The writing section of the TOEFL test is specifically designed to evaluate your ability to analyze a particular subject and convey that analysis in an essay. As a result, it is essential for you to be able to turn a series of different, but related ideas into an essay that is both coherent and concise. The evaluators who will look at each essay will expect some small grammatical mistakes because they realize that the exam-taker is attempting to write the essay in a very short amount of time. This is not to say, however, that you should ignore basic rules of grammar and syntax. Your essay needn’t reflect your best work, but it should at least be well constructed.. One of the best ways to avoid these types of mistakes is to be aware of the most common errors that students usually make.
Although the TOEFL test doesn’t contain a specific grammar module, recognition and appropriate use of grammar is undeniably important for success in the other skills modules
For the TOEFL, it is sufficient to know a few basic rules and principles of the
Let us look at the ‘Sentence’ to start with:
A sentence is an assemblage of words so arranged as to convey a determinate
sense or meaning, in other words, to express a complete thought or idea.
No matter how short, it must contain one finite verb and a subject or agent
to direct the action of the verb.
“Birds fly;” “Fish swim;” “Men walk;”–are sentences.
A sentence always contains two parts, something spoken about and something
said about it. The word or words indicating what is spoken about form what
is called the _subject_ and the word or words indicating what is said about
it form what is called the _predicate_.
In the sentences given, _birds_, _fish_ and _men_ are the subjects, while
_fly_, _swim_ and _walk_ are the predicates.
There are three kinds of sentences, _simple_, _compound_ and _complex_.
The _simple sentence_ expresses a single thought and consists of one
subject and one predicate, as, “Man is mortal.”
A _compound sentence_ consists of two or more simple sentences of equal
importance the parts of which are either expressed or understood, as,
“The men work in the fields and the women work in the household,” or “The
men work in the fields and the women in the household” or “The men and
women work in the fields and in the household.”
A _complex sentence_ consists of two or more simple sentences so combined
that one depends on the other to complete its meaning; as; “When he
returns, I shall go on my vacation.” Here the words, “when he returns”
are dependent on the rest of the sentence for their meaning.
A _clause_ is a separate part of a complex sentence, as “when he returns”
in the last example.
A _phrase_ consists of two or more words without a finite verb.
Without a finite verb we cannot affirm anything or convey an idea,
therefore we can have no sentence.
Infinitives and participles which are the infinite parts of the verb
cannot be predicates. “I looking up the street” is not a sentence, for it
is not a complete action expressed. When we hear such an expression as “A
dog running along the street,” we wait for something more to be added,
something more affirmed about the dog, whether he bit or barked or fell
dead or was run over.
Thus in every sentence there must be a finite verb to limit the subject.
When the verb is transitive, that is, when the action cannot happen
without affecting something, the thing affected is called the _object_.
Thus in “Cain killed Abel” the action of the killing affected Abel. In
“The cat has caught a mouse,” mouse is the object of the catching.
ARRANGEMENT OF WORDS IN A SENTENCE
Of course in simple sentences the natural order of arrangement is
subject–verb–object. In many cases no other form is possible. Thus in
the sentence “The cat has caught a mouse,” we cannot reverse it and say
“The mouse has caught a cat” without destroying the meaning, and in any
other form of arrangement, such as “A mouse, the cat has caught,” we feel
that while it is intelligible, it is a poor way of expressing the fact
and one which jars upon us more or less.
In longer sentences, however, when there are more words than what are
barely necessary for subject, verb and object, we have greater freedom of
arrangement and can so place the words as to give the best effect. The
proper placing of words depends upon perspicuity and precision. These two
combined give _style_ to the structure.
Most people are familiar with Gray’s line in the immortal _Elegy_–”The
ploughman homeward plods his weary way.” This line can be paraphrased to
read 18 different ways. Here are a few variations:
Homeward the ploughman plods his weary way.
The ploughman plods his weary way homeward.
Plods homeward the ploughman his weary way.
His weary way the ploughman homeward plods.
Homeward his weary way plods the ploughman.
Plods the ploughman his weary way homeward.
His weary way the ploughman plods homeward.
His weary way homeward the ploughman plods.
The ploughman plods homeward his weary way.
The ploughman his weary way plods homeward.
and so on. It is doubtful if any of the other forms are superior to the
one used by the poet. Of course his arrangement was made to comply with
the rhythm and rhyme of the verse. Most of the variations depend upon the
emphasis we wish to place upon the different words.
In arranging the words in an ordinary sentence we should not lose sight
of the fact that the beginning and end are the important places for
catching the attention of the reader. Words in these places have greater
emphasis than elsewhere.
