Grammar for TOEFL: 8 English Grammar Rules Every Test Taker Should Know
Have you been wondering what you can do to raise your TOEFL score?
There’s one element that will help you improve your performance in all four parts of the exam: grammar.
Even if the TOEFL exam doesn’t test grammar directly, all the four parts (speaking, writing, reading and listening) indirectly evaluate your knowledge of grammar.
To make your life easier, we prepared eight important rules for you to learn.
- 1. Use the Continuous Aspect When Referring to a Progressive or Temporary Action
- 2. Use “the” for Defined Things, People or Places
- 3. Use Adjectives Only When Describing People, Places or Things
- 4. “Who,” “Whom” and “Which” Are Not Interchangeable
- 5. The Future Is Not Used in Time and Conditional Clauses
- 6. The Present Perfect Is Used When There Is a Connection with the Present
- 7. Do Not Use Inversions in Embedded Questions
- 8. To Express Contrast, the Correct Structure Depends on the Phrase Used
- Answer Key
1. Use the Continuous Aspect When Referring to a Progressive or Temporary Action
Each verbal tense has two aspects: continuous and simple. This means that whenever the action happens (past, present or future), we can focus on either the action itself (continuous aspect) or the result of the action (simple aspect).
The continuous aspect is formed with the auxiliary verb “to be” used in the intended tense, plus the “-ing” form of the verb.
He is climbing that mountain right now.
She has been writing for the past 40 minutes.
Have a look at the following table to understand how each aspect works for each of the tenses:[table “1” not found /]
What does this mean for you in the TOEFL exam? Whenever you use a verb in speaking or in writing, you must decide what kind of action you want to express.
For example, in the first part of the speaking exam, you will have to speak about a familiar topic like your favorite hobby. In this case, you’ll probably use the simple aspect because you’ll be talking about a habitual action that you like doing in general.
To practice, try filling in the gaps with the right form of each verb given in parentheses. (Answers are at the end of the post.)
- My cat ___ (drink) all the milk by the time we got home.
- She ___ (think) about buying a new car because the one she has is old.
- I ___ (write) an email, so I can’t help you do the dishes.
- He ___ (write) a lot of emails as part of his job.
- It’s almost 10 p.m. and we still ___ (decided) what to eat yet.
You can do more exercises to practice online.
2. Use “the” for Defined Things, People or Places
The definite article is used for things, people or places that are “defined” for the speakers. This means that the speakers know precisely what thing, person or place they are talking about.
Have a look at the following list of situations when we use “the”:
With people/things mentioned before, so it’s clear who/what you are referring to from the context.
We are staying in a nice hotel. The hotel is in the center of the city.
In the second sentence above, we already know what hotel we are talking about: the hotel mentioned in the first sentence.
With things that are unique, even if not mentioned before.
We went to the lake today.
You can find any information you need on the Internet.
Since “the lake” and “the Internet” are seen as unique, the speaker knows what they are. So these things are, again, defined.
With nouns followed by a defining relative clause (a clause that describes a person or thing we are talking about).
The book you gave me is nice.
“Book” is defined, because it’s the book that “you gave me,” not just any book.
With superlatives and ordinal numbers.
I think I just tasted the best ice cream ever.
In this first example, “ice cream” is defined because it’s not just any ice cream. It’s a special one, it’s the best one ever. “Best” is a superlative, just like “most expensive,” “most colorful,” “nicest” and “quickest.”
This is the second question he’s asked today.
In our second example, the question is again clearly defined for the speaker, who has counted the questions and knows that this particular question is the second one.
With names of countries that have plurals in them or that include the words “republic” or “kingdom.”
the United States of America
the Czech Republic
This situation may not be as clear as the other ones. To simplify it, just think of the words “states” and “republic” as being defined for the speaker. The speaker specifies which states and which republic they are talking about: the United States (as opposed to any random state) and the Czech Republic (as opposed to any other republic).
With names of geographical areas, rivers, mountain ranges, groups of islands, canals and oceans.
In this case, you can generalize that plurals are used with “the.” As for the other geographical locations, there is no logical generalization you can make. You simply need to learn them the right way from the start.
