Raise your TOEFL writing score by avoiding common errors

As we have discussed in countless other articles, grammar is absolutely vital for success in TOEFL. Although there is no dedicated section of the exam in which you will be asked questions about grammatical rules, you will be expected to produce English sentences that adhere to the rules of grammar in both the speaking and writing tests, while grammar will also help you to succeed for reading and listening.

In this article, I will explain the importance of grammar for TOEFL and then list some common grammatical errors that hold people back from getting a good grade.

Is grammar really important for TOEFL?

The TOEFL exam contains sections that test different English skills, but there is no dedicated part of the exam that tackles grammar. Despite this, grammar is still incredibly important. During both the writing and speaking test, examiners will be judging your performance partly on your use of grammar, and that means you need to get your grammar skills polished before you book your test date.

English grammar is difficult. That is no secret. However, you do not need to have absolutely perfect grammar in order to do well in the test. You just need to be able to master the basics, use a variety of structures, and avoid making too many mistakes. If you make too many mistakes, or some particularly serious errors, then it will definitely have a big negative impact on your score.

As such, it is important that all prospective TOEFL candidates spend time revising the rules of grammar and practicing with these structures so that when they do the actual test they are not likely to make any major errors and lose points.

Common errors in grammar

In this section, I am going to outline some common grammar mistakes that TOEFL candidates make on test day. This is intended to illuminate common problems so that you can address these before you take the test. If you can avoid making these mistakes, you will be likely to get a respectable score in the exam.

Picking the right tense

One of the biggest problems TOEFL candidates face is choosing the right tense to use. This is obviously a major headache for some people as the English language has 12 different tenses to choose from, and there are a variety of rules to remember.

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Some of the most common errors in tense choice include using the present continuous rather than the present simple, and using the past or present simple instead of the present perfect.

It is very common for people from certain countries to greatly over-use the present continuous tense. They seem to think that this can be used for almost any present action, but actually it has a pretty limited use. If something is known to be generally true or is a repeated action, we typically would use present simple:

  • Many young people are finding that it is hard to get a job after graduation.
  • Many young people find that it is hard to get a job after graduation.

As this is a general truth, we should instead use present simple. It may be possible in some informal situations to use present continuous in this sense, but usually we would use present simple instead. Present continuous is used to refer to on-going situations:

  • I am reading a book by Bill Bryson at the moment.
  • My friend is studying French at college.

It should also be noted that certain words just cannot be used in the continuous tenses. These are called non-continuous verbs, and they include “believe,” “like,” and “love.”

  • Many people are believing that stronger regulations are required for immigrants.
  • Many people believe that stronger regulations are required for immigrants.

As for present perfect, this tense is used frequently by native speakers to show that something began in the past and may continue until the present – or that it is at least possible for it to continue until now. It has a lot of possible uses in TOEFL essays and it is quite common to see candidates mistakenly use the past simple when this would be the correct tense:

  • Since the rise of the internet, many local shops closed and town centers are becoming quiet.
  • Since the rise of the internet, many local shops have closed and town centers are becoming quiet.

Here, it is possible that shops may continue to close in future, so we should not use the past simple to describe this event. Present perfect is more appropriate because it shows that this began in the past and continues until now.

Misuse of commas

Using commas is perhaps even trickier than knowing the right tense to use for a sentence. It is something that even native speakers have trouble with. However, in order to do well at TOEFL, you will need to at least have a basic grasp of punctuation, and that means being able to use periods and commas with accuracy for most basic situations.

Commas are often used to divide clauses or separate items in a list. They are also used to separate an introductory or transitional phrase from the rest of a sentence. We have a few rules about commas that must be adhered to in order to write most good sentences in English:

  1. A comma divides two independent clauses when joined with a coordinating conjunction.
  2. A comma can be used to divide an independent from a dependent clause if the dependent clause comes first, but not if it comes second.

If you can remember these rules, you will be on track for a relatively good essay. Here are two examples:

  • Modern music transcends national boundaries, but traditional music is still quite a region preference.
  • If more people rejected plastic bags, the pollution problem would be slightly abated.

Remember to avoid comma splices and run-on sentences. A comma splice is when two independent clauses have been joined together with just a comma, while a run-on sentence basically lacks punctuation. You should make sure that you are totally familiar with the rules of punctuation or else you will fall into these common traps and it will negatively impact your score.

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Article use

Articles seem to be especially difficult for some groups of English learners. These people really struggle to know when to use a/an or the. Sometimes there should be no article at all but they will use an article, and sometimes they will use no article where there really should be one.

In English, there are a variety of rules governing the use of articles. When something is limited to just one possible idea, or it has been previously mentioned and we know what it is, we can use a definite article (“the”). However, if we are referring to one out of possible others, we should use the indefinite article (“a” or “an”).

Certain words always take the definite article: the internet, the moon, the sun, the United States, etc. If you missed the article for any of these words, you would definitely be penalized by the examiner.

Mistaking will/would and can/could

The word “could” is used for hypothetical situations and things that happened in the past. We might say, for example:

  • When I was younger, I can eat a lot without getting fat.
  • When I was younger, I could eat a lot without getting fat.
  • If I had a little more money, I can start investing in stocks.
  • If I had a little more money, I could start investing in stocks.

In the first example, we are referring to something that really did happen in the past, while in the second we are referring to an imaginary situation. Note that “can” is not acceptable in either of these cases.

Similarly, we should not confuse “will” with “would.” This is usually used to talk about possible situations in the future:

  • If I passed all my exams, I would celebrate by taking a trip with my friends.
  • If I pass all my exams, I will celebrate by taking a trip with my friends.

In the first example, we are talking about an imaginary situation but in the second it seems more certain. These are both correct, but they have slightly different meanings. It is important to understand the difference and apply it appropriately in your writing.


Grammar is really important for success in TOEFL and being able to avoid the mistakes listed above will really set you on the track to achieving your desired score. Getting better at grammar can take months and years of practice, but by figuring out the most common mistakes, you give yourself a good chance of improving quickly and avoiding the most common pitfalls. Don’t be dissuaded by the amount of time it takes to get good at this sort of thing. Be persistant and study hard. In the end, you will succeed.

If you want your grammar assessed by an expert, you should try our TOEFL Writing Correction Service.

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