ACT Clauses

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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Sentences, clauses, and phrases

Sentence clause phrase.jpeg

These are three essential words for anyone who has something to do with grammar, especially for the ACT. But many people get very confused about them. What are they exactly, and how do we use them precisely?

The most important of the three is without doubt the clause. A clause is a unit of meaning built around a conjugated verb, i.e. a verb that is used together with a subject. 'Walking around in the park', for example, is not a clause. Who's walking in the park. Well, I couldn't tell; you couldn't either, and there's a good reason for it: there's no conjugated verb. That's the trick. Similarly, 'my uncle's big beautiful house at the end of the road' might contain quite a lot of words, but there is nothing going on. There is no verb. What's up with the house? Not clear at all. This is not a clause either. It´s not about quantity; it's all about the verb, and someone doing the verb. So, 'he walks' is a clause. We know who is doing what.

A sentence can contain just one clause followed by a  full stop. 'He walks' therefore is both a clause and a sentence. A sentence can also contain many clauses joined together, e.g. he comes home after he finished work, but his kids have not yet arrived. This sentence contains three clauses containing three conjugated verbs: comes, finished, have. So the sentence is a larger unit than the clause.

Finally, a phrase is just a bunch of words. Phrases come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. There is the noun phrase. 'The car', 'my friend's really fast car', and 'the astonishingly realistic replica of the 1950s Chevrolet' all count as noun phrases. Making big subjects with a lot of information is one of the main jobs of the noun phrase. 

One of the most important types of phrases is the prepositional phrase. It helps putting in more information into a thought without opening a new clause. Prepositional phrases are for example: in the room, at the office, for my dad, etc. When things get complicated it's mostly because of clusters of prepositional phrases. Consider the sentence 'she managed an exciting project for her boss at the art fair in Delhi during the summer of 2016'. Most of this sentence is just a load of prepositional phrases. 

There is one other, less important but very interesting, type of phrase: the verb phrase. It consists of all the verb forms in a sentence and any added prepositions used together with the verb. The addition of prepositions to change the meaning of a verb is one of the great features of the English language. Consider, for example, the verb 'to tell'. On its own it just means 'to say something', but if you add the preposition 'off', it means to scold; as in the sentence 'dad again told me off for coming home late'. Verbs joined to prepositions are called phrasal verbs. 

If you ever get confused about clauses, phrases, and sentences, just look out for the conjugated verb. Is something happening or not? How many actions are happening? Sentences can contain an infinite number of conjugated verbs. Clauses always contain only one. Phrases do not necessarily contain a conjugated verb.


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Oh comma, my comma


The ACT is full of questions concerning the necessity and placement of commas. It wants to know whether you are aware that commas are not about pauses but about clauses. If, a, comma, was, just, about, pauses, then, we, could, put, them, anywhere. A pause in a sentence is often a matter of personal preference; it is a matter of what you might intend to emphasise. This is a part of speech; it is not a part of grammar. There are rules concerning the placement of commas; a comma is not a pawn in the game of the sentence. 

Lesson one: Commas possess culture. Please use them with care.


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