(NOTE: The TOEFL books that Magoosh reviews and recommends reflect the older, pre-August 2019 version of the test. As of this writing, there are no TOEFL prep books that reflect the newest version of the test. Fortunately, older-format books are still very useful in prepping for the current TOEFL. For details on this, see Magoosh’s tutorial on using older prep for the 2019 TOEFL.)
It can often be hard to find reliable, user-friendly grammar resources. Online there’s often too much information to sift through, and it can be really hard to find what you need. At the same time, books frequently are incomplete and geared towards teaching very specific concepts, usually at a low or intermediate level. But as you study advanced English, especially the academic English on the TOEFL, you probably have discovered just how complex English grammar really is. Sometimes you’ve probably been frustrated when you find that the rules you learned at school don’t really tell you the whole story. I’ve recently discovered English Language Grammar Reference and Teacher’s Guide by C. Neil Linton, which you may find useful in overcoming these hurdles.
Although the title says that the book is intended for teachers, the grammar and writing section of it is also useful for advanced English learners, especially for those who are studying on their own. It’s set up to be used as a flip-reference rather than to be read—in fact, I think if you were to try to sit down and read the whole thing, you might find it boring and confusing because of the many lists and charts. But if you ever need to review punctuation rules or check to see whether a sentence you’ve encountered is grammatical or not (and why), then this book is an excellent resource. It’s very easy to navigate because the headings are clearly marked, and the table of contents gives you a good idea of where to find any topic you can think of.
Because the book is geared towards teachers, it may not always suit your needs exactly. Chapters four through six deal not with English language, but with teaching, so they’re not relevant to most students of English. Also, the explanations of grammar can sometimes be a little complicated. Take, for example, this quote from the section on passive voice, page 33: “The passive voice places the entity that receives the action in the subject position of the sentence. This shifts the focus from the entity performing the action to the entity receiving the action.” That explanation may not be helpful for some people. However, there are at least several examples for every topic in the book, which can help to clear up any difficulties.
There are a few areas in the book that need to be fleshed out for advanced English learners. For example, the book doesn’t talk about the difference between “who” and “whom” or “that” and “which” in relative clauses; for a more detailed explanation, I would check out www.quickanddirtytips.com. Also, if English articles are very different from the articles in your native language (or if your language doesn’t use articles), then you’ll need to supplement this book with more resources to really understand how articles work. The author warns that the section on articles is just intended as an introduction, and I think it’s one of the better and more thorough discussions of English articles that I’ve seen. Nevertheless, you will need to find practice and additional examples in order to internalize the many rules and exceptions of English article use.
Kicking it up a notch
Maybe you are confident in your current understanding of English grammar, and you don’t see what a grammar reference has to offer you. If you can already write and speak grammatically, then it’s time to start using more varied language and using the phrasing that a native speaker would use. Here are a couple of sections from the book that are especially useful for those of you who want to take your fluency to the next level:
– Objective complements (pages 18-19)- This section deals with some advanced uses of adjectives. You may learn some new sentence structures in this section that will make your writing flow better.
– Adjective and adverb order (pages 22 and 72)- Here the author deals with how we order multiple adjectives in a sentence. There is often just one correct way to order them, and you may not have learned this rule in class. Do remember, however, that adjectives and adverbs should be used in moderation—that is, use enough of them to make your writing and speech varied and descriptive, but don’t go overboard, using them to show off your vocabulary.
– Advanced subject-verb agreement (pages 64-67)- This is a topic that even native speakers have trouble with, but you need to know about it to make your writing really polished.
– The lists of complex prepositions on page 79 and conjunctive adverbs on page 73 are great resources for expanding your academic writing vocabulary.
How to use this book for the TOEFL
Again and again, I’ve told you to read, read, read. It’s a great way to learn vocabulary and acquire grammar with little effort. However, there are times when effort is required, especially if you want to get all the benefit out of your reading. So as you read, pay attention to any structures that surprise you. Occasionally take a sentence, and decide how you would have phrased it. If your phrasing is different from that of the original, then this guide can help you figure out why the author phrased it that way and whether your version is also correct. If you keep this book nearby whenever you’re studying, you’ll find that the more you pay attention to grammar and usage, the more questions you have. When you’re writing or speaking, the many lists and charts make it ideal as a quick aid when you aren’t sure of how, for example, a particular adjective can be changed into a noun, or what the past tense of “dream” is.
If you’re curious about the English Language Grammar Reference and Teacher’s Guide, check out its Facebook page. This review dealt with the first edition, but a second edition has recently been released. You can find information about the second edition on that page; to learn more about the students’ version of the book, visit its page. I hope these resources will help you polish your grammar so you shine on test day!