In Gray’s line the general meaning conveyed is that a weary ploughman is
plodding his way homeward, but according to the arrangement a very slight
difference is effected in the idea. Some of the variations make us think
more of the ploughman, others more of the plodding, and still others more
of the weariness.
As the beginning and end of a sentence are the most important places, it
naturally follows that small or insignificant words should be kept from
these positions. Of the two places the end one is the more important,
therefore, it really calls for the most important word in the sentence.
Never commence a sentence with _And_, _But_, _Since_, _Because_, and
other similar weak words and never end it with prepositions, small, weak
adverbs or pronouns.
The parts of a sentence which are most closely connected with one another
in meaning should be closely connected in order also. By ignoring this
principle many sentences are made, if not nonsensical, really ridiculous
and ludicrous. For instance: “Ten dollars reward is offered for
information of any person injuring this property by order of the owner.”
“This monument was erected to the memory of John Jones, who was shot by
his affectionate brother.”
In the construction of all sentences the grammatical rules must be
inviolably observed. The laws of concord, that is, the agreement of
certain words, must be obeyed.
(1) The verb agrees with its subject in person and number. “I have,”
“Thou hast,” (the pronoun _thou_ is here used to illustrate the verb
form, though it is almost obsolete), “He has,” show the variation of the
verb to agree with the subject. A singular subject calls for a singular
verb, a plural subject demands a verb in the plural; as, “The boy
writes,” “The boys write.”
The agreement of a verb and its subject is often destroyed by confusing
(1) collective and common nouns; (2) foreign and English nouns; (3)
compound and simple subjects; (4) real and apparent subjects.
(1) A collective noun is a number of individuals or things
regarded as a whole; as, _class regiment_. When the individuals
or things are prominently brought forward, use a plural verb;
as The class _were_ distinguished for ability. When the idea of
the whole as a unit is under consideration employ a singular
verb; as The regiment _was_ in camp. (2) It is sometimes hard
for the ordinary individual to distinguish the plural from the
singular in foreign nouns, therefore, he should be careful in
the selection of the verb. He should look up the word and be
guided accordingly. “He was an _alumnus_ of Harvard.” “They
were _alumni_ of Harvard.” (3) When a sentence with one verb
has two or more subjects denoting different things, connected
by _and_, the verb should be plural; as, “Snow and rain _are_
disagreeable.” When the subjects denote the same thing and are
connected by _or_ the verb should be singular; as, “The man or
the woman is to blame.” (4) When the same verb has more than
one subject of different persons or numbers, it agrees with the
most prominent in thought; as, “He, and not you, _is_ wrong.”
“Whether he or I _am_ to be blamed.”
(2) Never use the past participle for the past tense nor _vice versa_.
This mistake is a very common one. At every turn we hear “He done it” for
“He did it.” “The jar was broke” instead of broken. “He would have went”
for “He would have gone,” etc.
(3) The use of the verbs _shall_ and _will_ is a rock upon which even
the best speakers come to wreck. They are interchanged recklessly.
Their significance changes according as they are used with the first,
second or third person. With the first person _shall_ is used in direct
statement to express a simple future action; as, “I shall go to the
city to-morrow.” With the second and third persons _shall_ is used to
express a determination; as, “You _shall_ go to the city to-morrow,”
“He _shall_ go to the city to-morrow.”
With the first person _will_ is used in direct statement to express
determination, as, “I will go to the city to-morrow.” With the second and
third persons _will_ is used to express simple future action; as, “You
_will_ go to the city to-morrow,” “He _will_ go to the city to-morrow.”
A very old rule regarding the uses of _shall_ and _will_ is thus
expressed in rhyme:
In the first person simply _shall_ foretells,
In _will_ a threat or else a promise dwells.
_Shall_ in the second and third does threat,
_Will_ simply then foretells the future feat.
(4) Take special care to distinguish between the nominative and objective
case. The pronouns are the only words which retain the ancient distinctive
case ending for the objective. Remember that the objective case follows
transitive verbs and prepositions. Don’t say “The boy who I sent to see
you,” but “The boy whom I sent to see you.” _Whom_ is here the object of
the transitive verb sent. Don’t say “She bowed to him and I” but “She
bowed to him and me” since me is the objective case following the
preposition _to_ understood. “Between you and I” is a very common
expression. It should be “Between you and me” since _between_ is a
preposition calling for the objective case.
(5) Be careful in the use of the relative pronouns _who_, _which_ and
_that_. Who refers only to persons; which only to things; as, “The boy
who was drowned,” “The umbrella which I lost.” The relative _that_ may
refer to both persons and things; as, “The man _that_ I saw.” “The hat
_that_ I bought.”
