Simplify Complex Sentences_ACT English

We’ve now covered at least one overall strategy for each of the four ACT sections. The last time we discussed the English section we talked about so-called “rhetoric” questions and how to approach them. Today we will look at an equally important technique that addresses more straightforward grammar questions.

Many of our students see their biggest improvement on the English section of the ACT.  The reason is that while this section initially appears complicated and confusing, most students are surprised at how objective most of the grammar rules actually are after they’ve learned them.  There is one common sticking point, however, which is figuring out how these seemingly simplistic rules can be applied to the more complicated-looking sentences. If you often find yourself unsure of what’s “going on” in a sentence—or of what parts of a sentence you should be focusing on—the technique in this blog will help you take the most difficult grammar questions from the English section and put them on the same level of the easiest questions.

When we discuss the most important grammar rules of the ACT, we use simple terms—verbs, subjects, pronouns, active voice, etc. It’s not difficult to think of rudimentary sentences that demonstrate one or two of those at a time. But when we start looking at more nuanced sentences, our job becomes more difficult. Our goal, however, should not change: we want to identify the basic parts of each sentence and check them against the most important grammar rules, particularly subject-verb agreement.

Let’s look at the first way to simplify complex ACT English sentences: prepositions. Prepositions are words—usually short ones—used to link nouns, often giving a physical relationship. Common examples of prepositions are “over”, “under”, below”, “on”, and “in”. The most common (and important) preposition is “of”. What immediately follows a preposition is called a prepositional phrase. Here’s the important piece of advice: any prepositional phrase can be deleted from a sentence without changing the grammar of the sentence. Sound too complicated? Let’s look at an example. Try to find as many prepositions as possible:

The magazines on top of that pile of desks in the corner is glossy.

If you were looking for short words linking nouns and giving physical relationships, you should have selected “on”, “of”, and “in” as prepositions. Highlighting prepositional phrases gives us “The magazines on top of that pile of desks in the corner is glossy.” If you remove those phrases, we have:

The magazines is glossy.

All of a sudden, it’s much easier to see that there is a subject-verb agreement problem with this sentence. The verb here should be “are”, and the complete sentence should read “The magazine on top of that pile of desks in the corner are glossy.”

Prepositions, despite being easy to overlook, play an important role in ACT English sentences, not necessarily because they provide important detail (although they sometimes do!) but because they obstruct our normal analysis of a sentence. By eliminating prepositional phrases, we can take even the most difficult sentences and turn them into textbook applications of the most basic grammar rules.

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