Have a look at these sentences. Decide if you have to use “the” or nothing in the gaps:
- ___ price of gas has doubled in the past three days.
- We can’t predict which way ___ global economy is going.
- I don’t like ___ chocolate, but I love ___ candy that you brought.
- Please pass me ___ sugar. It’s in ___ white bowl.
- ___ people don’t like it when you talk back to them.
3. Use Adjectives Only When Describing People, Places or Things
Some learners confuse adjectives with adverbs, so let’s look at both parts of speech one at a time, beginning with adjectives.
Adjectives describe nouns (people, places or things).
I like romantic movies.
Here, “romantic” describes the noun “movies.” To be sure you have an adjective, you can ask “What kind of movies?” and the answer is the adjective “romantic.”
Adjectives usually go before nouns.
Adjectives can also be part of the following structure:
[Noun] + to be + [adjective]
This same structure is used with verbs that can be replaced by “be” (feel, look, taste, smell, sound, appear, seem), as seen in the following examples:
The soup tastes/smells/looks/seems good.
The soup is good.
Cashmere feels nice.
Cashmere is nice.
The music sounds perfect.
The music is perfect.
In all these examples, “good,” “nice” and “perfect” describe the noun, not the verb, so they are adjectives (not adverbs). That’s why it would be incorrect to say “Cashmere feels nicely.” “Nice” describes “cashmere,” not “feels,” so it’s an adjective, not an adverb.
Adverbs are usually formed from adjectives by adding -ly at the end of the adjective. Adverbs describe verbs, adjectives and other adverbs.
Example of an adverb describing a verb:
The bird sang beautifully.
“Beautifully” describes the verb “sang.” You can ask, “How did the bird sing?” and you get the answer, “beautifully.”
Example of an adverb describing an adjective:
She is a really nice girl.
“Really” refers to the adjective “nice.” To be sure, you can ask “How nice?” and get the answer “really nice.”
Example of an adverb describing another adverb:
She talked very loudly.
“Very” describes the adverb “loudly.” If you ask “How loudly?,” you get the answer “very loudly.”
When using adverbs in writing, many students don’t get the spelling right. How many l’s? Why two l’s and not just one?
Let’s make this simple for you once and for all. Whenever you have to use such adverbs in the TOEFL written exam, look at the adjective it comes from. If the adjective ends in an “l,” when you add -ly you get two l’s.
beautiful + ly = beautifully
interesting + ly = interestingly
Practice correct spelling and use of adjectives and adverbs online and by filling in the gaps below with the right form of the word given in brackets:
- She ___ (careful) took the baby out of the car.
- The puzzle was ___ (extreme) difficult.
- She remained ___ (calm) despite the turbulence.
- The ___ (recent) launched product was much better than the ___ (old) version.
- She made an ___ (unfortunate) mistake.
4. “Who,” “Whom” and “Which” Are Not Interchangeable
“Who” refers to people, “which” refers to things and “that” can refer to both people and things. Here are some examples:
I know the man who you talked to earlier.
I know the man that you talked to earlier.
The contract which you signed is on the table.
The contract that you signed is on the table.
The only exception is that “which” can be used when you have a group of people and you want to select one.
Which of you knows the answer?
Who vs. Whom
“Whom” refers to people. Many people overuse “whom” to sound more academic. The rule is to use “who” when you refer to the subject of a clause, and to use “whom” when referring to the object of a clause.
You can use this simple shortcut to decide if you should use “who” or “whom”:
- Use “whom” if you can replace “whom” with “him” or “her.”
- Use “who” if you can replace “who” with “he” or “she.”
Whom are you going to invite?
(You are going to invite him.)
Who wrote the email?
(She wrote the email.)
When proofreading your writing in the TOEFL exam, double check if you used “who,” “which” and “whom” correctly.
Practice these rules online and by filling in the gaps below with the right word: “who,” “which” or “whom.”
- The person to ___ you are referring no longer works here.
- I liked the book ___ you gave me.
- ___ invited you here?
- I’m not sure ___ kid was here first.
