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TOEFL Tuesday: Reading Tip – Find the Actor and Action

Wrong answers in the TOEFL reading section can be tricky. They often look very similar to the correct answer, using many of the same words. This week, I discuss a strategy to find whether the answer choices actually match the passage. If they don’t match, they’re not correct!

Find the actor and action

Let’s start with the example sentence.  

“Sedimentation buries organic matter and subjects it to higher pressures.”

This is a simplified version of an actual sentence from a TOEFL practice test in volume one of the official iBT tests book. The original sentence is longer, with more information, but I’m using a short, simple version to make my main point easier to follow.

Now, in this sentence, we have one actor and two actions.

Actor: sedimentation

Action: buries and subjects to pressure

Let’s look at some similar sentences to see how well they match.


Wrong answers in TOEFL reading often have statements that are similar to the text, but with a change in actors. In the sentence below, sedimentation is not the actor anymore.

“Increased pressure on organic matter promotes sedimentation.”

Actor: pressure

Action: promotes sedimentation

In the original sentence, sedimentation was the cause of the the action. In this new sentence, sedimentation is the result. That’s a problem! This sentence distorts the original information, because the actor is reversed. Originally, pressure was the result. Now it is the actor, and that’s not right.


Often the test tries to distract you by putting all the right words in the sentence, but focusing on the wrong ones. This sentence has “sedimentation” at the start, and it looks very similar to the original, with “burying” and “subject” as verbs:

”Sedimentation, when burying organic matter, is subject to higher pressures.”

There is actually a small distortion in this sentence, if you are careful. “Is subject to” is a passive action. It is opposite of the active form “subjects to.” So this is a change of actors—in this new sentence, the actor is actually unknown: SOMETHING subjects sedimentation to higher pressures.

But there’s another problem. Often, sentences that are in the right order like this example lose the importance of main ideas. In the original, “buries” was an important word: the main action. But in this new version, it is part of a “when” clause. It is extra information, instead of a full action. When the original verb moves to a dependent clause (“if…,” “when…,” “although…” and others), be careful! It’s possible the main point of the sentence has changed. In the example above, the main idea has become “sedimentation is subject to pressure.” Originally, it was “sedimentation buries matter.” The “when” clause made the main idea less important, and that caused a problem!

Watching the actor and action is key to answering paraphrase questions correctly, but other question types also use these types of wrong answers, including the most common question type: detail questions. So this will be important!

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