(6) Don’t use the superlative degree of the adjective for the comparative;
as “He is the richest of the two” for “He is the richer of the two.”
Other mistakes often made in this connection are (1) Using the double
comparative and superlative; as, “These apples are much _more_ preferable.”
“The most universal motive to business is gain.” (2) Comparing objects
which belong to dissimilar classes; as “There is no nicer _life_ than a
_teacher_.” (3) Including objects in class to which they do not belong;
as, “The fairest of her daughters, Eve.” (4) Excluding an object from a
class to which it does belong; as, “Caesar was braver than any ancient
(7) Don’t use an adjective for an adverb or an adverb for an adjective.
Don’t say, “He acted nice towards me” but “He acted nicely toward me,”
and instead of saying “She looked _beautifully_” say “She looked
(8) Place the adverb as near as possible to the word it modifies. Instead
of saying, “He walked to the door quickly,” say “He walked quickly to the
(9) Not alone be careful to distinguish between the nominative and
objective cases of the pronouns, but try to avoid ambiguity in their use.
The amusing effect of disregarding the reference of pronouns is well
illustrated by Burton in the following story of Billy Williams, a comic
actor who thus narrates his experience in riding a horse owned by
Hamblin, the manager:
“So down I goes to the stable with Tom Flynn, and told the man to put
the saddle on him.”
“On Tom Flynn?”
“No, on the horse. So after talking with Tom Flynn awhile I mounted
“What! mounted Tom Flynn?”
“No, the horse; and then I shook hands with him and rode off.”
“Shook hands with the horse, Billy?”
“No, with Tom Flynn; and then I rode off up the Bowery, and who should
I meet but Tom Hamblin; so I got off and told the boy to hold him by
“What! hold Hamblin by the head?”
“No, the horse; and then we went and had a drink together.”
“What! you and the horse?”
“No, _me_ and Hamblin; and after that I mounted him again and went out
“What! mounted Hamblin again?”
“No, the horse; and when I got to Burnham, who should be there but Tom
Flynn,–he’d taken another horse and rode out ahead of me; so I told
the hostler to tie him up.”
“Tie Tom Flynn up?”
“No, the horse; and we had a drink there.”
“What! you and the horse?”
“No, me and Tom Flynn.”
Finding his auditors by this time in a _horse_ laugh, Billy wound up
with: “Now, look here,–every time I say horse, you say Hamblin, and
every time I say Hamblin you say horse: I’ll be hanged if I tell you
any more about it.”
There are two great classes of sentences according to the general
principles upon which they are founded. These are termed the _loose_ and
In the _loose_ sentence the main idea is put first, and then follow
several facts in connection with it. Defoe is an author particularly
noted for this kind of sentence. He starts out with a leading declaration
to which he adds several attendant connections. For instance in the
opening of the story of _Robinson Crusoe_ we read: “I was born in the
year 1632 in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that
country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at
Hull; he got a good estate by merchandise, and leaving off his trade
lived afterward at York, from whence he had married my mother, whose
relations were named Robinson, a very good family in the country and from
I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but by the usual corruption of words in
England, we are now called, nay, we call ourselves, and write our name
Crusoe, and so my companions always called me.”
In the periodic sentence the main idea comes last and is preceded by a
series of relative introductions. This kind of sentence is often
introduced by such words as _that_, _if_, _since_, _because_. The
following is an example:
“That through his own folly and lack of circumspection he should have
been reduced to such circumstances as to be forced to become a beggar on
the streets, soliciting alms from those who had formerly been the
recipients of his bounty, was a sore humiliation.”
On account of its name many are liable to think the _loose_ sentence an
undesirable form in good composition, but this should not be taken for
granted. In many cases it is preferable to the periodic form.
As a general rule in speaking, as opposed to writing, the _loose_ form is
to be preferred, inasmuch as when the periodic is employed in discourse
the listeners are apt to forget the introductory clauses before the final
issue is reached.
Both kinds are freely used in composition, but in speaking, the _loose_,
which makes the direct statement at the beginning, should predominate.