- Give my regards to your brother, ___ was my classmate in high school.
5. The Future Is Not Used in Time and Conditional Clauses
You cannot use “will” to refer to the future in time and conditional clauses. Time clauses usually begin with a time expression, such as “when,” “as soon as,” “while,” “until,” “after,” “before,” “as.” Conditional clauses usually start with “if.”
You simply need to omit “will” (to refer to the future) so that instead of the future simple, you will use the present simple.
Wrong: After she will return, we can talk.
Right: After she returns, we can talk.
Similarly, instead of the future continuous, you should use the present continuous in time and conditional clauses.
Wrong: While she will be reading, I’ll be watching a movie.
Right: While she is reading, I’ll be watching a movie.
The future perfect changes into the present perfect and the future perfect continuous changes into the present perfect continuous.
Wrong: If she will have finished the book, she can give us the main ideas.
Right: If she has finished the book, she can give us the main ideas.
In the TOEFL speaking exam, you may be asked to talk about the future. You have to pay extra attention to the words and expressions given above so that you don’t use “will” after them.
To become faster at deciding if “will” can be used or not, practice online and by deciding if the sentences below are correct or not:
- Whatever I do, my daughter will not listen to me.
- If she will play the piano at night, we can ask her to take a break.
- When I have talked to him, I’ll know what he thinks.
- Before the doctor will see you, you have to do some tests.
- If you will write her an email, she may change her mind.
6. The Present Perfect Is Used When There Is a Connection with the Present
You have probably read a lot of rules about when to use the present perfect and when to use the past. You can reduce them all to one simple rule: If the speaker feels there is a connection with the present, then the present perfect should be used.
If the action is in the past and is seen as separate from the present, then you should use the past.
Have a look at the following situations in which we use the present perfect and the past tense:
I haven’t seen that movie yet.
(Present perfect — Possible connection with the present: I may want to see the movie, don’t spoil it for me!)
I saw that movie yesterday.
(Past tense — No connection with the present: The action happened in the past.)
I have lived here since 2004.
(Present perfect — Possible connection with the present: You can count the years since I started living here from 2004 to the present.)
I last saw him in 2004.
(Past tense — No connection with the present: The action happened in the past.)
So in the speaking exam, whenever you have to decide really quickly between the two tenses, try to think about how important the action still is in the present. If it affects the present in any way, then you should use the present perfect.
If you are still not sure, remember to practice as much as you can online. You can start by filling in the gaps below with the right form of the verb in parentheses:
- I ___ (never tasted) such a good pie before!
- I ___ (see) him in the park two hours ago, so he can’t be at home.
- How long ___ (you, wait) here?
- She ___ (just, talk) to her father on the phone so we know he is safe.
- They ___ (buy) a new car so they are selling the old one.
7. Do Not Use Inversions in Embedded Questions
Embedded questions are used when you want to make a question more polite and less direct. You form embedded questions by using a short introductory phrase, such as
- Can/Could you tell me…?
- I wonder…
- I would like to know…
After the introductory phrase you should not use an inversion like in normal questions.
(Normal Question) Are you going to the party?
(Embedded Question) I would like to know if you are going to the party.
(Normal Question) Do you have any siblings?
(Embedded Questions) I wonder if you have any siblings.
(Normal Question) How long have you been waiting?
(Embedded Question) I wonder how long you have been waiting.
Only use a question mark at the end if the introductory phrase is a question.
Can you tell me how long you have been living here?
(The introductory phrase “Can you tell me?” is a question.)
I want to know how long you have been waiting here.
(The introductory phrase “I want to know” is not a question.)
In the TOEFL integrated speaking test, you may have to sum up points made by speakers in dialogues. It’s important to get embedded questions right when doing this. For instance, if you hear:
John: How many courses do you have to take this semester?
Mary: I’m not sure. How many do you have to take?
You can sum this up as:
John wanted to know how many courses Mary had to take, but Mary didn’t know the answer.
It would be wrong, however, to use an inversion and say:
John wanted to know how many courses did Mary have to take. (Incorrect)
Practice embedded questions by rewriting the following:
- When will they move to the new location?
