Students often write a single sentence that contains the conjunctions “although” and “but”. This is probably a bad idea. You should just pick one.

You can write:

“Although I studied hard, I couldn’t pass the test.”

And you can write:

“I studied hard, but I couldn’t pass the test.”

Can you see how each of those sentences has just one of the conjunctions?

Don’t write a sentence with both of them. You shouldn’t write:

“Although I studied hard, but I couldn’t pass the test.”

I suppose this is the same as combining “because” and “so” in the same sentence, but that’s a topic for another post.

I see a lot of errors with “ago” and “earlier.” It can be tricky to explain the difference, but I will do my best.

Use “ago” to refer to a point relative to the present. For instance, I can say:

“I met my wife four years ago.”

That means I met my wife four years before the present time (now).

Or I can say:

“Simon was born in Chicago twenty-five years ago.”

That means Simon was born in Chicago twenty-five years before the present time (now).

Don’t use “earlier” to talk about a point relative to the present.

Use “earlier” to talk about something that happened relative to a particular time in the past. For instance I can say:

“I met my wife in 1982. Four years earlier, I had been dating Suzy.”

That means I dated Suzy four years before 1982.

Do you get what I mean? Here’s another:

“Simon was born in Chicago twenty-five years ago. His parents had moved there four years earlier.”

That means Simon’s parents moved there four years before Simon was born.

Honestly, I am not sure if it is better to use the past perfect tense of the simple past tense for the “earlier” parts. The past perfect tense sounds a bit clunky in the second example, but that’s just my opinion.

Use the past tense to refer to extinct animals like dinosaurs.

Pterosaurs are extinct, so that means writing:

“Pterosaurs were cold-blooded like modern reptiles.”

Don’t write:

“Pterosaurs are cold-blooded like modern reptiles.”

The sea cow is extinct, so you should also write:

“Kelp was the main food source of the sea cow.”

Don’t write:

“Kelp is the main food source of the sea cow.”

You might think this is a very obscure point, but I fix this sort of error every week when I review student essays. ETS loves to create integrated writing questions about dinosaurs and other ancient animals.

Just a short grammar guide this week. While this may be a short guide, but it is about one of the most common mistakes I see when checking TOEFL essays.

You must remember that every is normally used before a singular noun. Like this:

Every house in the neighborhood is expensive.”

Or this:

“I want to eat every cookie in the box!”

Do not use a plural noun after “every.” Do not write:

Every houses in the neighborhood is expensive.”

There is one exception, however. You can use a plural noun in expressions that refer to intervals. As in:

“I still talk to him every few days.”

Or:

“We all get together every five weeks.”

When I check TOEFL essays, I often see grammar mistakes involving “stopped to VERB” and “stopped VERBing.” This is a dangerous mistake since these forms are used to express totally different ideas. The mistake often results in a sentence with the complete opposite of the writer’s intended meaning!

Here’s what you need to know.

I stopped VERBing” means that I stopped doing that action.

So:

I stopped dancing in 1997” means that I stopped dancing in 1997.

I stopped doing homework” means that I stopped doing my homework.

Easy, right? This is what most people want to express. This is probably what you should use in your essays.

Next:

I stopped to VERB” means that I actually did the action!

I was walking to school and I stopped to buy a sandwich” means that I bought a sandwich while you were walking to school.

Yesterday, I stopped to talk to Simon” means that yesterday I talked to Simon.

The tricky thing is that after some English verbs you can use either an -ing form or an infinitive. But after other verbs you cannot.

What’s worse is that after some verbs this results in a different meaning, but after other verbs it does not.

For reference and verb lists, I recommend sections 100, 105 and 110 of “Practical English Usage.”

When grading TOEFL essays, I often see mistakes when students use “one of the.”

Remember that “one of the” should be followed by a plural noun.

Here’s an error I spotted in an essay today:

“Following my graduation, I got a job at one of the largest law firm in New York.”

That’s wrong because of the singular “law firm.” The correct version is:

“Following my graduation, I got a job at one of the largest law firms in New York.”

Note the plural “law firms.”

Here’s another incorrect sentence:

“Only one of the student submitted his essay before the deadline.”

That’s incorrect because of the singular “student.” The correct version uses the plural form:

“Only one of the students submitted his essay before the deadline.”

Obviously this is tricky because “one of” makes us think about using a singular noun!

Also tricky is subject-verb agreement when your subject begins with “one of the…”, but that’s a topic for a different post.

The most common sentence fragment error I see in essays is a misuse of “while” to contrast things.

Here’s an example of the error in an essay I checked this morning:

“In the past we needed to visit many stores to compare prices of products. While today we can compare hundreds of products on a single website.”

The second sentence is a sentence fragment since it lacks an independent clause.

Better is to combine those sentences so you have both a clear independent clause and a clear subordinate clause.  Like this:

“In the past we needed to visit many stores to compare prices of products, while today we can compare hundreds of products on a single website.”

Or:

While today we can compare hundreds of products on a single website, in the past we needed to visit many stores to compare prices of products.”

If you really want to use two sentences, change “while” to something like “in contrast.” Like:

“In the past we needed to visit many stores to compare prices of products. In contrast, today we can compare hundreds of products on a single website.”

