandmother’s garden.
    a. NO CHANGE
    b. petulant
    c. perfumed
    d. punctual

It is essential to look at the context when answering this question. While “putrid” may accurately describe a scent, the word’s negative connotation impacts the flow and meaning of the sentence about a happy memory. Answer A can be eliminated based on this information. Answer B offers the word “petulant,” which is not often used to describe a scent and doesn’t make sense for the sentence.

Answer C offers “perfumed,” which makes sense for the meaning of the sentence and the tone of the writing. Answer D offers “punctual,” which alters the meaning of the sentence substantially. Answer C is the correct choice.

Here is what the improved sentence looks like:

The roses’ perfumed scent filled the home, bringing back happy memories of walks through her grandmother’s garden.

To succeed with these questions, you don’t need to study the dictionary, but it is a good idea to review sample questions to practice making edits and eliminating options from the answer choices. In some cases, you will find more than one answer that could work. If you are stuck between two choices, go back into the text and look for context clues that can help narrow down your options.

You can practice finding and improving word choice errors through UWorld’s ACT Prep Course. The prep course offers over 2,100 sample questions to practice your skills and gain experience for test day. These questions are realistic to the style and level of difficulty that you will encounter on the official ACT exam. Try the prep course out to streamline your study plan using the performance tracking tools. 

This resource is incredibly helpful in pinpointing and evaluating the questions, subsections, and sections that you could improve. It also serves to track your time management and improve your test-taking speed.

Lastly, the prep course offers valuable question explanations to offer a detailed understanding of the concepts and skills assessed throughout the test. Try UWorld’s ACT Prep Course to maximize your performance on the ACT exam!

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