TOEFL Grammar: Why The Sentence Fragment Should Be The First Grammar Focus

 
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Why The Sentence Fragment Should Be The First Grammar Focus

You want the highest score you can achieve on the TOEFL, and you know that you want to focus on the writing section because small changes can make a significant difference in terms of your score.  You are improving your vocabulary by taking the words you are memorizing to increase your understanding of reading passages and utilizing them in your own essays, and you are creating organized essays because you are using transitions and brainstorming before you start composing your essay.  While the improvement in vocabulary and organization will absolutely make a huge difference in terms of your overall score, you know that in order to maximize your potential points earned on the writing section, you need to improve one other fundamental aspect of your writing: grammar.

To get the highest score on the TOEFL writing, you know that you need to eliminate or at least minimize grammar mistakes.  But where should you begin?  You've probably been studying formal grammar rules in school for years, so how do you know what particular points to focus on when your TOEFL test date is on the horizon?  If you only have time to brush up on one grammar topic, make sure that you make it sentence fragments.

Why You Should Focus on Sentence Fragments

Is it possible that some grammar errors are more serious problems than others, even on the TOEFL?  Notice how ETS phrases how grammar and vocabulary issues are taken into account.  To achieve a 4 or 5, you may only have "minor lexical or grammatical errors" that do not "interfere with meaning."  Furthermore, the human essay scorers read tons of essays every day, and at many test grading centers, scorers are encouraged to spend about 2-3 minutes per essay in order to keep up with the number of essays submitted.  A very slight issue might not matter enough to warrant decreasing your score or it might be so minor that it gets missed because the grading process necessitates going through the essays so quickly.

Even after test day, some native speakers reading your work may overlook some smaller mistakes, especially if they can still understand the meaning.  In fact, some native speakers might not even realize that a grammar error has occurred as they may not be clear on what the grammar rule actually is for certain topics.  Generally speaking, Americans are not instructed in grammar topics beyond elementary school, and the importance of good grammar frequently gets downplayed in formal school settings. As a result, many may not even be aware of the complexities and minutia of many grammar rules.  

But one grammar issue that cannot be easily overlooked is the sentence fragment.

A sentence fragment is difficult for native speakers to ignore because it interrupts the normal flow of reading. Even those who do not consider themselves grammar experts can spot fragments because as they read, something feels missing; things are incomplete.

In other words, sentence fragments are one of the most noticeable and recognizable grammar mistakes on the TOEFL and in writing situations after test day, so learning about them now will yield short and long term benefits.

One final benefit of making sentence fragments your grammar priority is that they are found on standardized tests beyond just the TOEFL.  If you are studying for the TOEFL, you may also need to take other admissions tests like the SAT.  Sentence fragments are common sentence errors that appear on the new SAT in the Writing and Language section, so by eliminating this issue from your own essay writing, you will be able to do so on the multiple choice section of the SAT and in the optional SAT essay.  One of the top errors to look for, the run-on sentence, is essentially the exact opposite of the sentence fragment, so by getting a better understanding of the fragment, you will also get a better grasp on how to fix run-ons as well.

What Is a Sentence Fragment


In order to know what a sentence fragment is (and how to prevent these types of errors in your own writing), we need to know what makes up a sentence.  A full sentence is an independent clause.

  1. The subject
  2. The verb (the predicate)
  3. A complete idea 

You should check that you can clearly identify the subject and the verb of each sentence that you write.  This will also allow you to check that your subject and verb agree, which is a good habit to get into (especially because this is another frequently tested grammar error). 

If you don't have a subject or a verb, you cannot have a complete sentence.  Also be sure to confirm that the verb in the sentence is actually acting as the predicate in the context of the sentence.  

   Writing, proofreading, and note taking.                           Incorrect

   Writing, proofreading, and note taking are all essential academic skills.      Correct.

In the example above, the be verb are is the verb and begins the complete predicate even though you may at first be drawn to the words writing, proofreading, and note taking as they are actions that you can see.  In this example, however, they act as the subject. 

If you know that you have both a subject and a verb in the form of a predicate, ask yourself if you have a complete idea.  In other words, have you given the reader all the information that they need to know in order to avoid confusion?  This lack of information may occur if you did not provide an object but the verb must take an object (as it is a transitive verb).   

    My boss sent.                                                                       Incorrect

   My boss sent the email yesterday.                                       Correct

   Her mother bought.                                                              Incorrect

   Her mother bought that sweater.                                        Correct

However, length of a sentence itself does not determine whether something is a full sentence or a sentence fragment.  This is a common misconception that even many native speakers have.  Frequently, sentence fragments occur because we have started a sentence with a subordinating conjunction.  These words—which include although, because, after, since, while, when, and if, to name just a few—take information that would be a complete sentence and make it weaker (dependent), so the information can no longer stand alone (work by itself).  For instance:

    I believe that parents are the best teachers.                         Correct

   Since I believe that parents are the best teachers.                Incorrect

When working with a subordinating conjunction, you will need a separate independent clause (full sentence, meaning a subject, verb, and complete idea).  If your subordinating conjunction begins the sentence, you will need a comma before your independent clause.

    Since I believe that parents are the best teachers, I think homeschooling is a great method of education.                                                                                    Correct

Using subordinating conjunctions allows us to add sentence variety and often complex ideas to our writing.  By understanding the rules for subordinating conjunctions and complete sentences, readers will be able to understand and appreciate all of our ideas.

So, by confirming that you have a subject, a predicate, and you've expressed a complete idea, you can be sure that you have a full sentence and not just a fragment-- a portion of a sentence masquerading as a full sentence.

Become An Expert At Locating and Fixing Sentence Fragments


My favorite grammar website, bar none, is NoRedInk.com.  I have used this website with native and non-native speakers alike, and I cannot speak highly enough of this excellent resource.  Because of the way that the site is set up, you are able to select particular topics.  Although subject-verb agreement, verb tense, and comma rules are all also excellent topics to review and NoRedInk makes grammar practice as painless as possible by crafting example sentences based on your own self-selected interests, if you are pressed for time, begin with the unit on sentence fragments.  By locating and fixing sentence fragments in the given sentences, you'll be able to apply the same concepts to your own writing, where it is often more difficult to find sentence errors.

Once you feel comfortable, go through old essays and see if you can locate sentence fragments.  If you locate any, fix them.  Once you think you've taken care of them all, upload your essay to Grammarly (this is an affiliate link.  If you want to read more about why I am a huge fan of Grammarly, check out my post about it here).  Grammarly will catch any sentence fragments you may still have and recommend ways to fix your sentence.  For this reason, it can be an excellent learning tool.

Get into the habit of writing new essays within the time constraint, leaving two minutes at the end to proofread and edit your work.  As I recommended in the pacing guide I wrote for WeAreTeacherFinder.com, don't practice writing right up til the last second; give yourself time to catch those grammatical errors, particularly sentence fragments, in order to get the highest score.  Not sure what topics to write new independent essays about?  Grab 30 days of writing prompts in the free One Month TOEFL Writing Challenge Printable.

 
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