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.”


“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.


“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.”


“Even though we worked hard, we failed.”

This means that we worked hard and we failed.


“Even though we work hard, we fail.”

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


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

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


“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.”


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 samples:

  • 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.

It can be difficult to use “near” and “nearby” properly.  I fix mistakes with these two words in TOEFL essays almost every day!  Here’s a quick guide:

  1. Use “near” as a preposition that states the proximity of something to something else.  Like this: “There is a beach near my house.”  This means that there is a beach close to my house.
  2. Use “nearby” before a noun (as an adjective) or after a noun (as an adverb) to say that something is close: “The beach is nearby.” And: “We can meet at a nearby beach.
  3.  Never use nearby as a preposition to describe the closeness of something to something else.  Never say: “There is a beach nearby my house.”


Those are the main usage notes that TOEFL essay writers need.  Of course, a few more things are worth mentioning.  They are:

  1. It is okay to use “near to” as a prepositional phrase.  As in:  “There is a beach near to my house.”  
  2. To make matters more complicated, we often use “near” as an adverb to talk about where we do actions.  As in: “We live near the beach.”
  3. For those keeping track at home, this is covered in Michael Swan’s book in entries 415 and 531.  Maybe I’ll e-mail Swan and suggest a special “near vs nearby” entry in the “word problems” section.  It is a common enough error.

A very quick usage note based on an error I see quite a lot.

Economic” is an adjective that means “related to economics or the economy.”

As in: “I had to sell my house for economic reasons.”

Or: “Universities that invest in sports enjoy certain economic benefits.”

Economical” (note the last two letters) is an adjective meaning that something is affordable or doesn’t cost or use a lot of money.

As in: “My new compact car is very economical.”

Or: “I replaced my old light bulbs with more economical fluorescent bulbs.”

Or: “Switching to solar energy is a very economical choice in the long run.”

You can also refer to a person who doesn’t spend a lot of money as “economical,” but I think this is a bit less common and I tend to avoid it.

As in: “Josh is a very economical shopper.”

Just to complicate things, the subject you study at university is “economics.” Note the final letter.

As in: “I took an economics class last semester.”

And: “I need to buy an expensive economics textbook.”

Quite a lot of students forget that final “s” when they write personal examples in their essays!

Semicolon use is really tricky. To be honest, I f–k it up quite a lot, so I guess my writing is full of errors. I wrote a 90 page thesis in order to graduate from university, and I probably didn’t use a single semicolon in it. There are a few things you should remember, though.

If you have two independent clauses with a coordinating conjunction between them use a comma before the coordinating conjunction.  Like:

“I will go to the restaurant tomorrow, and I plan to order a hamburger.”

If you have two independent clauses and there is nothing between them, use a semicolon. Like:

“I will go to the restaurant tomorrow; I plan to order a hamburger.”

If there are two independent clauses and you have a conjunctive adverb between them (the sorts of things we usually refer to “transitional phrases” in this group like moreover, therefore, consequently, thus…) use a semicolon before the conjunctive adverb, and a comma after the conjunctive adverb. Like:

“I will go to the restaurant tomorrow; moreover, I plan to order a hamburger.”

“It is raining today; therefore, I will go to the restaurant tomorrow.”

Part of the problem is that a lot of native speakers (myself included) often forget about the semicolon in the last example and just use a comma after the first clause.  As in:

“It is raining today, therefore I will go to the restaurant tomorrow.”

This usage is so common that I’d pretty much call it “correct.”


I often see students mix up “boring” and “bored.”

Remember that a thing is boring.  Like a movie, a speech or some homework.  This means we say:

“This movie is really boring.  I hate it!”


“The president’s speech was boring.  I almost fell asleep.”

People feel bored.  So we say:

“I feel really bored today.”

“The movie made me feel really bored.”

“Baby, I’m bored.  Let’s watch a different movie.”

This is the most common error I see, but there are a few similar pairs.  For instance:

  • We feel interested.  Things are interesting.
  • We feel excited.  Things are exciting.
  • We feel confused. Things are confusing.

Speaking of public transportation, be careful when using the plural “subways.”

Don’t use “There are lots of subways in my city” or “Lots of people take subways in my city.”

There is only one “subway” in your city. That refers to the whole network of trains and tunnels and stations. It is generally referred to as “the subway.” So you should say:

“Lots of people take the subway in my city.”

To express the same thought as “there are lots of subways in my city” you should use something like:

“There are lots of subway lines in my city.”

Or in a more natural way:

“The subway runs very frequently in my city.”

The plural “subways” is used mostly to talk about multiple subway systems. As in:

“There are many dirty subways in America.”

That means there are many dirty subway systems in cities across America.

I see this error a lot in TOEFL essays as they often require students to write examples about their everyday life and how they get around. A classic error is something like:

“There are a lot of busses and subways for people in my city.”

This is annoying to fix because it requires something like:

“There are a lot of busses and a great subway system for people in my city.”


“There are a lot of busses and subway lines for people in my city.”

In case you are wondering, the compartment you sit in on the subway is called a “subway car” and the whole bunch of cars plus the place where the driver sits is called a “subway train.” I have probably never spoken the words “subway train” out loud in my life.

There ya go. A ton of writing about a simple error. Life is suffering.

Don’t even get me started on “I am on a bus” vs “I am on the bus.”

Don’t use “public transportations” (with an “s”).

Just use “public transportation” (non-count).

If you want to turn it into a countable noun, try something like “public transportation systems.” Or even “public transportation options,” depending on the context.

Like this:

“I always use public transportation to get around.”

“Most cities want to improve their public transportation systems.”

“There are a lot of public transportation options for commuters in my town.”

I see this error quite frequently since the independent essay can often be written using personal examples about going to work or school.

Use: “I want to lose weight.”

Do not use: “I want to lose my weight.”

Use: “I lost weight.”

Do not use: “I lost my weight.”

Treat “gained weight” in the same way. 

Say:  “I gained weight”

Do not say: “I gained my weight.”

Since talking about your health is a good way to approach a lot of the TOEFL independent essay questions, I see the above error quite a lot. 

I totally understand the error, as we do say things like “I lost my hair” and “I hurt my back.” Just remember that “weight” is not a body part!

“Everyday” = an adjective meaning “common” or “ordinary.”

“Every day” = each day

Native speakers mix these up all the time. I see errors related to these words in newspapers and magazines and serious websites every day.

Since students often support their arguments in the independent essay using examples from their lives, they often need to write about things they do “every day.” Take a minute to learn the difference!

In Use:

“I don’t talk about anything important in everyday conversations with my friends.”

“I wash the dishes every day.”


Evaluate (v) = to assess, judge, grade, etc.
Value (v) = to consider something important

I’m getting a ton of essays which mix up these definitions nowadays.  Particularly in the past tense. Funny how vocabulary mistakes seem to come in waves.

The problem is generally that students incorrectly use “evaluate” to express that something was appreciated. As in: “My boss evaluated my English skills.”

They must instead say:  “My boss valued my English skills.”