Clauses and Sentence Structure: TOEFL Speaking and Writing

Understanding clauses and sentence structure are important to your speaking and writing score.  In fact, using both independent and dependent clauses in TOEFL speaking and writing tasks shows that you have good sentence variety. In addition, using these basic and advanced grammar structures proves to iBT human raters that you have good control over your language use. Therefore, as you do your speaking and writing practice, make sure that you are using these sentence structures correctly and with the right frequency.
Clauses and Sentence Structure

Clauses and Sentence Structure: Independent Clauses

Independent clauses consist of one subject and one verb. In addition, they may be short or long.  Further, emphasizing main ideas, independent clauses can occur with varying styles and word orders. Independent clauses also are referred to as simple sentences.  In fact, these one-subject and one-verb sentences can be used for emphasis.

  • Short sentence: John hit the ball. (Common)
  • Long sentence:  Anxious to get on base this time with both his parents at the stadium watching the game, John hit the ball all the way over the center field fence and into the upper bleachers. (Common)
  • Fronted past participial phrase: Broken by a foul baseball, the window will need to be repaired. (Less common)
  • Fronted present participial phrase:  Waiting outside the professor’s office, the student wanted to discuss her grade on her research project. (Less common)
  • Past participial phrase after subject: The driver ticketed by the police had his car impounded for driving with a suspended license. (Common)
  • Present participial phrase after subject:  The woman shopping for a new pair of shoes got a 75% discount. (Common)
  • Subject-verb inversion with a fronted prepositional phrase of location:  Next to the desk was a book worn from many years of reading. (Less common)
  • Subject-verb inversion with fronted negative or almost negative adverbs:  Never have I seen such an exciting baseball game. (This common sentence is used to emphasize a superlative meaning  that “this is the most exciting baseball game that I have ever seen.”)

Use less common sentences styles less frequently in your speaking and writing tasks. For instance, you might consider using a subject-verb inversion once or twice during each independent or integrated speaking or writing task.

Clauses and Sentence Structure: Compound sentences

Compound sentences consist of at least two independent clauses joined by one of the F.A.N.B.O.Y.S. (.i.e., for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so.) Unlike simple sentences, compound sentences are used to combine two independent clauses. The two independent clauses are typically not important enough to stand on their own even though both are considered complete ideas.

  • For: The students worked hard over the last few days to complete the research for their papers, for the professor expected each paper to have at least 10 scholarly sources. (Formal)
  • And: Trying desperately to reach 26 and 24 on the speaking and writing sections, Aljader followed his study plan, and his TOEFL mentor provided him meaningful speaking and writing feedback to help him monitor his progress.
  • Nor: Helen will not be able to turn in her research paper by the intended deadline, nor will any of the other students in the class. (Formal)
  • But: Indeed, I have fallen in love with you, but the difference between our two cultures will make it impossible for us to have a long-term relationship.
  • Or: To get ready for the TOEFL exam, the student decided to self-prepare, or a TOEFL mentor would help her to reach her target score.
  • Yet: Every student in the pharmacy course studied diligently, yet none of their scores exceeded 90%.
  • So: Southern California faces several 100F days in the inland areas, so the state is issuing a “Conserve Energy Alert” advising residents to set thermostats at 78F to avoid overloading the electrical grid systems.

To avoid overusing compound sentences in your writing, if the subjects are the same in both independent clauses, consider omitting the second subject. In addition, consider omitting the coordinating conjunction and combining the two sentences with a semi-colon.

  • Example compound sentence:  The man went to the Department of Motor Vehicles, and afterward he went to the bank to deposit his paycheck.
  • Reduced compound sentence with one subject: The man went to the Department of Motor Vehicles and afterward went to the bank to deposit his paycheck.
  • Revised compound sentence with semi-colon: The man went to the Department of Motor Vehicles; afterward he went to the bank to deposit his paycheck.

Clauses and Sentence Structure: Complex Sentences

Sometimes in a speaking or writing task, you may want to combine an independent clause (main idea) with a dependent clause (support idea). This sentence is called a complex sentence.  Dependent clauses must be connected to an independent clause:

  • that she wanted to bring with her to the party
  • in which the students were taking the TOEFL exam

Even though both of the above dependent clauses have subjects and verbs, they cannot stand alone as complete sentences. The below examples show how the dependent clauses can be connected to independent clauses.

  • The friend that she wanted to bring with her to the party decided to leave town to visit her parents.
  • The building in which the students were taking the TOEFL exam had a blackout, and all students were sent home with canceled scores.

Clauses and Sentence Structure: Sentence Variety

Longer sentences played against a shorter sentence every now and then give you a natural speaking and writing rhythm. Too many short sentences in a row sounds boring to your iBT readers and listeners. Therefore, like a baseball pitcher who throws curve, splitter, drop, change-up, and fast balls to an unsuspecting batter, you should be “throwing” different kinds of sentences at your audience as you complete the speaking and writing portions of the TOEFL exam.

Natural speaking rhythm with longer and shorter sentences:

1) If I choose among a reliable, honest, or funny friend, I will choose a friend who is honest.

2) First of all, an honest friend will not take any of my personal belongings without permission. 3) For instance, in my apartment are my personal computer, my tablet, and my Smartphone. 4) I also put my cash in my bedroom in case I need to buy something at a vendor who doesn’t accept cash payments or checks. 5) I need to be able to trust that my friend will not take any of these items if he visits me on occasion.

6) Second of all, honesty in friend is important because I may need to talk to my friend in confidence about personal matters. 7) For instance, if I have some problems with my girlfriend, I will want to talk to my friend whom I expect will not tell anyone else about our conversation.

