writing

When Being Polite or Friendly Backfires: Avoid These 5 Errors on The TOEFL and in University Life

 
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Will Being Polite or Friendly Cost You Points on the TOEFL?

When learning a new language, you need to know more than just the vocabulary and grammar structures.  Understanding cultural rules is just as important as knowing the language rules, and as a result, topics regarding everything from spacing to hygiene to body language are often touched upon in the language learning classroom.  It is good to know how to be polite in the language that you are studying, but is it possible that sometimes what we perceive as politeness is actually costing us points?

Like many other types of rules, the rules regarding politeness are situationally dependent.  In other words, the context of the situation may determine what is polite and what is not appropriate.  In fact, sometimes what you may perceive as considerate might be the very thing that is preventing you from making progress on the TOEFL or developing good relationships after test day.

1| TYPING IN ALL CAPS


On the TOEFL iBT, you must type your answer to the independent and integrated essay.  While you already know that being able to type quickly and accurately is important for being able to reach your goal score within the time limit, the way in which you type does matter.  You may have noticed that people tend to put things that are extremely important in all capitalized letters in order to draw the reader's attention to that word or phrase.  Perhaps you've gotten an email or text message that says you need to be in a specific location at 9 AM SHARP, for instance.  While it is true that native English speakers will sometimes use all caps in order to bring your attention to valuable information, you do not want to do this on test day.  Writing your entire essay in all caps will not suggest that your essay is important.  Instead, think of writing something in all caps as the equivalent of yelling as that is how most native speakers will read it.  If you've ever received an email from a colleague written in all caps, it will seem either like they are very mad at you or it will seem unprofessional.  On test day, it will be impossible for the grader to understand if you know the correct rules regarding capitalization if you capitalize everything. After you get into the university program you desire, if you send an email in all caps, it is likely to be received as pushy and offensive.  On both test day and in emails to your professors or fellow students after the TOEFL, make sure to avoid using all caps.

2| Using slang or text-speak (and emoticons/emojis)


When texting, many native speakers will use the letter u to mean you or other similar abbreviations for common words.  In a casual situation between friends, this would not seem unusual.  Even though an abbreviation like b/c or btw could be understood by a native speaker test grader or professor, it would seem incredibly inappropriate for that audience.  Always use formal language and a formal register when writing in these situations.

While you don't need to give a title for your independent or integrated essays on the TOEFL, you will need to write a subject line if you are sending an email to a professor.  Don't leave the subject line blank and don't use cutesy emoticons in the subject line, either.  While this would be okay if you are emailing someone who you are close with, emailing someone in a position of authority, especially if you select an emoji like the kissy face will seem very awkward and uncomfortable for the person receiving your email.

3| Thank you for reading my essay


If you are writing an email, it is considered polite to thank the other person.  In fact, many people use some variation of thank you as their closing (the part before they sign their name).  However, on the TOEFL itself, you absolutely do not want to finish your essay or your speaking response with the sentence "Thank you for reading my essay."  First, it is not the standard convention to do this in a formal essay in English.  Second, you might be hiding an excellent last sentence.  Because the scorers will be reading your essay quite quickly, they might overlook the strong closing sentence that you composed before this fake one that isn't actually contributing to your essay overall.


4| Being too blunt


Wasting another person's time-- whether this is the scorer of your essay or your current course instructor-- is inconsiderate.  In American culture, there are certain expectations regarding the set up of the ensuing conversation or essay, and skipping this could seem strange, pushy, or blunt.  For writing, your first sentence should be related to the topic but should not provide your entire answer to the question yet.  In speaking, it is even more important to correctly introduce the request that you are making.  Phrases like "do you have a minute" before making a request are considered standard whereas simply saying "I need X" seems impolite or even self-centered.  

On the TOEFL, you are likely to hear these types of phrases in the Listening section if a student is going to see a professor for clarification or to ask for a favor.  Look for modals and phrases like “Would you mind _____” or “Could I ask you a quick question.”

