It is no secret that success in TOEFL writing requires a good level of grammar, but what is mysterious for most candidates is what exactly grammatical ability entails. In other words, what makes your grammar good or bad?

There are many factors, but perhaps the most overlooked one is the most obvious: the sentence.

What do I mean by “sentence”? Well, many people don’t seem to realize that the sentence is the vital unit of constructing a piece of written work. They get obsessed with words, phrase, paragraphs, and essay structures. They forget that it is the sentence that holds all this together. If an essay were a house, the sentence would be the bricks.

Today, I would like to show you what makes the sentence so important and why this knowledge will empower you to write a really great TOEFL essay.

What is a sentence?

This probably seems like the most obvious question in the world, but actually many TOEFL candidates don’t know for sure. A sentence always begins with a capital letter and ends with a period (which in the UK is called a “full stop”) or question mark. That is the most basic information, and if you didn’t know that you would be best not taking the exam at all.

Beyond that, a sentence is a self-contained idea. This is a harder point to grasp. What does it mean, exactly? Well, self-contained means that it requires nothing else in order to understand it. Take these examples and tell me which one is self-contained:

  1. While the whale population has been decliningfor one hundred years.
  2. The whale population has been declining for one hundred years.
  3. Has been declining for one hundred years.
  4. The whale population for one hundred years.

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Only one of those answers was a full sentence. Can you tell which one it is?

Sentence #1 began with a subordinating conjunction, which means that it is a dependent clause. This tells us that an independent clause is required in order to complete it. It essentially starts a thought but does not finish it. Sentence #3 has no subject, while sentence #4 has no verb. Each of these three sentences is therefore considered a sentence fragment. This is considered a major grammatical error, as it is not a real sentence.

So you see: sentences can be more complicated than you thought!

The importance of sentence variety

English speakers tend to have certain likes and dislikes that are not shared by speakers of all languages. For one thing, we really hate repetition! Even the repetition of sound annoys us, and we consider repetitive language to be a sign of weak language skill.

Take an essay, for example. If one word is repeated too much, it sounds bad. But you probably knew that already, right? What is less commonly known among TOEFL candidates is that the repetition of sentence types is also frowned upon. In fact, even if you wrote an essay that had no real grammatical mistakes, you could still have written a very poor essay if all the sentences were the same type.

What do I mean by type? Above, I just explained what a sentence is, but did you know that there are four types of sentence in the English language? Here they are:

  1. Simple (1 independent clause)
  2. Compound (2 independent clauses)
  3. Complex (1 independent and 1 dependent clause)
  4. Compound-complex (1 independent and 2 dependent clauses)

There is nothing wrong with using any of those sentences, and in fact a good essay will probably make use of all of them at some point.

The important thing to know is that a paragraph that is comprised of just one type of sentence sounds incredibly boring, and therefore native speakers will consider it very weak. This is particularly true with simple sentences. These are the most basic sentences in the English language – the sort of sentences you first learned in school, like “I like football” or “He plays piano.”

Having a mix of sentences shows control over the language. It shows a depth of technique and an understanding of rhythm. Any good writing will feature a mix of sentence types because they contribute to the overall meaning and sound of the passage.

Look at the following excerpts from a TOEFL writing passage that answers the following question: “What are some benefits and downsides of purchasing a brand new vehicle?” Which one do you think is better?

  1. New cars can be expensive. It is better to buy a used car. Used cars often work just as well. They are reliable. They are affordable. Car values immediately decline. They are not good investments. People should spend less on vehicles. They should spend money on important things.
  2. New cars can be expensive, so it is better to buy a used one. Used cars often work just as well. They are reliable in addition to being affordable. When a person buys a car, its value immediately declines, so it is not a good investment. Instead, they should spend less on the vehicle and use their money for more important things.

Which one is the best answer?

The reason is that answer #1 was made up of many simple sentences. Even though there were no grammatical mistakes, it sounds incredibly basic and almost child-like. This sort of writing would strike a native speaker as quite poor, whereas answer #2 is much better. In this case, the ideas are linked together better with conjunctions, but it is not just that. The rhythm of the language is far better. The fact that each sentence varies in type and length makes it sound natural and advanced.

If you read a novel aloud, you will hear that the passages sound nice. Even if you don’t understand all the words, you can hear that there is music in the language. Sometimes, feeling can come through even when you don’t understand the words. This is because the novelist will structure his or her sentences in such a way that they build feeling. They might, for example, start with short sentences and build to longer ones, or suddenly end with a very short sentence. This variety is essential to the overall sound of the writing.

Of course, you don’t need to write as beautifully as a professional novelist to do well in TOEFL! But you do need to appreciate that sentence type and length are important and that variety will definitely help you to achieve a good score in the test.

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