After last week’s blog about content-based questions on the ACT English section, we return today to a more traditional, grammar-based question type. One of the most frequently tested topics on the ACT English section deals with verbs. These questions can be difficult for two reasons: first, the ACT will often place verbs very far away from their subjects. Second, there are many verb conjugations that can be tough to memorize, particularly for students whose first language is not English.
First, let’s define what a verb is. A verb is usually an action word: something that a person or thing can do. Here’s a few examples of verbs: to run, to speak, to hit. While almost all verbs are actions, there are two important verbs that are not action words: “to have” and “to be.” All of their forms—have, has, had, are, am, is, was—are verbs.
To identify verb questions on the ACT, check the answers first. If you see answer choices that are similar action words, you’re being tested on verbs. For example, if the answer choices are…
B. is watching
…you’re being tested on verbs. After you realize that the answer choices are verb forms, your next step is to find the subject of the verb. The subject of the verb is the person or thing that completes the action of the verb. In many cases, the subject is easy to find, usually directly to the left of the verb. In the sentence “The student runs,” “runs” is the verb and “student” is the subject. In simple sentences like that one, finding the correct verb conjugation is pretty easy: we would never write “The student run.”
However, the ACT often likes to complicate our job by putting a lot of unnecessary information in between the verb and its subject. In these cases, the first thing we want to do is identify is the verb, the main action word in the sentence. Here’s an example of a more complex sentence:
Despite its ancient beginnings, Stonehenge—a collection of standing stones dating as far back as 3000 B.C. and located just north of Salisbury—have proven to have lasting power, even today attracting over 1 million visitors per year.
Let’s identify the main verb here. Remember those two important non-action verbs? In this sentence, “have” (or “have proven”) is our verb. Now let’s ask what the subject of that verb is. What is the person or thing doing the verb? What have proven to have lasting power? Stonehenge. All of the information inside the two dashes is irrelevant to the subject-verb agreement of this sentence. If we delete it, we get “Stonehenge have proven.” Stonehenge is a singular thing, so we need a singular verb. To correct the sentence, we will change “have” to “has.”
As always, let the answer choices give you a hint as to what skill the question is testing. Once you’ve identified that the question is testing verbs, strip the sentence of all of its irrelevant parts, identify the subject-verb agreement, and check for proper conjugation.