5| Saying it doesn't matter


Frequently students try to be extremely accommodating, trying to show respect to those who are in a position of power, whether this is the essay scorer or their instructor.  One way people try to show how agreeable they are is by letting the other person make a decision or by trying not to take any stand on an issue as a way of circumventing potential controversy.  For independent essay questions, the TOEFL frequently will ask you for your opinion on a topic. You absolutely want to take a clear position.  It will make for clearer writing and allow you to more completely develop your thoughts.  It is also easier to compose an essay where you aren't trying to split your time between all sides of an issue and will not cause you to potentially contradict yourself.  Some students, in an attempt to make sure that no one is offended, try to entirely avoid giving an answer that favors one side.  Non-native speakers might do this by using the phrase "I don't care."  Without context, however, this can come off as extremely rude.  It sounds like you are dismissing the topic as ridiculous, unimportant, or even stupid, inadvertently creating a situation that is probably more offensive than just having stated your actual opinion in the first place.  If in situations outside of the exam, you want to indicate that you are deferring to the other person to make the choice, use a phrase like it is up to you to sound just like a native speaker.  On the TOEFL listening, you might even hear two students use this phrase when deciding what club to join or a professor say it to a student in terms of what topic they should choose for a paper.

Key Takeaways

Stay polite and contextually appropriate by following these guidelines on the TOEFL and in university interactions.  Put into practice what you’ve learned by practicing with 30 free essay prompts today.

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Overcome the Top 5 TOEFL Fears

 
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Overcome the Top 5 TOEFL Fears Quickly and Easily

What you should and shouldn't be afraid of

Around Halloween, there is endless discussion of scary movies and costumes. While some people derive great pleasure from the manufactured fear of watching a horror film or dressing up like a zombie, few would say the same for the very real fears that surround test day. With a handful of tricks, turn the test into the closest thing to a treat, eliminating the most common TOEFL terrors.

1| Not having background knowledge on the topic


For many students the idea that the first reading passage will be on a topic that they've never heard about before and in a discipline that they know little to nothing about strikes fear into test-takers hearts.  While it is easy to see how a reading about a chemistry topic might be intimidating for a person who struggled in science classes in his/her native language, do not allow yourself to get intimidated.  The TOEFL passages are designed so that way anyone could answer the questions even if they did not come in with any prior knowledge.  That means that all the academic terms that are specific to that field will be defined for you, but most people get so panicked that they do not even attempt to find the gist of the passage.  

In order to combat this problem, read passages on a variety of topics before test day.  Follow all sections of the newspaper or sites like Newsela instead of only reading the topics that you naturally gravitate towards.  If you struggle with having enough self-discipline to seek out passages that you do naturally feel inclined to read, follow along with the passages I like to on Twitter to get a well-rounded selection.

2| Running out of time


For many students, the sound of a ticking clock counting down the minutes or seconds left on each section of the exam is enough to make their blood run cold.  If looking at the clock brings about feelings of apprehension, you need to rethink the way you consider the clock.  Being afraid of the clock almost always means you are ignoring the clock, usually resulting in looking at the remaining time so late that you can no longer change your strategy.

Time management is a learned skill.  For each section of the test, you need to be able to pace yourself, and you should follow a pacing guide so that way you can check at regular intervals to make sure that you are sticking to the time recommendations per question.  By checking the time left regularly, you can determine what you need to do moving forward.  This is particularly important on the reading section as the test does not prompt you to move to the next passage.  You need to take the responsibility for using the time allotted wisely, and that means not being afraid of the timer.  Don't do practice problems or full-length practice tests without a time limit.  Knowing your limits (and where you need to be at any given point) will give you confidence when checking the clock, not fear.

3| Not recognizing the vocabulary word being asked about


Students frequently spend tons of time memorizing new vocabulary words because they are so afraid of encountering a word they've never seen before on test day.  While learning new terms is good, it is nearly impossible to know every word that you see in the passage as there is a such a range of academic vocabulary and discipline specific terms you would need to know.  While you don't need to understand every word in a passage (after all, the passages are roughly 800 words and you are only asked 13 questions per passage), what happens when the word you don't know is in the question stem or the answer choices?

Most students freeze up when they are asked about a word they don't know (or are given a word they don't know as an answer choice).  If this happens, don't fret.  ETS has likely given you a clue in either the sentence before or after or enough information to allow you to make an educated guess.  Can you use part of the word-- like a prefix, for instance-- to make an inference about what the word means?  Do you know the word that they are asking about, but not one of the answer choices?  Just like on the SAT, if this happens, ask yourself, how close of a synonym are the other answer choices you do recognize?  If someone asked you what the word means and you would have selected one of the answers that you know, odds are that that is the right answer and the brand new word is simply a distraction.  Don't fall for the predictable trap like those in horror movies; be confident in the knowledge you have.

