TOEFL Grammar and Style

It's difficult to study grammar for the TOEFL, as there are no grammar questions on the test.  Thus, students might feel they just need to study all grammar points in order to succeed.  That's probably true, but since your time may be limited, there are are a few areas which you may wish to focus on.  I've reviewed a few thousand TOEFL essays written by students over the years, and the areas where most errors occur are as follows:

Problems with Making Generalizations/Using Articles

This comes up most often in topic sentences, where students are usually making broad generalizations about a question.  Consider the sample question "have North Americans become too dependent on the car for travel?"  A student might write at the beginning of a body paragraph:

"First of all, a car makes a lot of noise in my neighborhood."

But because you are making a generalization about all cars, it is better is to drop the article and instead use the plural form:

"First of all, cars make a a lot of noise in my neighborhood."

If you are writing an essay about whether teachers are more important than parents, a student might say:

"A teacher helps a child with every aspect of his academic life."

But since you are making a generalization about all parents and all children, it is better to drop the articles and use the plural form:

"Teachers help children with every aspect of their lives."

The incorrect sentences are grammatically correct, but they use the wrong grammar form for the essay.

Not Using the Past Tense for Examples Entirely Set in the Past

Students often forget to use the past tense when they are talking about an example set in the past.  For example, they might say:

"Last year I started a new job.  My job is very difficult and I have to do a lot of paperwork.  I talk to a new customer every day.  Eventually, though, I overcame the difficulty."

This example is set entirely in the past.  The student might still have the job today, but since the example happened entirely in the past, they should have said:

"Last year I started a new job.  My job was very difficult and I had to do a lot of paperwork. I talked to a new customer every day.  Eventually, though, I overcame the difficulty."

 I see many errors of this type.

Not Using Commas After Transitional Phrases

There are a lot of phrases that are almost always followed by a comma when they begin a sentence.  Including:

  • "In conclusion"
  • "Furthermore"
  • "As a result"
  • "Moreover"
  • "To begin with"
  • "In summary"
  • "Firstly"

Students often forget the required comma.

Not Using Academic Language

Students often forget to use academic language conventions in their writing.  Here's a few rules that come to mind:

  • Avoid using contractions
  • Avoid starting sentences with "and" or "but."
  • Numbers less than 101 should be written in words rather than digits
  • Avoid very casual words like "stuff"

Subject/Verb Agreement Errors

Subjects and verbs must agree with each other in number.  This is a mistake that all ESL students make (not just TOEFL test takers), so you are best to read one of the many guides to the topic.

Errors Related to Prepositions

Prepositions are hard.  That's because there aren't very many rules related to them - you just have to memorize the preposition appropriate to each context.  For this reason they are considered a "fluency marker" the signifies a strong command of the English language.  If you can use them correctly, your TOEFL grader (and the e-rater) will be impressed.

You may wish to study from a list of prepositions.

Problems Placing -ly Adverbs

Adverb placement is another headache.  There are some rules about where to place adverbs, but there are many exceptions.  Students really like to place -ly prepositions at the end of sentences.  Like this:

"I walked to school quickly."

This is totally fine, grammatically.  However, in the context of the personal examples students are writing about, it is usually a better idea to put them closer to the verb.  Like this:

"I quickly walked to school."

Remembering this "rule" will help students avoid problems when dealing with complex sentences.  Look at this:

"My mother denied my request for more candy emphatically."

We can see that a much more natural sounding sentence is:

"My mother emphatically denied my request for more candy."


Students make a ton of spelling mistakes.  It is well worth it for them to spend at least two minutes proofreading their work to self-correct such errors.