As I mentioned earlier, the TOEFL writing rubrics are notoriously difficult to understand. Perhaps the most difficult part is the requirement that score-five and score-four independent essays demonstrate “syntactic variety” and that score-three essays include a “limited range of syntactic structures.”

What the heck is syntactic variety?  What is a syntactic structure?

Here’s what you should know:

Often I see essays that are quite long and have perfect grammar.  But I still can’t give them a perfect score.  This is because the sentences and clauses are all very similar.  Sometimes the student just uses simple sentences.  Sometimes they use too many compound sentences. Sometimes every sentence starts with a transitional adverb.  Sometimes every sentence starts with a pronoun.  That kind of writing is boring and lacks variety.

Syntax is the arrangement of words into sentences, clauses and phrases.  We don’t just put words anywhere.  They have to be arranged properly to convey meaning, and for our sentences to be considered correct.  Of course you know that.

Syntactic variety” refers to the use of various types of sentences, clauses and phrases. 

Sentence Types

The best way to ensure that your TOEFL essay has syntactic variety is to use the three main sentence types in English: simple, compound, and complex sentences.  You may already be familiar with these.  If not, start studying.

Simple sentences look like this:

Simon took the math test.  He was totally unprepared for it.

Compound sentences look like this:

Simon took the math test, but he was totally unprepared for it.

Complex sentences look like this:

Even though Simon took the math test, he was totally unprepared for it.

Note that complex sentences seem to be most important for the purposes of establishing syntactic variety and complexity.

Beyond Sentence Types – Noun Clauses, Adverb Clauses and Adjective Clauses

You can further increase your syntactic variety through the use of noun, adverb and adjective clauses.

Noun Clauses

A noun clause is a group of words that functions like a noun. They often start with “how” or a “wh-” word.  Like:

Why she didn’t call me is a mystery.

What I did that day surprised my family.

She listened to whatever I suggested.

These demonstrate more variety and complexity than writing:

That is a mystery.

This surprised my family.

She listened to my ideas.

Placing a noun clause in the subject position of a sentence may be considered a sign of more mature and complex writing.

Adverb Clauses

An adverb clause is a group of words that functions as an adverb.  Like adverbs, they usually describe how we do things.  Like:

With great enthusiasm, I finished the project.

Before doing anything else, Matthew turned on his computer.

These are a bit more impressive than:

“Quickly, I finished the project.”

“Eagerly, Matthew turned on his computer.”

Adjective Clauses

An adjective clause (also called a relative clause) is a group of words that functions like an adjective.  It describes a noun in a sentence.  Like:

“The test, which I have taken five times, is extremely difficult.”

“My friend Simone, who is three years older than me, is currently a university freshman.”

Don’t go Crazy

Remember that your essay might only be 20 sentences in total.  You don’t have to do all of these things.  Just include a few compound sentences and a few complex sentences.  Try to work in a few of the above clauses along the way.  

Other Things

There are other ways to achieve syntactic variety. Standardized tests that have a more human touch explicitly mention some of them in their grading rubrics.  Consider the ALP Essay Test from Colombia University, which specifically mentions such techniques as:

  • Inversion
  • Noun clauses in subject position
  • adverb/adjective/noun clauses
  • Appositives
  • Parallelism 
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