4|  Freezing up on the speaking


Perhaps the single scariest section for test-takers is the speaking section.  Having to speak in your non-native language might induce fear on a regular basis, and the idea that you are creating a recording with the sole purpose of having your speech be judged only raises the stakes.  Add in the additional stress of having only seconds of preparation time, and this fear seems valid.  While worrying about your accent or that you will make a grammar mistake can cause people to lack confidence about their speaking abilities, the number one phobia students have is not having anything to say at all when the recording time begins.

To cope with this feeling of alarm, make sure that you have a solid template to fall back on to get you started with each of the 6 types of speaking questions.
This way you will never feel like you have been caught off guard.  After getting the first sentence of two under your belt, you will feel the momentum on your side and be able to complete your speaking response.


5| Not having ideas for what to write about


You see the essay prompt-- and your mind goes blank.  You cannot come up with anything to say that seems relevant or important.  If this sounds like a recurring nightmare that you've had, then you might be suffering from common fear #5: having no clue what to write about.

One of the easiest ways to fight this fear is with solid preparation.  First, you can and should free write on some of the most common topics-- like education and technology-- that the TOEFL loves to ask independent questions about.  In fact, by exploring your ideas ahead of time, you will be able to prepare yourself for both the writing and the speaking sections as there is often a great deal of overlap.

Remember, too, that you do not need to give your honest opinion.  If you had a gut reaction as to what your answer is for the question but you cannot come up with any reasons, don't feel like you need to draw upon the rationale that actually supports your initial feeling.  Similarly, don't feel like you can't modify a story from your life in order to make it fit the position you are taking.  For example, if you don't have direct experience with the topic but you know that a personal example would offer the support and the authority you need to round out a particular paragraph, for standardized test writing, stretching the truth is perfectly fine (and no one needs to be the wiser).

Key Takeaways


Being afraid of the test only leads to poor test-taking come exam day.  Fight fear with sound strategies and practice before the test, making your test-taking fears rest in peace once and for all.

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Conceding Points to Score Points: Why You Need to Use Concessions in TOEFL Writing

 
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Why You Need to Use Concessions in TOEFL Writing

How do you convince someone to agree with your opinion on a certain topic?  While there are many factors that determine if a reader will ultimately agree with the position you take in an essay, trust may be the single most important.  But how do you get someone to trust you when the only connection is your writing?  To win over your reader every time, you need to carefully consider your word choice as well as the supporting details you choose to feature. However perhaps the most underrated method for getting readers to trust you is to acknowledge the other side.  In other words, to use concessions. 

The word concede often has a negative connotation.  While the word concede does mean to surrender, as in when a losing candidate officially declares that they have lost and the other person has won, in writing, the word concede typically refers to the strategy of showing that the opposite side does have a valid point.

Concessions can be as short as one sentence in which the writer demonstrates something's accuracy or advantage followed immediately by an independent clause that moves into stating why the other side is still the clear victor.  Common words and phrases for introducing concessions are: admittedly, although, even though, while, however, yet, and despite.

The TOEFL itself features many examples of concessions as they are common in academic writing.  Look for them at the beginning of the integrated essay lecture.  Most of the time, the reading passage and the lecture disagree, with the professor starting his/her lecture summarizing the gist of the lecture and following it up with an opposing viewpoint.

Concessions: A rhetorical strategy used across disciplines

Too many students assume that acknowledging the validity of a point made by the opposition is a sign of weakness.  Nothing can be further from the truth.  Ignoring the other side entirely or making it seem like it has nothing going for it often just feels inauthentic.  By using a strategically placed concession, you are essentially showing that you are trustworthy. You aren't so biased that you cannot even admit that there is another side. Instead, you are showing how reasonable you are by making a small concession to a reasonable point that others would find convincing.

If you want to see how effective concessions are, just imagine the last political debate you watched.  If one candidate is doing everything in his/her power to avoid talking about the other side, it seems like this person isn't being completely forthcoming or totally reasonable.  However, if they first make a brief concession, stating that yes, there are one or two solid points that the opposition makes before diving into why his/her position still is the more advantageous, people can more easily buy into this idea even if they were not initially inclined to believe this.

Using concessions to build trust isn't exclusive to the realm of politics, either. A common piece of business advice is that people buy from those they know, like, and trust.  This exact formula can be applied to writing for certain types of standardized tests.  On the TOEFL, sharing personal experience is a completely appropriate way to support your position, and while that isn't always the case for formal writing situations, this certainly increases the know factor for this exam.  Like can be achieved through a combination of word choice and examples given.  While diction can also help when it comes to the trust factor, the concession is a great strategy to use to establish that content as well can contribute to creating confidence in the writer.

