The big three in the ACT English - part 1

When you deal with the English section of the ACT, there are three basic skills that can get you to make decisions fast and accurately. These are: 1. find the conjugated verb and identify its subject; 2. find and identify the conjunction; 3. find and identify the prepositional phrases. 

Whenever you struggle with a pure grammar question (i.e. not one where the test asks you to arrange sentences or something similar), these three basic skills will get you on the right track. They help you to focus on the right words and replace educated guesses by informed decisions. It's all about understanding that there are not that many grammatically important words in a sentence.

In this post we'll have a look at the first basic skill, which is the most important of them all: find the conjugated verb and identify its subject. In any question on punctuation or clauses (i.e. one that gives you options between forms such as walk, walking, or to walk), this will help you find the right option with speed and confidence.

The first thing you need to know is that verbs fall into two different categories depending on whether or not they are joined to a subject, i.e. someone or something doing the verb. When a verb form is directly linked to a subject it is called conjugated. 'I walk' and 'he walks' are conjugated forms. See how the form of the verb changes as it changes person from I (first person) to he (third person). Now, in English the change does not always show, i.e. walk can be a conjugated form with you, we, and they, but this should not prove too much of an obstacle in finding which verb form is directly done by the subject of a sentence. Since a clause contains always only one conjugated verb, and the number of clauses in a sentence has a lot to do with how many commas will be needed, finding the conjugated verb is a very important skill when dealing with punctuation questions.

What will go a long way in helping you identify the conjugated verb is a good knowledge of the other type of verb forms: the unconjugated forms. There are two different types of unconjugated forms: the infinitive and the participles.

The infinitive is the base form of the verb and usually always has a 'to' before it. See how when I say 'to walk' you would not be able to tell who is walking. The reason is simple: the form is not conjugated; it has no subject, so how should we know.

There are two different participles: present and past. The present participle is the form that always ends in -ing. I cannot say 'I walking'; the participle can only be used together with a conjugated form. 'I am walking' works because there is the conjugated form 'am' of the verb 'to be'. 

The past participles are forms like gone, done, swum, run. These, too, can never be used alone. You cannot say 'I gone' or 'she swum'. You need a conjugated verb: 'I have gone' and 'she has swum'. Note how the form of 'to have' changes from the first to the third person, proof that it is indeed conjugated, while the form 'gone' will never change, i.e. you can use it with 'I' (I have gone) and with 'she' (she has gone). 


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