ACT English and SAT Writing Tips: Diction Errors

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Mark Twain onceBusiness man holding electricity light bolt in his hands concept quipped, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” I doubt that he was thinking about standardized English and Writing tests when he uttered those words, but they are conveniently applicable to ACT and SAT diction errors. Failing to catch diction errors on the test can burn as badly as catching lightning bolts instead of lightning bugs.

Diction means “word choice,” and diction errors occur when the “almost right word” is used in place of the “right word” in ACT English and SAT Writing passages.

There are many lists of commonly confused words available in English textbooks, on the internet, and even in school planners. Homophones, which are words that sound alike but have different meanings, such as principal and principle, make up most of these lists. But homophones are not tested on the ACT or SAT. The diction errors on the tests are words that sound different, are spelled differently, and have different meanings.  Consider an example:

WritingExMany students will mistakenly choose “No Change” for this question. But is abstraction the right word? It means the general idea. Does the Heimlich dislodge an expel the general idea? No. It dislodges and expels a blockage or obstruction Abstraction and obstruction look similar but they have very different meanings.

Before selecting “No Error” for any test question, do a quick check of all of the underlined words to make sure they are the right word for the sentence. Diction errors may occur with words that start with the same letters but have different endings, like the following:

  • conscious/conscientious                                              
  • exacerbate/exasperate
  • incredible/incredulous  
  • collaborate/corroborate                                              
  • ambivalent/ambiguous
  • gambit/gamut                                                                  
  • moral/morale
  • proceed/precede                                                           
  • homing in/honing in
  • inequity/iniquity                                                             
  • elegant/eloquent
  • antidote/anecdote                                                        
  • appraise/apprise
  • torturous/tortuous                                                        
  • affection/affliction
  • abduct/abdicate                                                              
  • reflective/reflexive
  • climatic/climactic                                                             
  • bountiful/boundless
  • decisive/divisive                                                              
  • revoke/revolt
  • broach/brooch                                                                 
  • expedient/expeditious
  • genus/genius                                                                   
  • imperial/imperious
  • irrelevant/irreverent                                                     
  • motif/motive
  • systematic/systemic                                                      
  • dilute/delude
  • flaunt/flout                                                                       
  • reticent/reluctant
  • vicious/viscous                                                                 
  • restive/restful
  • compass/compress                                                        
  • indigenous/indigent
  • ingenious/ingenuous                                                    
  • insensible/insensitive
  • corroborate/collaborate                                              
  • endemic/epidemic
  • dissemble/disassemble                                               
  • deprecate/depreciate
  • descry/decry                                                                    
  • engender/endanger
  • circumvent/circumnavigate/circumscribe/circumstance

Diction errors may also involve words that start with different letters but have similar endings:

  • sustain/retain/maintain                                                 
  • regardless/irregardless
  • abstraction/obstruction                                               
  • accede/exceed
  • access/excess                                                                  
  • apathy/empathy
  • allude/elude                                                                     
  • allusion/illusion
  • elicit/illicit                                                                           
  • eminent/imminent
  • unanimous/anonymous                                              
  • defer/refer
  • uninterested/disinterested                              
  • connotation/denotation

There are hundreds of word pairs that may be confused, but studying them all is not the most valuable use of your time. Instead, be aware that diction errors do exist, and check the meaning of underlined words before selecting “No Change.”

Want more great Writing Section tips? Consider an ACT Course or Tutoring from PowerScore. Or perk up your Reading score with the PowerScore ACT and SAT Reading Bible.


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