The When and Why to Use Concessions on the TOEFL


On the TOEFL, you do not need to dedicate an entire paragraph to crafting a concession.  While this might be necessary if you are writing an entire term paper length essay, a TOEFL essay tends to be 4 or 5 paragraphs in length.  As a result, devoting an entire paragraph to a concession would be overkill.   Rarely, ETS will ask you a compare/contrast question, when you should devote equal time to both positions.  For the vast majority of test questions, simply staying with one position with succinct concessions built into the paragraph is the most effective strategy.

Instead, try to use concessions in your topic sentences (the first sentence in each body paragraph) or following your topic sentence before introducing a key example in your body paragraph.

In addition to being great practice for cultivating trust in any type of writing assignment that you will need to craft in your university program, using concessions has two other fringe benefits on the TOEFL specifically.

First, it allows you to showcase your knowledge of transition words.  Because concessions require you to talk about the other side before switching to your primarily point, you will need to ease the reader in, guiding readers through this change in idea through well-placed transitions.  Using transitions that introduce contrast, like however, on the other hand, or yet are useful ways to create cohesion between ideas and sentences, helping to create the flow that ETS graders are looking for.

Second, concessions frequently force the writer to utilize complex sentences and subordinating conjunctions, providing a variety of sentence structure.  Are you the kind of person that relies on simple S-V-O sentences again and again?  There is an entire subsection of subordinating conjunctions that are used for introducing contrast.  Words such as although, while, and whereas can not only introduce a concession but also get you out of your simple sentence rut.  Varying sentence structure signals to the essay scorers that you are comfortable with more grammatically advanced types of sentences.

Key Takeaways

Use concessions (the acknowledgement of the validity of the opposite side) to increase your credibility as a writer, vary your sentence structure, and create flow in your own independent and integrated essays, just as professors in the integrated essay lecture do.

Now that you know what how concessions strengthen writing, practice putting them in your own essays by downloading One Month TOEFL Writing Challenge Printable.  Get 30 TOEFL independent essay prompts to practice with right now!

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TOEFL Grammar Series: How Mastering Pronouns Will Help You On Every Section of the TOEFL [Video Post]

 
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How Mastering Pronouns Will Help On Every Section of the TOEFL

Grammar is a topic which is often overlooked on the TOEFL.  Because the TOEFL does not have an explicit grammar section, students tend to see it as a lower priority.  While there is no section that tests grammar exclusively as is the case on other standardized tests, most students will readily admit that it is still necessary to know the rules and to use good grammar when producing open-ended responses on exam day.  But is being knowledgeable about grammar topics helpful for the receptive skills, like the Listening and Reading Sections?  In a word: yes.  

One set of grammar rules that comes into play in a big way on all four sections of the exam is pronoun rules. Learn the most important pronoun rules, then find out how to apply them to the test.

Pronoun Guide: An Overview Of Six Types of Pronouns


When most students think of pronouns, personal pronouns immediately spring to mind.  This makes sense because they are the ones students recall through muscle memory developed when learning how to conjugate verbs.  However, personal pronouns are only a small subsection of pronouns.  In fact, not all pronouns truly fit the description of being a word that stands in place of a noun, the general definition that most grammar books boil it down to.  Pronouns can be divided into a number of categories, the biggest of which are indefinite and definite pronouns.  Within the category of definite pronouns, you will find even smaller subcategories, such as personal, possessive, reflexive, reciprocal, relative and demonstrative.

Unlike indefinite pronouns which do not point to something specific, definite pronouns go by this name because they reference something clearly called an antecedent.  Because indefinite pronouns are not linking back to something mentioned earlier, they are less likely to be on the TOEFL.  However, the rules for indefinite pronoun agreement can get a little tricky, which is why they commonly show up on the SAT as even native speakers struggle with them.  Because indefinite pronouns are not as heavily tested on the TOEFL, we will focus our attention on the types of definite pronouns.

Personal pronouns are the ones that typically stand in for a person or a group of people.

 They include I, you, he/she/it, we and they.  These pronouns need to agree with their antecedent in number, gender, and case.

In other words, you need to know how many people the noun being replaced represents and, depending on the situation, if those people are male or female. Case refers to how the word is used in the context of the sentence.  Is it the subject or object?  (This is why it is grammatically correct to write My friend and I traveled to Spain last summer but not My friend and me traveled to Spain last summer.  When deciding if you need I or me, you need to determine what case is being used in that sentence.)

