Should You Study ACT Vocabulary Lists?

You may have heard that the SAT and ACT don’t test vocabulary anymore. So should you throw your ACT vocabulary lists out the door?

Well, we wouldn’t go that far, but you defintely don’t need to memorize that long list.

While the ACT doesn’t ask questions directly about vocabulary, they will test your vocabulary in about three ways: by asking you about the author’s word choice (also known as diction), asking you to infer what a word means from its context, or asking you what word best fits in a sentence.

Get a 36 on the English Section

This means studying long ACT vocabulary lists is not your best strategy for conquering the ACT English and Reading sections. Instead, it’s better to practice inferring word means and becoming a thoughtful reader. That may sound a little complicated, but don’t worry! We’ll explain each of these question types in detail below, with examples to help you understand how they are presented on the test.

#1: Author’s Word Choice (Diction)

Word choice (diction) simply refers to the words the author chose to use in their writing. 

Authors choose their words carefully to convey a point or emotion. 

Recognizing the effect an author’s diction has on the passage can help you uncover even more about the passage, from tone to theme. On the ACT, they’ll test you on this ability through questions that ask about the tone of the passage or the author’s feelings about a subject. For example:

9)   All but the introductory paragraph of the passage is a conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. The dialogue between the two can best be described as:

A) argumentative.
B) philosophical.
C) witty.
D) serious.

The correct answer is C) witty. To answer this question correctly, you must have a good idea of the tone of the passage. So while the question doesn’t ask directly about a certain word, you need to understand how the author’s word choice creates a mood. What words would imply anger, versus what would imply wit? 

Inferring an author’s meaning from their word choice is a skill you can practice. One way to practice is to read a short story and circle words you think drive the tone of the story. Can you detect sarcasm? Joy? Fear? What words does the author use to convey these tones?

#2: Inferring the Meaning of a Word in Context

Some questions on the ACT may require you to infer the meaning of a word in its context. These can be words that have multiple meanings or words that you are not expected to know.

Inferring the Meaning of a Word with Multiple Meanings

Sometimes the ACT will ask you to infer how an author is using a word that has multiple meanings based on the context of the passage. Be on the lookout for these kinds of questions. You should always return to the passage to confirm how the author is using the word. For example:

5)  According to the next to last sentence in paragraph 1, the word integrity most nearly refers to: 

A) the adherence to ethical and moral principles.
 B)  a state of being entire, whole, or undiminished.
 C)  sound, unimpaired, or perfect condition.
 D)  the lack of corruption in electronic data.

To uncover what a word means from its context, go back to the section referenced in the question (below) and read the sentence before and after the sentence the word appears in. How do these sentences relate to the one with the word in question? 

“Conventional wisdom holds that Ford Motor Company decided to rush the Pinto automobile into production to compete with compact foreign imports, despite internal pre-production tests that showed gas tank ruptures in low-speed rear-end collisions would produce deadly fires…According to this account, the company made an informed, cynical, and impressively coordinated decision that payouts to families of burn victims were more cost-effective than improving fuel tank integrity. This description provides the unambiguous foundation on which the media and academics have built a Pinto gas tank decision-making narrative.”

“Gas tank ruptures” tips you off that we are talking about the condition of the Pinto’s fuel tank. If you answered this question without returning to the passage, you may have mistakenly chosen A) the adherence to ethical and moral principles. While that is a correct definition of integrity, it is not the definition that applies to this context! In this context, integrity describes C) the soundness of the Pinto’s fuel tank. 

Inferring Meaning from Context Alone

Occasionally the ACT will test your ability to infer the meaning of a word that there is little chance of you knowing. For example: 

Using context from paragraph 3, “…move short distances over benthic substrate,” what does the term “benthic” mean?

A) Quality of habitat
B) Habitat that is exclusively composed of cobble
C) Bottom of a stream, river, or pond
D) Having to do with, or related to, aquatic insects

What does benthic mean? Let’s take a look at Paragraph 3 to figure it out:

“Crawling is employed throughout the larval stage of the aquatic insect life cycle and is a basic movement behavior used to move short distances over benthic substrate. Aquatic insects, like all insects, are equipped with three pairs of articulated legs; however, in aquatic insects, these legs bear modifications that allow for efficient crawling behavior over and through the cobbles, gravel, woody debris, and fine sediment that form the benthic substratum.” 

In this example, the fragment “the cobbles, gravel, woody debris, and fine sediment that form the benthic substratum” is your clue. Benthic seems to refer to the bottom of the aquatic bodies these bugs inhabit – answer C) the bottom of a stream, river, or pond

This question is a good example of why memorizing ACT vocabulary lists is not a great study strategy – who would ever put “benthic” on a vocabulary list? Instead, it’s better to practice inferring meaning from context so you can figure out any crazy word the ACT throws your way. 

One great way to practice this is by reading a variety of materials and intentionally engaging in the word choice, inferring the meaning of words you don’t know, and then looking them up to see if you inferred correctly!

How to Read for Fun Again (and Why it’s Important)

#3: Choosing the Best Word in Context

The ACT also will test your vocabulary by asking you to pick the word that best fits in a sentence. A tip to keep in mind: in the questions and the answer choices, the ACT will stick to the dictionary definition of a word. Take a look at this example:

There are so many great 5 things to do in Hawaii.  If you want to hike, then there are volcanoes and trails to explore.

5) great


A) NO CHANGE
B) magnanimous
C) superior
D) enjoyable

When you encounter these questions, here’s a strategy you can use: go back to the passage, read the sentence, treat the underlined word like a fill in the blank, and let your mind fill it in with whatever simple word comes to mind.

Perhaps the word fun fits well. Now, great can mean fun or enjoyable when you’re talking with your friends, but great actually means a large amount, which doesn’t work in this sentence. Remember that the ACT will stick to the dictionary definition of a word in their questions and answer choices. Instead, D) enjoyable fits best in this sentence. 

Commonly Confused Words to Know for the ACT

Now that you know how the ACT tests vocabulary, it’s time to start sharpening your own! Follow up this post by reading our list of Commonly Confused Words to Know for the ACT. The idea behind the list is to help you clear up any ways you may have been using a word incorrectly (affect vs. effect, anyone?).

Commonly Confused Words to Know for the ACT

You can download the list for free here!

How to Put These Tips to Practice

Put your new ACT tips to practice on the Reading and English sections of The Olive Book’s free online ACT course. With dozens of practice questions to try, you’ll start acing the sections in no time. Head to www.olive-book.com to get started right away. 

Further reading:
How to Ace the ACT Reading Section
Fall Reading Round-Up
How to Read for Fun Again (and Why it’s Important)
Get a 36 on the English Section

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