ACT English: Clarity

The ACT English test will test your ability to identify clear, concise sentences. This won’t be as easy as it sounds, as you’ll need to know rules about using the passive voice, proper noun, pronoun, and adverb agreement, among other writing conventions. Since there’s so many rules for writing, proper test prep is necessary to answer clarity questions on the ACT. Remember to use these strategies when answering clarity questions:

  • Read the entire passage.

    It’s important that you know the passage’s purpose, or main point. Sometimes the test-makers include a well-constructed sentence that makes little sense when inserted into the passage.

  • Avoid the passive voice.

    The passive voice (“was going to” and “were traveling to” are two examples) isn’t as clear as the active voice (“went to” and “traveled to”). Whenever you see the passive voice in an underlined sentence or phrase, see if there’s a better answer choice using the active voice.

  • Noun placement at the beginning of the sentence.

    More than likely, a good sentence will have a noun very close to, if not at the beginning of, the sentence. If an answer choice has a noun near the beginning of the sentence, check to see if the rest of it makes sense.

  • Use process of elimination.

    Sometimes none of the answer choices look especially appealing. By using process of elimination, instead of random guessing, you should be able to narrow it down to the two you think are most correct. This will improve your chance at getting the question right.

Clarity Practice Question

Grandeur and simple emotional appeal were already known to be the keys to the people’s musical appreciation by Alexus. Unfortunately, he was university trained, and copied the academic model instead.  In the universities and cloisters, young novices’ first forays at composition evoke disinterest from stodgy monks who redirect them toward more complex and confusing music.  Monks supply detailed theories, and novices are rewarded for improving his or her academic training, Alexus developed an understanding of how novice monks learn music in monasteries. His program was overlooked completely by the illiterate churchgoing peasants.
What change should be made to the underlined sentence?

  2. As Alexus already knew, that grandeur and simple emotional appeal are the keys to the people’s musical appreciation.
  3. Alexus already knew that grandeur and simple emotional appeal were the keys to the people’s musical appreciation.
  4. The keys to the people’s musical appreciation, Alexus already knew that they were grandeur and simple emotional appeal.


The original sentence is convoluted and confusing. It uses the passive voice (“Were already known to be”) and puts the noun (Alexus) at the end of the sentence. Unless there are no better choices, we should eliminate this one. B isn’t much better than the original sentence, for the pronoun “that” is in a location where it’s difficult to know what “that” is referring to. We should eliminate it from our possible answer choices. If we move on to C, we get a reasonably good sentence. The noun (Alexus) is at the beginning of the sentence and the first verb (knew) is active. We should keep this and check the last choice. In D, we have a dangling modifier—no subject in a clause (“The keys to…appreciation”). For this simple reason, D cannot be the choice, leaving us with the correct answer—C!