Possessive pronouns indicate belonging.

 If you want to show that an object belongs to someone, instead of using 's, you can use the appropriate possessive pronoun.  The most complicated rule here for possessive pronouns is to remember that the word itself is noting belonging, so there is no need to add the apostrophe s.  Many students try to add the apostrophe to words that already end in s, like her's, but that is incorrect.  The one that confuses most people, even native speakers, is its/it's.  Remember, its is possessive already (it's is for the contraction it is).

Reflexive pronouns and intensive pronouns


Both reflexive and intensive pronouns usually end in -self or -selves.  Reflexive is when the subject is also receiving the action: Don't feel bad for him.  He did it to himself. Intensive pronouns, also called emphatic pronouns, are used to stress who performed the action: I made it myself!

Relative


Relative pronouns are a unique group because they do not replace an antecedent.  Instead, they connect the noun to a word or phrase that modifies or gives additional information.  These words include who/whom/whose and which/that.  In order to determine which relative pronoun to use, you must consider both the case (subject, object, possessive), the necessity of the following information (known to grammar lovers everywhere as restrictive and non-restrictive clauses), and whether or not the initial noun being modified is person or a place/thing/idea.  


Demonstrative


Demonstrative pronouns help create cohesion.  They frequently point back to an antecedent in the previous sentence, which students do not always anticipate when working with them.  Demonstrative pronouns explain which one(or), pointing to a specific thing(s).  They are used frequently in conversation, but they can also be used in writing to create flow between sentences.  Demonstrative pronouns must agree in number (singular/plural) and distance.  Use this/these to show that something is close by whereas use that/those to make something seem further away or to the feeling of distance.

More of an audial/visual learner?  Watch the video I've created on this topic

 

Pronouns For Each Section of the TOEFL


Now that you know the most common pronoun rules that show up on the exam, you will want to know where each of these topics will most likely appear. This will give you a leg up, making it faster for you to draw upon this information.

Writing section


Whether you are writing for the TOEFL or for your university level class, using pronouns effectively is important for clear, concise communication.  Pronouns can create cohesion in your essay, making neat transitions between sentences and ideas through the use of demonstrative pronouns that begin sentences and alternating between relative clauses and adjectives to vary sentence structure.

Furthermore, using pronouns reduce unnecessary redundancies in your writing.  You do not need to mention the name of the same person over and over again.  Instead, after the first usage, replace the antecedent with the pronoun. 

Eliminate grammar mistakes in your writing by knowing the pronoun rules.  Have you been that person debating whether or not you need to put an apostrophe in yours, theirs, or hers?  Now that you know the rules for pronouns, you won't be tricked by these silly grammar errors that constantly find their way into student produced essays.

Ready to put what you've learned about pronouns into practice in your own essay writing?  Grab 30 days of TOEFL independent essay prompts in a convenient 2-page download.

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Speaking section


One major pronoun problem that is particular to speaking is the use of personal pronouns.  Too often students will make mistakes with personal pronouns in spoken English when they would never have made that mistake in written English.  By understanding the importance of both gender and case when it comes to selecting the correct personal pronoun, you can cut down on errors made.  If you find you have accidentally switched over from he to she, use I mean to correct your mistake.  Do you hear native speakers use the wrong form of I/me all the time in informal speaking situations?  While that likely happens regularly in everyday life, do not replicate this when speaking your response on test day.  

Additionally, now that you know the purpose of intensive pronouns, you can incorporate them into your own responses.  English is a stress-timed language.  If you use an intensive pronoun, make sure that your speech pattern indicates that emphasis as well.

Listening section


On the listening section, the quality of your notes almost always has a direct correlation with the score you receive.  Based on your knowledge regarding pronouns, you will better be able to understand the strategy the professor is using for making a group more specific (like using relative pronouns in order to make something more specific, which may show up as a detail question), the use of demonstrative pronouns to connect one sentence to the next, or points of particular interest through the use of intensive pronouns to highlight something that is remarkable or surprising.

Reading section


The Reading section most directly tests your pronoun knowledge.  Referents questions make up one of the most common types of TOEFL reading question.  At some point for each passage that you've read, a definite pronoun will be undermined.  The question will then ask you what that pronoun refers back to.  In other words, you will be asked to identify the antecedent of a word in the passage.  Armed with the knowledge of pronoun rules, you will be able to make the correct selection each time.  

