Category Archives: ACT English Tips

Master the Dash

Our students are sometimes surprised when we tell them that the Advantage Point teachers still take the ACT test a few times each year. (It’s actually kind of fun once it’s not determining your future!) Taking the tests helps us notice trends on the ACT so we can better prepare students. The ACT hasn’t changed much since 2005 (when the optional writing section was added) but there are a few subtle changes from year to year. So here’s my question for y’all: has anyone else noticed the slow, stealthy, increase of dashes?

That’s right, dashes. Questions involving a dash (as either a correct or incorrect answer) have been increasing slowly but steadily. Back when I was in high school (gosh, that makes me sound old), we probably saw a dash question once every other test. On the last test, I noticed four questions involving this up-and-coming punctuation mark.

I personally am a chronic dash user, so this makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside. In case you’re rusty, let’s go over a few dash rules.

The dash works almost like parentheses or commas, but you need to pull it out when stronger punctuation is needed. It connects an independent clause with an ‘interrupting’ thought. (Hint: ‘independent clause‘ is just a sophisticated way to say ‘a chunk of words that can stand on their own as a sentence.

On the ACT, a sentence that is using a dash will have the following structure:

  • Independent clause — interrupting thought— (for/and/or/but/yet/so) + independent clause.
  • Independent clause — interrupting thought.

Here are a few examples:

I’d better have gotten that online daily deal—it’s for my favorite hair salon—or I’ll have to go back to that $5 haircut place that made me look like my grandmother’s poodle.

Well, I unfriended him on Facebook—yes, it was hard—but I did it!

That waiter spilled raspberry vinaigrette on my head —and he expected a tip!

Dashes are also used to offset lists placed in the middle of an independent clause when commas are already being used. Here’s an example:

All of my phone memory—pictures, texts, contacts—got lost when I dropped my phone into a boiling pot of macaroni.

So far, the dash situations above are the only ones we’ve seen tested on the ACT. Brush up now and you can nail those questions on test day. Good luck!

Parallelism: this picture from Yuniversity is quirky, helpful, and memorable

(Yes, that title was a great example of parallelism).

Parallelism is big on the English section of the ACT. Look for similar structure in a pair or series of related words, phrases, or clauses. Here’s a great example:


What would faulty parallelism look like? Well, for example, you can’t say that Chris Brown likes to tear down dressing rooms, throwing temper tantrums, and apologizing for them later. Make sure your verb forms match!

When incorrect punctuation results in cannabalism


Hahaha!!! Maybe I’m just a punctuation geek, but I think this is AWESOME. Credit goes to the good folks at Zazzle. Off to order this poster for our classroom, but first an ACT comma tip:

Remember that on ACT English, it is much more common to remove commas (or refrain from putting them in) than it is to ever insert a comma. I tell students that on the ACT, an underlined selection needs to SCREAM for a comma. The ACT folks know that students tend to overuse commas, so they repeatedly try to get students to either insert unneeded commas or keep unnecessary commas in an underlined selection by erroneously choosing ‘no change.’ We always tell students, “When in doubt, take the comma out!”

On the ACT, when do you need a comma? By far, these two situations are most common:
1) A shift/pause/change of flow (as in the grandma example)
2) A ‘comma sandwich’. This is when you need to put a comma on either side of a nonessential piece of information. Some examples:

That day, which happens to be my birthday, is the day of the American Idol finale.
(No one really cares that it’s your birthday besides for you. In this example, ‘which happens to be my birthday’ is sandwiched between two commas since it is not essential at all to the meaning of the sentence. If you took out the sandwiched phrase, the sentence would still have the same exact meaning.)

A few more examples of a comma sandwich:

Sarah usually parks in her favorite illegal parking spot without repercussions. In this case, however, she got slammed with a sizeable parking ticket.

The atmosphere in this restaurant is peaceful and elegant. The food, on the other hand, is absolutely terrible.

Top prepositional idioms you need for the ACT or SAT

tumblr_lqk1xe42QJ1qbolbnThe above picture is from the awesome folks at TheYUNiversity and applies to the ACT as well as the SAT. Sometimes these prepositional idioms are so tough. On the April ACT, I totally blanked on “points at” vs. “points to” — and I review this with students all the time! (The answer, by the way, is “points to.” Ex. This points to significant cultural differences.)