As I’ve discussed many times, the TOEFL writing rubrics can be hard to fully grasp. They require a certain amount of decoding, in my opinion. I have already explained the concepts of idiomaticity and syntactic variety, and in today’s post I will explain “lexical errors.”

“Lexical” just means related to words.  As points out, anything can be lexical.  A linguist has a lexical job.  Solving a crossword puzzle is a lexical activity.

A “lexical error” is an error related to word usage… but not in a grammatical sense. That said, there is a fine line between grammatical and lexical errors.  They look very similar.  They are also very similar to issues of idiomaticity.

To get a sense of the most common lexical errors, I will refer to a list by Süheyla Ander and Özgür Yıldırım, from an article they published in 2010. Note that this is not a comprehensive list.  There are certainly other types of lexical errors your students may make.

1. Wrong Word Choice. This is when a student uses an incorrect word which makes it difficult to determine the meaning of a sentence.  For instance, a student might write: “If they have an open mind, a student is more likely to alleviate their classes.”

A single confusing word makes it impossible to understand the intended meaning.  This isn’t a grammatical error, nor is it really an issue of idiomaticity (where it just sounds unnatural).  It is simply impossible to figure out.

2. Errors of Literal Translation.  Closely related to the above, this is when a student literally translates their own language into English and ends up with an incorrect word choice.  A Korean student might write “I ate my medicine.”  A Turkish student might say “Many people live this problem.”

3. Errors of Omission or Incompletion. This is when a student omits a word and the omission changes the meaning of a sentence or makes it impossible to determine the intended meaning.  For instance, a student might write: “Mr. Kent visited a foreign university in the UK and me when I was transferred to London two years ago.”

The student wanted to express that he was helped by Mr. Kent when he was transferred to London, but he omitted that key verb.

4. Misspellings.  This should be obvious.  Spelling does matter on the TOEFL, at least a little bit.

5. Errors of Redundancy. This is when a student needlessly uses or repeats words or phrases.  A common redundancy on the TOEFL is something like: “In my opinion, I believe that students should be required to attend all of their classes.”

There is no grammatical problem here, but “I believe” is redundant and unnecessary.

Another one is an opening line like: “Many people feel that learning to speak English is more difficult.”

This is a grammatically correct sentence. But since no comparison is being made, the comparative “more” is unnecessary.

6. Errors of Collocation. This one overlaps a lot with idiomaticity. It includes errors like “do mistakes” instead of “make mistakes.”  Or talking about a “studying environment” at a college instead of an “academic environment.”

7. Errors of Word Formation. This is when a student uses the wrong form of a word (for instance, a noun when they should use an adjective).  Like: “Thanks to his kindness act, I got to school on time.”


There you go. I think you can grasp now how lexical errors differ somewhat from grammatical errors.


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