Though possible, it is unlikely that EST will ask you about a personal pronoun.  However, you may be asked what a possessive, relative, or demonstrative pronoun is pointing to.

Be sure to follow the rules listed above so that the answer you select makes sense with all of the rules for that type of pronoun.  For example, the relative pronoun who is used specifically for people, so I don't want to select an answer choice that features an inanimate object.

Pronoun referents questions are one of the best types of questions to focus on for the Reading section because once you think you've found the correct answer, you can check it.  When you think you've located the proper antecedent, put that word back in that sentence where the pronoun stood.

Remember, Pronoun Referent questions are just one type of commonly asked Reading question.  Get your free Reading Questions Tracker here to keep tabs on all types of questions as well as your progress.

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Key Takeaways


The TOEFL infuses grammar concepts throughout the exam.  By understanding how pronouns can be used to eliminate redundancy, to create cohesion, to modify nouns, to imply case or gender, to add emphasis, or to indicate literal or figurative relationships, you will be able to score points on questions that directly test pronoun knowledge, such as referents questions on the Reading section, as well as those that indirectly do so, like using pronouns to create flow in your own writing.

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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Know Your Body: How To Perfect TOEFL Body Paragraphs

 
 

How To Write Perfect TOEFL Body Paragraphs Every Time


A Step-By-Step Guide To Creating Structured TOEFL Body Paragraphs

When hearing the word body, most people immediately imagine exercise, sculpted abs, or getting in bathing-suit ready shape.  As an educator who has taught writing at both the high school and college levels, my mind jumps to something very different: body paragraphs.  While the paragraphs that follow the introduction segment of an essay might not at first seem to have much in common with fitness, both types of bodies are at their peak when planned out and when following a particular regiment.  In other words, planning and structure are critical for building solid, powerful body paragraphs.  So what shape should body paragraphs take? Here are the 6 parts every body paragraph needs to have.

 

Start with a topic sentence

Besides the thesis statement, topic sentences are the most important sentences that you will write.  You know that those who grade essays on standardized tests do not have very long to spend with each essay, and as a result, it is even more important to make sure that the reader is clearly guided through the essay. The topic sentences states the main idea of that body paragraph, and as a result, it should reflect some part of the thesis.

 

Sentence Two: Explain or clarify your position

Your second sentence gives you the opportunity to restate the idea from the topic sentence, showcasing your paraphrasing ability, and allows you to get a little deeper, clearing up any terms that need to be defined (especially big abstract nouns like freedom or success that may be very subjective) or getting more specific. This should set the reader up for sentence 3.

 

Sentence Three: Support with a reason or example

Now you are ready to dig into your main reason or support. This idea can make up the bulk of your body paragraph, but it should be spread over multiple sentences as to avoid creating a run-on sentence. You can reference an article you read recently on the topic that has lead you to take this position or you can talk about a personal situation that has informed your opinion. You may find as you practice that you are frequently reusing the same material in a number of essays and that's okay as ETS doesn't know that;  as long as your versatile example seems appropriate for the question presented on test day., feel free to use the same ideas you've used in prior practice essays or modify those ideas so they seem to fit perfectly (even if that means slightly exaggerating).  If after adding your main reason or example, your paragraph is now at least five sentences long, you can move on to your wrap up sentence and then move on to your next body paragraph.  If not, continue to add to that paragraph with the next step.

 

If necessary, smoothly transition to introduce another, secondary, reason or example.   Gain trust with your reader and add to your word count by adding another similar piece of support for the main idea featured in your topic sentence.  If you used a more academic reference use a personal one. This will round out your answer, making it seem more thought out.  It is necessary to include the proper transition so the reader understands how this is connected to the first example given.

Provide the second reason or example, if needed. Just as you did with the first supporting reason or example, explain fully how this supports your main claim in the topic sentence.

 Always end each body paragraph with a concluding thought

Remind the reader how this reason/example ties back to the position stated at the top of the body paragraph.  Especially if you've got more than one reason or example, it is imperative that you reiterate how these points illustrate your main idea.  Don't use the same exact language because you do not want to sound redundant.

 

Key Takeaways

Body paragraphs are where the bulk of development happens inside an essay. As a result, using transitions, clear reasoning, and supporting details are crucial.  By following this pattern, your essay will stay well sculpted time and time again.

Get tons of body paragraph practice when you download the free One Month Writing Challenge printable. Perfect your strategy by writing 90 body paragraphs for the over two dozen practice independent essay questions in this download.

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