ACT English: Organization of Ideas

You’ve probably read this comment from your English teacher at least once in your educational career: “Interesting ideas, but lacks organization.” Well-executed prose, flowery descriptions, and complex, original theses will only get you so far. You have to help your reader along your argument by organizing your writing. On the ACT English, you’ll be asked to identify and fix the organization errors in a sample composition–that’s right, it’s your turn to play teacher.
Organization questions are divided into three types: sentence organization, paragraph organization, and passage organization. Just as expected, the larger the section of text you have to reorganize, the more information you have to understand. Sentence organization problems are essentially syntax questions disguised as rhetorical skills while passage organization problems require a thorough knowledge of the author’s argument and each paragraph’s function.


    Sentence organization questions ask you to reorder a sentence to improve clarity. These questions will often test you on grammar rules like “misplaced modifiers.” Take a look at this example:

“John was still able to lead his team to victory, a feat he would forever be proud of, hindered by a sprained ankle.”
The underlined phrase would be placed most logically:

  1. Where it is now
  2. After the word “feat”
  3. After the word “John”
  4. After the word “lead”

This is how a typical sentence organization question will look. Again, the question seems to ask about organization, but really tests us on fundamental principles of sentence structure. The problem with the sentence as it stands is that the modifier “hindered by a sprained ankle” does not modify John as it should. In its current placement, it seems that John will only be proud of his feat while he is hindered by a sprained ankle, which doesn’t make any sense. I want to place the underlined portion so that it modifies John. I can either place it before or after John; C gives me the choice to place it after John, so C is the best answer.
  • Paragraph Organization

    Paragraph Organization questions will ask you to reorganize sentences in a paragraph. You will have to look for cues to help you identify the order of the sentences; it is easiest to first identify which sentence would make the best topic sentence. Check out this sample question:

Dependent clauses, on the other hand, cannot stand alone as complete sentences.  In English, there are two types of clauses: independent clauses and dependent clauses. Independent clauses are complete ideas that can stand alone as complete sentences.
In the above paragraph, what is the best order of the sentences?

  1. As is
  2. 2-1-3
  3. 3-1-2
  4. 2-3-1

Each number signifies a specific sentence in the paragraph, and you must decide which order of sentences makes the most sense. First, I notice that the second sentence makes a good topic sentence because it introduces both independent and dependent clauses; it seems that the other two sentences describe what is introduced in this sentence. Knowing that sentence 2 should begin my paragraph, I can eliminate A and C. Next, I notice that sentence 1 uses the contradictory transition “on the other hand;” in order to use that phrase effectively, the sentence would have to follow a sentence that it could contradict. So, sentence 1 should go after sentence 3. My answer is D.
  • Passage Organization

    Passage Organization questions will ask you to do one of two things: insert a sentence somewhere in the passage or move a paragraph to a different location in the passage. This question is a good example of what to expect on the ACT:

The writer intends to add the following sentence to emphasize the extent to which Agatha Christie’s life influenced her work:
“Most of Christie’s novels, in fact, draw on the locations in which she lived.”
This sentence should be placed at the end of:
A: Paragraph [2]
B: Paragraph [3]
C: Paragraph [4]
D: Paragraph [5]

The task here is simply to find the paragraph in the passage that mentions how Christie’s novels draw on locations where she lived. I scan the passage once again and find this paragraph:
“In 1930, Christie married archeologist Sir Max Mallowan and traveled with him to digs in the Middle East. While there, she spent a lot of time writing. Desert settings and archaeological sites appear in many of her novels, including Murder in Mesopotamia and They Came to Baghdad.”
Paragraph 4 describes how Christie’s novels were inspired by the geography of the Middle East, where she had traveled. Our sentence would go perfectly at the end of this paragraph.
An effective strategy for passage organization is quickly skimming the passage and identifying the function of each paragraph; once you identify the main purpose and function of each paragraph, placing a sentence will be simpler.