This is a tricky error since you will hear the “incorrect” version in spoken English all the time. It sounds pretty normal if we emphasize “today” while speaking. Some people might argue that it is fine in writing as well.

I think you should avoid it in your TOEFL essays, since “sentence fragments” is an entire category in the e-rater.

I often see students use “until now” and “so far” incorrectly. Here’s a quick lesson!

Rule one: Use “so far” to describe a condition that is ongoing. As in:

“I moved to New York five weeks ago and I haven’t met anyone so far.” (this means that I still don’t have any friends)

Rule two: Use “until now” to talk about a condition that has just stopped occurring. As in:

“I didn’t call you because I didn’t have your phone number until now.” (this means I just now got your phone number)

Rule three: Don’t use “until now” to talk about a condition that is ongoing.

That’s it!

To further illustrate, here’s an error I commonly see:

“We met in high school and have been friends until now.”

In this case, the student wants to say that they are still friends, but the sentence actually means that they just stopped being friends… the opposite of his intended meaning!

Here’s an error that inspired this post:

“I took the TOEFL five weeks ago, and haven’t gotten my scores until now.”

In this case, the student wants to say that he is still waiting for his scores, so the proper sentence is:

“I took the TOEFL five weeks ago, and haven’t gotten my scores so far.”

 

Writing numbers properly can be tricky. There are a few things to keep in mind.

Remember that you should use a hyphen only in compound numbers between 21 and 99. Don’t use a hyphen when numbers are greater than 99. So you should write:

  • thirtythree
  • one hundred and thirtythree
  • five thousand and seventynine

You should not write:

  • seven-hundred
  • one-hundred and thirty-three
  • five-thousand and seventy-nine

Those hyphens are incorrect because they appear in numbers greater than 99.

The use of “and” is also tricky. In British English we always use “and” between hundred/thousand/million/etc and numbers below 100. As in:

  • seven hundred and five
  • two million and ten
  • six thousand, five hundred and nine

In American English it is acceptable to omit “and.” As in:

  • seven hundred five
  • two million ten

I wonder, though, if the British “and” is becoming more common among American speakers and writers.

This is a new kind of error.  I see it in essays almost every day.  For some reason, it seems a lot more common nowadays.  Weird.

“Even if” 

“Even if” refers to a possible situation.  The meaning is close to “whether or not.”

Like:

“Even if we work hard, we will fail.” 

This means that we might work hard or we might not work hard.  In either case, we will fail.

Or:

“Even if the government shuts down the factory, global warming will continue.”

This means that the government might shut down the factory.  Or it might not shut down the factory.  In either case, global warming will continue.

“Even Though”

“Even though” refers to a situation that is true.  The meaning is close to “despite the fact.”

Like:

“Even though we worked hard, we failed.”

This means that we worked hard and we failed.

Or:

“Even though we work hard, we fail.”

This means that we always work hard and we always fail.

Or:

“Even though the government shut down the factory, global warming continued.”

This means that the government shut down the factory, and global warming continued.

Or:

“Even though the government will shut down the factory, global warming will continue.”

This means that the government will shut down the factory, and global warming will continue.

Personal examples in TOEFL essays are often about friendships and relationships, so I often see sentences using “maintain relationships” and “keep relationships.”

How can students use these phrases properly?

Maintain Relationships

This is the easiest one to use.  It means to do what is necessary to continue in the relationship.  Use it like this:

“It is important for us to maintain relationships with our old friends.”

“It can be challenging to maintain relationships with our friends when we go away to college.”

Keep Relationships

This one is a bit harder.  It should include a pronoun and an adjective.  Like this:

“It is important to keep our relationships strong.”

“Everyone should work hard to keep their relationships healthy.”

You can use “keep relationships” alone, but that has a meaning closer to “retain relationships” which sometimes sounds awkward, and isn’t usually the intended meaning.

Easiest Use

Honestly, it is probably easiest to just use “Maintain” all the time.  You can replace the above sentences with:

“It is important to maintain strong relationships.”

“Everyone should work hard to maintain healthy relationships.”

Friendships

I think the above rules also apply to the word “friendships.”

This one’s hard to explain, so pay attention.

Access as Verb

When used as a verb, “access” it is not followed by “to.”  Just write:

  • “Thanks to the Internet, I can access information at any time.”
  • “Students can access a lot of books at the campus library.”
  • “Everyone wants to access the Internet nowadays.”

This is the most common use of the word, I think.

Access as a Noun

When used as a noun, “access” should be followed by “to.”  As in:

  • “Thanks to the Internet, students have access to a lot of information.”
  • “Students who visit the library have access to a lot of books.”
  • “Student wants access to more books.”

Don’t Write “access (v) to”

The most common error I see is when students use “access” as a verb and write “to” after it.  This will always be wrong.  Don’t write:

  • On the Internet, students can access to a lot of information at any time.”

 

This is a simple one.  Here’s what you need to know:

  • Don’t use “make effort.”
  • Do use “make an effort.”

This is a mistake I correct almost every day!

Here are a few correct sentences:

  • You won’t pass the test if you don’t make an effort to learn English.
  • Joseph will likely make an effort to arrive on time.

When I checked Google News I found 213000 articles that included ” make an effort .” I did find 4850 articles that included “make effort” but they are mostly from countries outside of North America.