The TOEFL writing rubrics are famously difficult to understand. Even experienced teachers have a hard time turning them into something that students can actually make use of. Today’s blog post will kick off a series that attempts to explain what the rubrics actually refer to.  Starting with…


References in the rubric to “idiomaticity” and “idiomatic language” are particularly difficult to grasp. The rubric says that a score-five independent essay should “display appropriate word choice and idiomaticity.” Meanwhile, it notes that a score-four essay should have only “minor errors” in its “use of idiomatic language.”

But what does this actually mean?

Many students (and teachers) think that ETS wants test-takers to use idioms like “it was raining cats and dogs last week” or “I won’t beat around the bush.” That is not correct. That’s a different matter.

“Idiomaticity” is tough to define, but the dictionary definition is best. It says that idiomaticity is “the extent to which a learner’s language resembles that of a native speaker.”

This is what your teachers are hinting at when they change one of your sentences not because of a specific grammar error, but because they think some of your word choices don’t seem natural.

Here’s a sentence I recently read:

“Business owners want employees to make quick decisions, which renders stress for those who take their time.”

There aren’t any grammar errors in that sentence. But “renders” sounds weird to me. Changing that to “causes” or “creates” will increase the idiomaticity of the sentence.

Here’s another one:

“When the shopping mall opened, many local shops ceased their business.”

That’s a lot more subtle. “Ceased their business” is pretty good, but it is a little bit awkward. A native speaker would probably say something like “went out of business.”

I would even complain about something like:

“I strongly think that children should attend all of their classes”

My preferred phrasing would be something like “I strongly believe…”.

You might think I’m being needlessly picky, but to get a perfect score (5 on the rubric, 30 scaled) you need to use the best possible words at all times.

In TOEFL essays, problems related to idiomaticity seem to come from two sources:

  1. Inexperience with the language.
  2. A desire to shove a lot of fancy words into the essays to get a higher score.

The first source is normal. No one is perfect. You can overcome this by studying. Read sample essays. Get feedback on your own writing. Try studying with a collocations book like “Collocations in Use.” Consider using a learner’s dictionary.

The second source is not normal. Ignore advice from inexperienced teachers who think that using obscure words will help you. They won’t. Some of the essays I’ve read come pretty close to Noam Chomsky’s famous “colorless green ideas sleep furiously”. That’s a beautiful sentence, but no meaning can be derived from it.

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