TOEFL Grammar Lesson

In this TOEFL Grammar Lesson, you will learn how to use hypothetical verbs. You will learn how to use past perfect and simple past verbs. You will also learn how to use the simple present.  In many cases, the speaking and writing prompts will require that you use a specific verb tense. Hence, you should make sure that you have good control of your verb tenses so that you can get the highest scores possible during the speaking and writing sections of the TOEFL iBT.

TOEFL Grammar Lesson
TOEFL Grammar Lesson

TOEFL Grammar Lesson: Hypothetical verbs for past impossible and present impossible situations

During the TOEFL exam, you could be asked in the speaking and writing section to discuss past and present impossible situations.

Past Impossible Situations

Suppose you saw the following independent speaking prompt:  Talk about a situation in which an event turned out differently than you expected. Explain what you could have done differently.

Since you are talking about a situation in the past and since you are explaining what you could have done differently to achieve a different result, you will need to use the past perfect + modal. This will help you to talk about a past impossible situation.

Last year, I went to my high school with Sarah, someone my parents wanted me to take.  Unfortunately, I did not know her very well, and we did not talk much during the few hours we spent together at the dance. If I had to do things over again, I would have taken Maria to the prom instead of Sarah. Maria had always been a good friend to me, which is why she would have been a better choice.  We would have had better conversations that night. Thus, it would have been a much more enjoyable night for us both.

In the above response, I used the simple past to talk about actions with clear beginnings and endings. I also used the past perfect tense once to talk about an action that occurred before another past action. Finally, I used the past perfect tense to discuss impossible past actions that did NOT occur.

Present Impossible Situations

Likewise, what if you saw the following writing prompt: You just received an inheritance of 10 million dollars. However, you must donate half of the money to either a hospital or school in your community. Which facility would you donate the money to and why?

In this case, you are not talking about a past impossible action. Instead, you are asked about a present impossible situation.  To create this type of hypothetical tone, you will need to use simple past tense plus modals.

If I received 10 million dollars, I would donate half of the money to the elementary school I attended.

First of all, the school could use this money to purchase much needed supplies for students. When I attended the school, my classmates and I did not have enough textbooks, so we could not take our books home for study. Without being able to bring my books home, I had difficulty learning social studies, science, math, and language.  Before important tests, I would make copies of the materials, but that was very expensive for my family because we were on a tight budget. Also, we did not have any laptops or tablets. This inconvenience made it difficult because we were not able to complete a lot of computer-based or Internet learning lessons. Teachers, therefore, could use this money to purchase these materials to help students more fully master the course lessons.

Second of all, this school could also use this money to make emergency repairs on the air conditioning units. Currently, these coolers do not work efficiently.  For instance, in total, there are 32 classrooms, each one having an attached air conditioner.  More than 50% of those units do not cool the rooms sufficiently. As a result, students attending class are uncomfortably warm during August and September and during April and May. In fact, when I attended the school, it was often more than 80 F in our classroom, so I would bring a fan to our classroom to make it more bearable.  Making the air conditioners more operational would help students better concentrate on their studies.

Observe how in this writing response I used the past tense +modals to talk about a present impossible situation. In addition, I used the simple past to discuss previously completed actions. Finally, I used the present tense to describe current situations at the school.

TOEFL Grammar Lesson: Past perfect and simple past verbs

The past perfect tense requires that you sequence two past actions showing how one past action occurred before the other.  For example suppose you ate dinner. Then after dinner, a friend visited you. Both actions occurred in the past, right? You can express this idea in two separate sentences:

I ate dinner.  After that, a friend visited me.

If you combine the two sentences, you will need to use the past perfect tense in the first sentence:

I had eaten dinner when my friend visited me. (Eating dinner occurred before the friend’s visit.)

If I use the simple past verb tense in both sentences, it appears that I ate dinner at the same time of my friend’s visit:

I ate dinner when my friend visited me.

The simple past tense is used to indicate that an action began and ended in the past:

I graduated from high school in June 2017.

TOEFL Grammar Lesson:  Simple Present

Simple present is generally used to talk about general truths or habitual actions. Also, simple present is used to summarize reading and listening passages

General truths:  Whether Christopher Columbus discovered that the world is round remains a controversial subject. 

Habitual actions:  Typically, I run 5 miles every morning before work.

Summaries: The reading passages defines Darwin’s survival of the fittest theory of evolution, and the speaker in the listening passages gives an example of the American Alligator to further illustrate the concept.

TOEFL Grammar Lesson: Final Comments

Now that you have some idea about verb tenses. You should start completing independent and integrated speaking and writing practice tests.  If you are on a tight budget, consider joining my Online TOEFL Course, in which you can complete speaking and writing practice tests on a daily basis for one low monthly fee.  You will e-mail me ( your speaking and writing practice. Part of my feedback that I send you will consist of language use comments. In other words, I will let you know whether or not you are having problems with vocabulary or grammar.

Most students cannot diagnose their own grammar problems as they do their speaking and writing practice. Therefore, as your speaking and writing mentor, I can help to identify the errors you are making. In addition, I can recommend specific lessons from more than 700 to help you master your weak points.  In many cases, after you complete 200-300 speaking practice tests and 30-40 writing practice tests, you will have had the feedback necessary to help you score higher than 26 and 24 points respectively.

Good luck!

Michael Buckhoff,