8) Because of these two reasons, honesty in a friend is more important than the other two qualities.

Let’s take a look at the eight sentences that I used in this response according to the sentence style and the number of words:

1. 18 word complex sentence

2. 16 word simple sentence

3. 14 word subject-verb inversion simple sentence

4. 25 word complex sentence with multiple clauses

5. 23 word complex sentence

6. 22 word complex sentence

7. 29 word complex sentence

8. 17 word simple sentence

With the simple sentences ranging from 14-17 words, these can be considered short sentences.  However, the complex sentences range in word count from 18-29 words.  Therefore, as you can see, I used mostly longer sentences with 3 shorter sentences. However, sentence 3 uses a subject-verb inversion. Therefore, even though sentence 3 is only 14 words, it still represents advanced grammar since I used a prepositional phrase of location + verb + subject.

Overall, this response contain 173 words, eight sentences, and an average sentence length of 22 words. TOEFL iBT human raters will appreciate the sentence variety and the sentence length. As a result, they will score this response high.

Choppy speaking rhythm with shorter sentences

1) There are reliable, honest, or funny friends. I will choose an honest friend.

2) First of all, an honest friend will not take any of my personal belongings without permission. 3) For instance, my apartment has my personal computer, my tablet, and my Smartphone. 4) I also put my cash in my bedroom. 5) I may need to buy something at a vendor. 6) They may not accept cash payments or checks. 7) I need to be able to trust my friend. 8) My friend should not take any of these items during his visits.

9) Second of all, honesty in friend is also important. 10) I may need to talk to my friend in confidence about personal matters. 11) For instance, I have some problems with my girlfriend. 12) Then I will want to talk to my friend.  13) I expect him not tell anyone else about our conversation.

14) Because of these two reasons, honesty in a friend is more important than the other two qualities.

  • Did you notice that the second response took 62 seconds instead of the 53 second response which had longer sentences?
  • In fact, the second response had 163 words. However, the first response had 173 words.
  • “How is it possible,” Michael, ” that is the first response with 10 more words took only 52 seconds?” The answer lies in the types of sentences used. The first response used longer sentences which means fewer pauses between ideas.
  • Look at the sentences below and the number of words in the choppy response:

1.  13 word simple sentence

2.  16 word simple sentence

3.  13 word simple sentence

4.  8 word simple sentence

5.  9 word simple sentence

6.  8  word simple sentence

7.  9 word simple sentence

8.  13 word simple sentence

9.  9 word simple sentence

10. 13 word simple sentence

11. 10 word simple sentence

12. 9 word simple sentence

13. 10 word simple sentence

14. 17 word simple sentence

  • Unlike the first response, this response only uses simple sentences. In addition, it does not use the subject-verb inversion that you observed in the first response.
  • To make matters worse, instead of eight sentences, the choppy response uses 14  short sentences varying from 8 to 14 words.
  • It is hard for TOEFL iBT human raters to concentrate on a response that has so many similar subject-verb short sentences.
  • As a result, this response will score lower.

Clauses and Sentence Structure: Quiz 1

Are the group of words that you see in each answer a complete or incomplete sentence? Remember that in order for sentence to be complete it must have a subject a verb in its independent clause.

1. Where the man finally found his umbrella.

A. Complete

B. Incomplete

2. Where did the man finally find his umbrella?

A. Complete

B. Incomplete

3. That Alfredo scored 110 on the TOEFL exam is amazing.

A. Complete

B. Incomplete

4. What my friend says about me behind my back.

A. Complete

B. Incomplete

5. Kent told me about your not finishing the reading section of the TOEFL exam.

A. Complete

B. Incomplete

6. Is attending the soccer game with all of her friends.

A. Complete

B. Incomplete

7. When the last ice age occurred is unknown.

A. Complete

B. Incomplete

8.   Whether or not my friend will sit for the TOEFL exam.

A. Complete

B. Incomplete

9. Because I need to buy a new pair of running shoes for my upcoming marathon that I will be running in two months.

A. Complete

B. Incomplete

10. Although my friend, whom I admire greatly due to his engaging personality and natural witty humor, is not planning on becoming a pharmacist inasmuch as he does not want to be in college that long.

A. Complete

B. Incomplete

Clauses and Sentence Structure: Quiz 2

Listen to each sentence on the recording. Identify it as a simple (s + v), a compound (s + v + and s + v), or a complex sentence (conjunction + s + v + s + v).

1.

A. Simple

B. Compound

C. Complex

2.

A. Simple

B. Compound

C. Complex

3.

A. Simple

B. Compound

C. Complex

4.

A. Simple

B. Compound

C. Complex

5.

A. Simple

B. Compound

C. Complex

6.

A. Simple

B. Compound

C. Complex

7.

A. Simple

B. Compound

C. Complex

8.

A. Simple

B. Compound

C. Complex

9.

A. Simple

B. Compound

C. Complex

10.

A. Simple

B. Compound

C. Complex

Clauses and Sentence Structure: Quiz 3

Listening Dictation

Listen to each sentence three times, each time writing more of the sentence that you hear.

By the third try, you should have written the entire sentence.  Pay close attention to the subjects, verbs, connecting words, and all the other words creating each of the sentences.  Click on answer to compare your sentence to the scripted one.

Having good listening dictation skills helps to improve your note-taking skills for the integrated speaking and writing portions of the TOEFL exam.

However, during the integrated speaking and writing sections, you should not copy word for word what you read or hear. Rather, you use re-explain the points using your own grammar and vocabulary, as you can read more about here.

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