I wonder ___
- How often do you come here?
Can you tell me___
- What time did you finish writing the email?
- Did you get any free samples?
I want to ask you ___
- Did they tell you where to wait?
I’d like to know ___
8. To Express Contrast, the Correct Structure Depends on the Phrase Used
There are several phrases you can use to express contrast in English, but they don’t all follow the same structure. Look at these examples and the structures used with each of them:
In spite of/Despite + [noun]/[verb ending in -ing]
In spite of the weather, he decided to go surfing.
(In spite of + [noun])
Despite writing the letter in the morning, he didn’t manage to post it today.
(Despite + [verb ending in -ing])
However/No matter how + [adjective]/[adverb]
No matter how fit you are, you still shouldn’t take such risks.
(No matter how + [adjective])
However hard I try, I can’t learn Chinese.
(However + [adverb])
Although/Even though/Even if + [subject] + [verb]
He was not ready for the finals, although/even though he studied a lot.
Although/Even though he studied a lot, he was not ready for the finals.
Even if he studied a lot, he wouldn’t be ready for the finals.
Whatever + [noun]
Whatever the risks, I am sure I will follow his advice.
Whatever/No matter what + [subject] + [verb]
Whatever you say, I won’t believe you now that you’ve lied to me.
No matter what he does, she won’t trust him again.
“However,” “nonetheless” and “though”
“However,” “nevertheless” and “though” can be used independently to express contrast with the sentence before.
Her attitude is not positive at all. However, she has very good technical skills.
Her linguistic skills are far from excellent. She excels in her determination to learn, however.
This has been a tough year for the company. Nevertheless, there is hope for growth this year.
The rooms were very spacious and the food delicious. The location wasn’t ideal, though.
Such phrases are used a lot in the TOEFL exam because they help connect complex ideas.
That’s why it’s really important to get the structures right and to use them interchangeably so you can avoid repetition. You know how! By practicing them a lot.
Join the sentences below using the words given in parentheses to obtain complex sentences that express contrast:
- The weather was nice. The hotel facilities were terrible. (although)
- Her presentation was very good. The audience was not impressed. (however good)
- She is making progress with writing. She is still struggling with speaking. (despite)
- The car is very fast. It’s too unsafe for me. (though)
- The marketing campaign went really well. We didn’t sell much. (even though)
- had drunk
- is thinking / has been thinking
- am writing
- haven’t decided
- The (price of gas)
- the (global economy)
- — (chocolate), the (candy)
- the (sugar), the (white bowl)
- — (People)
- recently, old
- Incorrect. Correct version: If she plays the piano at night, we can ask her to take a break.
- Incorrect. Correct version: Before the doctor sees you, you have to do some tests.
- Incorrect. Correct version: If you write her an email, she may change her mind.
- have never tasted
- have you been waiting
- has just talked
- have bought
- (I wonder) when they will move to the new location.
- (Can you tell me) how often you come here?
- (Tell me) what time you finished writing the email.
- (I want to ask you) if you got any free samples.
- (I’d like to know) if they told you where to wait.
- Although the weather was nice, the hotel facilities were terrible.
- However good her presentation was, the audience was not impressed.
- Despite making progress with writing, she is still struggling with speaking.
- The car is very fast. It’s too unsafe for me, though.
- Even though the marketing campaign went really well, we didn’t sell much.
One way to build your grammar confidence, and supplement your grammar study, is to regularly see it in context so that it comes naturally to you.
Certain language learning programs can also help you review grammar rules in a realistic context. One example is FluentU, which lets you learn from authentic English videos. Each clip has interactive subtitles that provide vocabulary definitions and grammar details, so you can break down sentence structures word-for-word and then review them with quizzes.
Learning grammar may seem like a lot of hard work. The good part about it is that it gives you the structure and confidence you need to learn a language correctly. In exam situations, you need that confidence. It can help you gain time and points!
Whenever you proofread your writing or try to express an idea in speaking, you can rely on the rules you learned, they stay the same. The whole trick is to keep practicing them!