As to the length of sentences much depends on the nature of the
However the general rule may be laid down that short sentences are
preferable to long ones. The tendency of the best writers of the present
day is towards short, snappy, pithy sentences which rivet the attention of
the reader. They adopt as their motto _multum in parvo_ (much in little)
and endeavor to pack a great deal in small space. Of course the extreme of
brevity is to be avoided. Sentences can be too short, too jerky, too
brittle to withstand the test of criticism. The long sentence has its place
and a very important one. It is indispensable in argument and often is very
necessary to description and also in introducing general principles which
require elaboration. In employing the long sentence the inexperienced
writer should not strain after the heavy, ponderous type. Johnson and
Carlyle used such a type, but remember, an ordinary mortal cannot wield the
sledge hammer of a giant. Johnson and Carlyle were intellectual giants and
few can hope to stand on the same literary pedestal. The tyro in
composition should never seek after the heavy style. The best of all
authors in the English language for style is Addison. Macaulay says: “If
you wish a style learned, but not pedantic, elegant but not ostentatious,
simple yet refined, you must give your days and nights to the volumes of
Joseph Addison.” The simplicity, apart from the beauty of Addison’s
writings causes us to reiterate the literary command–”Never use a big word
when a little one will convey the same or a similar meaning.”
Macaulay himself is an elegant stylist to imitate. He is like a clear
brook kissed by the noon-day sun in the shining bed of which you can see
and count the beautiful white pebbles. Goldsmith is another writer whose
simplicity of style charms.
The beginner should study these writers, make their works his _vade mecum_,
they have stood the test of time and there has been no improvement upon
them yet, nor is there likely to be, for their writing is as perfect as
it is possible to be in the English language.
Apart from their grammatical construction there can be no fixed rules for
the formation of sentences. The best plan is to follow the best authors
and these masters of language will guide you safely along the way.
The paragraph may be defined as a group of sentences that are closely
related in thought and which serve one common purpose. Not only do they
preserve the sequence of the different parts into which a composition is
divided, but they give a certain spice to the matter like raisins in a
plum pudding. A solid page of printed matter is distasteful to the reader;
it taxes the eye and tends towards the weariness of monotony, but when it
is broken up into sections it loses much of its heaviness and the
consequent lightness gives it charm, as it were, to capture the reader.
Paragraphs are like stepping-stones on the bed of a shallow river, which
enable the foot passenger to skip with ease from one to the other until
he gets across; but if the stones are placed too far apart in attempting
to span the distance one is liable to miss the mark and fall in the water
and flounder about until he is again able to get a foothold. ‘Tis the
same with written language, the reader by means of paragraphs can easily
pass from one portion of connected thought to another and keep up his
interest in the subject until he gets to the end.
Throughout the paragraph there must be some connection in regard to the
matter under consideration,–a sentence dependency. For instance, in the
same paragraph we must not speak of a house on fire and a runaway horse
unless there is some connection between the two. We must not write
“The fire raged with fierce intensity, consuming the greater part of the
large building in a short time.” “The horse took fright and wildly dashed
down the street scattering pedestrians in all directions.” These two
sentences have no connection and therefore should occupy separate and
distinct places. But when we say–”The fire raged with fierce intensity
consuming the greater part of the large building in a short time and the
horse taking fright at the flames dashed wildly down the street scattering
pedestrians in all directions,”–there is a natural sequence, viz., the
horse taking fright as a consequence of the flames and hence the two
expressions are combined in one paragraph.
As in the case of words in sentences, the most important places in a
paragraph are the beginning and the end. Accordingly the first sentence
and the last should by virtue of their structure and nervous force,
compel the reader’s attention. It is usually advisable to make the first
sentence short; the last sentence may be long or short, but in either
case should be forcible. The object of the first sentence is to state a
point _clearly_; the last sentence should _enforce_ it.
It is a custom of good writers to make the conclusion of the paragraph a
restatement or counterpart or application of the opening.
In most cases a paragraph may be regarded as the elaboration of the
principal sentence. The leading thought or idea can be taken as a nucleus
and around it constructed the different parts of the paragraph. Anyone
can make a context for every simple sentence by asking himself questions
in reference to the sentence. Thus–”The foreman gave the order”–
suggests at once several questions; “What was the order?” “to whom did he
give it?” “why did he give it?” “what was the result?” etc. These
questions when answered will depend upon the leading one and be an
elaboration of it into a complete paragraph.
If we examine any good paragraph we shall find it made up of a number of
items, each of which helps to illustrate, confirm or enforce the general
thought or purpose of the paragraph. Also the transition from each item
to the next is easy, natural and obvious; the items seem to come of
themselves. If, on the other hand, we detect in a paragraph one or more
items which have no direct bearing, or if we are unable to proceed
readily from item to item, especially if we are obliged to rearrange the
items before we can perceive their full significance, then we are
justified in pronouncing the paragraph construction faulty.
No specific rules can be given as to the construction of paragraphs. The
best advice is,–Study closely the paragraph structure of the best
writers, for it is only through imitation, conscious or unconscious of
the best models, that one can master the art.