TOEFL Listening

In the TOEFL listening test Part A you will hear short conversations and be asked questions about them. In this part of the test, it is very common to hear negative statements, and you will then be required to choose an answer from a list of possible choices that reflect what the speaker actually meant.

In such cases, the negative statement given by the speaker will most likely correspond with a positive statement of similar meaning in the list of questions. Therefore, it is important that you can interpret the meaning of the negative statement and equate it to the similar positive statement.

This article is going to show you how to figure out the meaning of negative statements and then examiner how this can impact your performance for TOEFL listening.

Decoding negative statements

Often, in English, people say things using negative sentence structures when they mean a positive idea. It is not that they are trying to offer a confusing statement or that they are being pessimistic, but rather that it is just the most convenient way to express an idea. For another native English speaker, perhaps it is the most logical and normal way to express the information. Perhaps it is way of softening an idea that is too harsh or forthright.

For example, let’s say that a student is going to walk home from an evening class. The following dialog takes place:

  • TEACHER: Are you sure you’re ok to walk home alone?
  • STUDENT: Yes, don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.
  • TEACHER: It’s not very safe out there at this hour.
  • STUDENT: It’s ok. I’ll stay in well-lit areas.

What does the teacher mean when he says, “It’s not very safe out there?”

This is another way of saying: “It’s quite dangerous outside.”

Notice how these two statements basically have the same meaning, but they use different words and grammar. One is positive and the other is negative, but the meaning is the same. However, by saying “not very safe,” it is a less scary proposition than “it is dangerous.” This second way might be a little too serious or frightening to say to someone.

In some cases, this method of speaking can be quite easy to understand, but often it can be challenging. In any case, you need to be prepared to do this during the TOEFL listening test.

Here’s another conversation featuring a student and her teacher:

  • STUDENT: I don’t think I did very well on that test.
  • TEACHER: It wasn’t as easy as you thought, right?
  • STUDENT: Not at all. I thought I knew everything.
  • TEACHER: Well, you’d best pay more attention next time.

In this scenario, they are discussing the results of a test that had been conducted in the class. What did the teacher mean when he said, “It wasn’t as easy as you thought, right?”

Here, we have a negative statement ending in a question. To be honest, the question doesn’t much change the meaning as it ends in “right?” which is just a confirmation particle that asks if the listener agrees with what was said.

In this case, the teacher means: “It was harder than you thought, right?” This is just another way of saying “It wasn’t as easy as you thought.”

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TOEFL listening practice

Here is a transcript for a very short conversation. Listen and answer the question that follows, which is in the typical multiple choice form.

  • MAN: What are you watching?
  • WOMAN: Nothing this now. I’m waiting for a documentary about the Great Barrier Reef. It’s on next.
  • MAN: Oh yeah? Has it gotten good reviews?
  • WOMAN: Yeah, plenty of them. You don’t want to miss it.

Question: What does the woman imply?

  1. The show is not recommended.
  2. The man should definitely watch it.
  3. She doesn’t know what’s on next.
  4. She has seen this documentary before.

In this case, there is only one right answer: (2)

The negative phrase came right at the end of the short dialog. She said, “You don’t want to miss it.” In this case, it has the same meaning as “You should really see this” or “You will want to watch it.” We can gather that by looking at the verb (“miss”) and then seeing that it is in negative form: “don’t want to miss.” The opposite of this is “do want to see.” This is closest in meaning to (2): “The man should definitely watch it.”

You can figure out the meaning of these phrases by looking at the verb and then taking away the negative form. Usually you will then have to find a synonym for the verb or its positive equivalent in the list of possible answers. Sometimes that will be relatively easy and at other times it will be a bit difficult.

You can usually make this process easier by looking to find what is definitely not the answer. In the above situation, we know that (1) is not correct because she does recommend the show. She says that is has gotten many good reviews. We know that (3) is incorrect too because she does know what is on next. She tells him some information about the show. We don’t know whether (4) is correct or not, although it is implied that it is not correct. In this case, you would have to choose between (2) and (4).

Let’s try one more practice answer.

  • MAN: How was the meeting?
  • WOMAN: Boring as always, and there wasn’t a thing to eat.
  • MAN: You must be starving then.

Question: What did the woman imply about her day?

  1. She worked for too long.
  2. She didn’t get a chance to go for lunch.
  3. There was no food offered at the meeting.
  4. She is very hungry now.

In this case, we are looking at the phrase “there wasn’t a thing to eat.” It should be pretty obvious then that the correct answer would be either (2), (3), or (4) as these all concern food or eating in some way. There was no mention of time and so the answer could not have been (1).

If we look carefully, we will see that the correct answer is (3): “There was no food offered at the meeting.” We can tell this because she says “there wasn’t a thing to eat,” meaning “there was nothing to eat.” This is not the same as being unable to go out for lunch, and in fact there was no mention of going anywhere. As for (4), it is probably true, but she did not say that so it cannot be the right answer.


For a better score in TOEFL listening, you need to be able to convert negative statements into positive ones and then look at a list of answers to find out which one of them is closest in meaning to that phrase. This will give you a better chance of answering some questions correctly.

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