How To: Simplify Complex Sentences in the ACT English Section

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 “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 improvements on the English section of the ACT. The reason is that while this section initially appears complicated and confusing, most students are pleasantly surprised at how objective most grammar rules are. 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 unsure of what parts of a sentence you should be focusing on—the technique in this blog will help you simplify even the most difficult grammar questions from the English .

When we discuss the most important grammar rules of the ACT, we use simple terms—verbs, subjects, pronouns, clauses, 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: eliminating prepositional phrases. Prepositions are words—usually short ones—used to link nouns, often by 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 team of researchers at the university were happy to speak with the president of the student body about a variety of issues.


If you were looking for short words linking nouns and giving physical relationships, you should have selected “of,” “at,” “with,” and “about” as prepositions. Highlighting the prepositional phrases gives us “The team of researchers at the university were happy to speak with the president of the student body about a variety of issues.”

If we remove those phrases, we have:

The team were happy to speak.


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 “was,” and the complete sentence should read “The team of researchers at the university was happy to speak with the president of the student body about a variety of issues.”

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.

Related Posts

How To: Answer Questions About Verbs
How To: Properly Connect Clauses

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