TOEFL(R) BOOSTER / Pronouns point the way in TOEFL reading

Lawrence J. Zwier / Special to The Daily Yomiuri

One way the Internet-based TOEFL (iBT) differs from earlier TOEFL versions is that it has no grammar section. Grammar is important, but it is tested as part of your overall performance in reading, listening, speaking and writing. However, there is one kind of reading question that is similar to a pure grammar question. This kind is known as a reference question.

In a reference question, you are asked to name the referent–the thing or idea that is referred to–of a pronoun. There will be one reference question for each reading in the test. A pronoun is highlighted. The question asks what the highlighted word refers to.

At first, you might think this is a very easy kind of question. Ever since you started learning English, you have worked with pronouns. They were some of the first words you learned in English–he, she, I, you, it, this and so on. Of course, sometimes it’s very easy to understand what a pronoun refers to. Take the example, Tom picked up a pizza and brought it home. What does the underlined pronoun (it) refer to? Very clearly, it refers to pizza. The context is simple, and there’s only one possible answer.

In iBT reading passages, however, the context is more complex. For each targeted pronoun, there are several possible referents. Consider the following example:


Major League Baseball (MLB) has strict rules about the kinds of ball and bat that can be used in a game. The ball has to have an outer layer of stitched cowhide or horsehide. Its innermost layer is a sphere of bouncy material like cork or rubber. This inner core is wrapped in yarn before it gets its outermost layer of hide.


What does the underlined pronoun it in the passage refer to?

a) ball

b) layer

c) core

d) yarn

The correct answer is c)–core. This might not be immediately clear, however. There are many singular nouns in the passage and many possible referents for pronouns. You have to base your decision not on grammar but on meaning. Look again at the underlined it in the passage. It is the subject of the verb gets, which has as its direct object its outermost layer of hide.

Also, look at the singular nouns that come before the underlined it. Usually, the referent for a pronoun appears somewhere before the pronoun. In this passage, looking before the underlined it, the closest singular-noun referents are core and yarn. The noun ball is very far away. Ask yourself: “What is wrapped in yarn before it gets its outermost layer?” That will lead you to core.

For practice, let’s look at a few more passages followed by reference questions.


The MLB rules specify that a bat has to be “a smooth, round stick.” It cannot be any more than 2.75 inches in diameter at the widest part. The maximum length is 42 inches, and the bat has to be made of solid wood. These specifications rule out metal bats and ensure that super-strong hitters are not bringing monster-size bats to the game. They probably limit the number of home runs that can be scored in a game, but they do make sure that even power hitters have to score with personal strength instead of big equipment.


What does the underlined pronoun they in the passage refer to?

a) inches

b) specifications

c) hitters

d) bats

The correct answer is b)–specifications. Logic can tell you this. What can most probably limit scoring? The specifications.


Along most shorelines, whether beside oceans or large lakes, there is a constant on-shore wind–that is, a wind that blows from the water toward land. Evidence can easily be found by observing trees along the shore, many of which have been bent away from the water by the constant on-shore flow of air as they grew. In part, temperature differentials are responsible for this, since land heats up faster than water. Warm air currents on land rise up, and cooler air above the water sweeps landward to fill in the gap.


What does the underlined word which in the passage refer to?

a) shorelines

b) wind

c) water

d) trees

The correct answer is d)–trees. Again, logic is your guide. Of all the answer options, only trees can be bent by air as they grow.


The economic models for cell phone service vary a lot from country to country. In some countries, such as the United States, the phones themselves are quite inexpensive while the service costs quite a bit. In other countries, the service costs very little and the phones cost a lot. This is the case in Singapore, where almost all cell phone service is provided by the government-run telephone company and is affordable even to low-income customers–as long as they can come up with the cost of a phone.


What does the underlined pronoun this in the passage refer to?

a) a country with cell phone service

b) a system of expensive service and affordable phones

c) a system of expensive phones and affordable service

d) a country with a government-run phone company

The correct answer is c)–a system of expensive phones and affordable service. Notice that the referent is not an individual noun. Instead, it is a whole idea.

Next month we will look at a kind of reading question known as negative detail questions.

Zwier teaches in the English Language Center at Michigan State University. He has written numerous books about the iBT.

(May. 25, 2011)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s