ACT and SAT Reading Tips: U-Turn Words

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In ACT and SAT reading U-turn.jpgpasssages, pivotal words are those that guide a reader through an author’s ideas. They are "direction" words, telling you you which way to go in your thought process. Spotting these words throughout a passage can help you determine the author’s attitude and opinion concerning the main idea, which will ultimately help you when faced with the questions at the end of the passage. Just knowing that the author favors school uniforms or that she disapproves of internet sales tax can help you eliminate wrong answer choices.

Today we are going to look at one of the most common types of pivotal words: those that signal a U-turn.

U-Turn Words

Authors often use words that signal a “U-turn” in the text to highlight contrasting ideas. These are the most important pivotal words in a passage; if you miss one, you likely miss the author’s point and believe in the opposite idea. Consider an example:


Scholars long believed the painting was completed in 1678, but recent evidence indicates that is was not finished until the turn of the century.


In this sentence, the U-Turn Word but  contradicts the first idea. Students who fail to notice the U-Turn Word might mistakenly believe that the painting was completed in 1678, when recent evidence indicates that it was completed in 1700 or later.

U-Turn Words may also be subordinating conjunctions at the beginning of a sentence:

 While an argument can be made that certain programs on television are harmful to children, not all shows have such negative consequences.

The U-Turn Word while  indicates that the second part of the sentence is going to oppose the first part. The author believes that some television shows do not have negative consequences. However, if you do not pick up on while,  you might erroneously determine that the main idea is that programs on television are harmful to children.

The U-Turn Words in Reading passages include all of the following:

  • but  
  • on the contrary  
  • still              
  • although    
  • on the other hand    
  • nonetheless   
  • yet    
  • instead of    
  • in contrast  
  • despite    
  • conversely  
  • rather than   
  • while    
  • even though    
  • whereas  
  • however    
  • nevertheless    
  • paradoxically 
  • even so/even if   
  • in spite of    
  • not    

When U-Turn Words are used in a passage, the author’s viewpoint most often lies in the contrasting idea, which is usually the second portion of the sentence. 

Want to see U-turn words in action? Get out your official guides and tests. For example, look at The Official ACT Prep Guide, Test 2, Section 3, Passage IV (page 376 in my copy). The first and most important U-Turn occurs in line 15 with the word but. This contradiction is important to understanding the main idea of the passage. The fifth paragraph is filled with U-Turn words, including but, yet, and even if. The sixth paragraph makes use of despite and yet.

For SAT test takers, check out SAT Practice Test #2, Section 1, Passage 2 (page 419 in my copy and available here: This passage is filled with U-Turn words, starting with but in line 7, which contains a sentence that is key to the main idea. You can also find although in line 28; instead of  in 31 and 45; but in 36,42, 58 and 83; yet in 45, and even if  in 55.

As you can see, your understanding U-Turn words is essential to your understanding of ACT and SAT reading passages. For more information on pivotal words, check out ourACT and SAT Reading Bible!


Image: "U-Turn," courtesy of Scott Mels