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ACT English Prep: The “Keep it Simple” Principle

The ACT English section tests students on many concepts throughout grammar and rhetorical skills. One of these areas we call the “keep it simple” — or KIS — principle. Here, we’ll walk you through how to recognize and approach KIS questions.

A lot of the ACT English section involves a solid understanding of grammatical rules. Things like commasindependent and dependent clauses, subject/verb agreement, and punctuation show up continuously throughout this part of the exam. Therefore, students need to know how to use these different grammatical rules correctly in order to do well on the English section as a whole.

English grammar can be confusing and frustrating, but, in a lot of ways, English grammar questions can also be some of the easier questions on the ACT English section. Why is this so? Because grammar questions are simply RIGHT or WRONG. If you are familiar with the different comma rules tested throughout the ACT English section, you’re likely to answer those questions correctly.

For this reason, we recommend a lot of English grammar prep and drilling questions in this area leading up to test day. Forty (yes, 40!) of the 75 questions on the English section test students on grammar. If students drill grammar rules until they understand them thoroughly, they are going to do well on these 40 questions of the test.

In contrast, there are some aspects of the ACT English sections where students have to have a higher level of understanding of the types of writing the ACT prefers, rather than just knowing things like comma rules. For these questions, there seems to be a lot more gray area: there isn’t a simply RIGHT and WRONG option.

Many rhetorical skills questions on the English section of the ACT will ask students about main ideas of stories or how a story will change if certain information is added or removed. These questions take some getting used to, and students can recognize keywords in the questions and answers, and, with increased practice, get used to the language the ACT uses and the types of questions they ask (and the types of answers they like).

On top of those types of questions, there is another area that doesn’t seem to quite fall into either the “English grammar” or the “rhetorical skills” bucket. This is where our “Keep it Simple” principle — or KIS — comes into play.

What is meant by “Keep it Simple” is basically this:

Be as concise as possible with the language used while making sure not to leave out any important information.

What students need to know is that the ACT likes when writing is precise. If possible, the ACT will prefer to remove words and phrases from stories, so long as no important information is being lost.

Here are a few things students should keep in mind when it comes to KIS questions:

  • KIS questions can often be recognized by looking at the answer options: oftentimes 3 answers will be rather lengthy, and 1 answer will either be very short or will say to “DELETE the underlined portion.”
  • Students should lean toward the short answer option (or the DELETE stuff option) on these types of questions, but students SHOULD NOT simply pick this answer. You need to read all of the answer options and make sure that the short answer doesn’t leave out any important information or make the sentence ambiguous – this is a place where the ACT can get sneaky!
  • The ACT will not repeat information. That being said, look for redundancies in the answer options – oftentimes, parts of longer answer options will have already been said earlier in the paragraph, so make sure to look to parts of the story earlier than just the sentence you’re working with.
  • The ACT, though preferring to be as concise as possible, often prefers to rename people, places, and things in lieu of using pronouns like “they,” “it,” or “there.” Similarly, the ACT prefers to rename particular places, people, or things instead of saying something like “the city” or “the mom.” A good rule of thumb is to opt for renaming the proper noun or whatever is being referred to UNLESS it is 1000% clear what “it” or “they” or “there” is referring to based on the sentence that came before the sentence in question.

Take a look at a few KIS sample questions below that are similar to those you could encounter on the ACT:

KIS Example #1:

If you quickly read through the paragraph below, you’ll understand that this part of this story is about someone on an extended trip to Hawaii, and his or her guitar gets lost at the airport. Question #7 is a KIS question. Lets assess the different answer options for question #7.

It’s very important to make sure to read the WHOLE PARAGRAPH when working with KIS questions. The main reason for this has to do with redundancy — the ACT WILL NOT repeat information that has already been said.

Question #7 above is a great example of this. When you look at your 4 answer options, answer D should jump out at you. Why? Because it’s only ONE WORD long. In comparison, the other 3 answer options are much longer. This is your first indication that you are probably dealing with a KIS question.

That being said, remember to LEAN TOWARD the short answer option, but also make sure to read the other options and figure out what is wrong with them.

Answer B is redundant with information previously presented in the second line of this paragraph: “extended trip.” So answer B is out.

Answer C is also redundant. At the very beginning of the paragraph, the author already has identified that the narrator is in Honolulu. Therefore, the ACT will prefer not to repeat that information later in the paragraph. Answer C is out.

Answer A — NO CHANGE — is similar to answer B in that it, too, restates that the narrator is on an “extended trip.” So answer A is no good either.

Just like that, by keeping in mind the fact that the ACT does not like redundancy, you can narrow down your answers to just one. And that one answer option just so happens to be one short word: Answer option D is the correct answer.

The takeaway: the ACT likes writing that is short and sweet and that is not repetitive.

KIS Example #2:

This example below goes along with the same story as our previous example. In the couple sentences below, you’re given a two-part question. First, you’re tested on whether you know the difference between “then” and “than.” Hopefully you already know this, but just in case, let’s run through the difference quickly:

“Than” denotes a comparison of two or more things: She is taller THAN her sister. He is smarter THAN all of his friends. I would rather spend the day shopping THAN watching TV.

“Then” denotes a passing of time: I went to the store, and THEN I made dinner. He did his homework; THEN he went to bed.

Once you’ve got this distinction down, you can tell that, in the example below, the narrator is comparing the neck of a ukulele and the neck of a guitar. Since this is a comparison, we need to use THAN. Therefore, we’ve narrowed down the correct answers to either G or H.

Answer option G clearly states what the author is comparing a ukulele neck to: a guitar. In contrast, answer option H, rather than stating the full “guitar,” replaces this part of the sentence with “it.”

As a species, we love to make our language swift and efficient — therefore, we often use things like pronouns and words like “it” to help make our speech as efficient as possible. Can you imagine if, instead of using pronouns like “he” and “she,” we constantly had to say each others’ names all the time? It would definitely feel like a burden compared to how we are used to talking.

However, now imagine that you show up to a conversation late and you’re forced to try to keep up. If you’ve missed a whole lot of context, you’re likely to be confused and not know who “he” or “she” refers to or where “the city” is that’s being discussed. That means that CONTEXT is the key.

The ACT will only choose to use words like “it” or “there” or pronouns in place of names when it is totally and completely 1000% not questionable what these words are replacing.

The ACT would definitely do something like replacing “I went to Paris. In Paris, I saw the Notre Dame.” with “I went to Paris. There, I saw the Notre Dame.” There’s no way to be confused with what place “there” refers to. In this instance, this would be a good substitution.

In contrast, there will be many times where the ACT will argue that it is not crystal clear what these substitutions mean. In these cases, it is best to rename the thing or person or place. That is what is happening in question #12 above. When you read this paragraph and use “than it,” which is answer option H, your brain will likely make an educated guess as to what “it” is referring to: the neck of a guitar. However, it is NOT crystal clear just based on the words themselves that this is what is meant by the narrator. Therefore, the correct answer to this question is G: “than that of a guitar.” This is the clearest answer option, as it does not leave any room for confusion from the side of the reader.

KIS Example #3

In this story below, we again look at a question that deals with redundancy and replacing a word or set of words with a shorter, more concise alternative.

The correct answer to question #16 below is J: one. “She had ideas of her own, including one for…” There is no way that the reader could think that “one” refers to anything other than “ideas.” Therefore, the ACT would say that this is a good substitution, and it also shortens the phrase, which the ACT prefers to do when possible.

Additionally, answer option G is repetitive in that it repeats “she had.” Answer H repeats “her own.” So if you find yourself stuck on this type of question, look for redundancies and see if you can eliminate even 1 or 2 of your answer options.

KIS Example #4

In our last example below, there is again some redundancy going on. Once again, you should be pulled toward answer option J, as it is significantly more concise than the other answer options.

Once you decide answer J might be the best option, make sure to read the full sentence with J in place. (Sometimes the ACT will include very short answer options that, though more concise, will actually leave the sentence incomplete, in which case that answer would have to be wrong. That is not the case here, however.)

Answer J sounds fine for this question, and the other answers are, once again, redundant with other information. Answer G uses both “preparation” and “working leading up to,” which essentially mean the same thing — the ACT will not use both of these things together. Similarly, answer F “NO CHANGE” uses “prior” and “preparations” and “in advance” — all of these things imply that it is work being done in advance. This answer is also wrong. The problem with answer option H is similar: there is no need to specify that the preparations are done “in advance” or “preceding,” let alone use both of those things. That leaves answer option J as the correct answer.

So, there you have it: everything you need to know about the ACT English KIS “Keep it Simple” principle. We highly recommend that students practice these types of questions leading up to test day, as you expect to see quite a few on every ACT exam.