Vocabulary is a very important part of IELTS writing but students generally do not understand what constitutes good vocabulary. Precise vocabulary rather than the use of rarely used words is good vocabulary. Good vocabulary use occurs when students express ideas precisely and in a standard way (similar to an educated native speaker), which means using standard phrases and collocations (words that are used together e.g. “wise choices”, “unreasonable demands”, “alcohol consumption”, etc.). By using standard vocabulary students essays can be more easily understood by the reader, show that they understand how language is used correctly and allow the writer’s meaning to be communicated effectively. Vocabulary is assessed based on how words are used rather than what words are used.
However, excellent vocabulary use is often incorrectly understood by students to mean writing essays that have many complex words. Very often students attempt to impress examiners by using complex words and the result is almost always that instead of using a simple correct word they use a complex word incorrectly. They show the examiner that they do not fully understand the words that they are using. Furthermore, no two words in any language have exactly the same meaning (if they did, one of the words would quickly fall into disuse), and changing a choice of vocabulary always means that the meaning of the sentence has also been changed.
Tip: Use vocabulary that is natural. Do not “upgrade”
An additional problem with attempting to use more complex language is that incorrect usage often confuses the examiner. When an incorrect choice of word is combined with other grammar or vocabulary mistakes, the writing becomes very difficult to understand. It is a failure on the part of the student to communicate well and if this occurs students will receive a very heavy penalty and it will usually exclude them from achieving a score of Band 7 in writing.
A further problem with attempting to use more complex vocabulary than is necessary is that the chosen word will not be consistent with the usual writing style of the student and will lead to cohesion problems. Furthermore, native speakers do not aim to impress people with their vocabulary so any attempt to use complex language will lead to non-standard usage. Students should always aim to use language that is familiar to them.
Students should be reminded that there are many examples of great literature (such as George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”) that uses very simple vocabulary. It is the quality of ideas and the effectiveness of the communication that create very good pieces of writing. Native speakers use very complex vocabulary only when they are seeking to achieve a very exact meaning and this only occurs when they are writing complex arguments or detailed descriptions. When words are rarely used it is because they have very precise meanings and therefore should only be used in very specific circumstances. This makes them very difficult to use correctly and it is typically only highly educated native speakers who use complex vocabulary.
Many students are taught to vary their language. This is not necessary except perhaps at the IELTS Band 8-9 level and often leads to problems. The focus for students should always be to communicate well and varying language often does not lead to better communication and sometimes causes problems. Often students will vary their language naturally to good effect; however, students should not change a work purely to achieve variations as this can cause problems because sometimes there is no reasonable alternative for a word. A good example is the word “children”, which comes up as a subject in many IELTS essays. In order to achieve variation many students will replace “children” with “kids”, which is far too informal to be used in writing (the original meaning of a “kid” is a “baby goat”). Students should only vary language if there is a clear alternative – often there is no acceptable alternative. Repeating a correct word many times does not reduce the quality of communication and will not lead to a lower score.
Commonly Misused Words
There are many words that are commonly misused. A few of the most common are listed below:
Efficiency is a much overused word in essays and should usually be replaced with “effectiveness”. Efficiency is how quickly or smoothly an event occurs and effectiveness refers to how good the final result is.
John completed his work in a highly efficient manner, however he would be more effective if he paid more attention to detail.
It is worth noting that in most cases people are more concerned with effectiveness than efficiency. Effectiveness is a word that is a marker of quality for an examiner. It is rarely used and its correct use will often draw the attention of an examiner.
“Knowledge” is also a commonly overused word. In this case there is a key cultural difference between developing and developed countries, which causes the overuse of “knowledge”. In developing countries education is focused on obtaining knowledge so students will choose this word correctly based on their understanding. However, in the West the education system is based on idea and skills development resulting in native speakers rarely talking about knowledge. Students should generally seek to replace developing knowledge with words such as “thinking”, “skills” or “learning”
Enhance is arguably the most misused word in essays and should always be avoided.
Enhance is most commonly used in advertising, it is emotive rather than objective which makes it unsuitable for use in academic writing and is most correctly used to describe additional features (not making things better). It should never be used as a synonym for improvement.
Improvement is simply to make things better. It is a very common word and can be repeated a number of times in an essay.
Drugs and Medicine are commonly misused words in essays because drugs has a very wide meaning that is much wider than in many other languages. A drug is any substance that has the ability to modify the physiology of any species belonging to the animal kingdom. Drugs include illegal drugs such as heroin, cocaine or marijuana, medicines such as aspirin, panadol and morphine and alcohol. Alcohol is a drug because it modifies brain chemistry and affects coordination and judgement. A commonly used phrase is “drugs and alcohol” even though this is duplication because many people do not think of alcohol as a drug.
Medicine has a much narrow meaning when referring to drugs. It is used for drugs that are beneficial and when referring to individual drugs. The correct usage is complex and generally should be avoided in favour of the more general word. It should be noted the correct word for a company that manufactures drugs/medicine is a “drug company” not a “medicine company”.
Popular is a commonly misused word in essays because it has a narrower meaning in English compared to other languages.
Popular is most commonly used in fashion and entertainment. The use of popular often implies that something is in fashion at the moment but is likely to go out of fashion in future rather than become a permanent change. Music, films, clothes, brands and models of cars or phones, holiday destinations may all be popular. However, going to university, having a mobile phone or a car or driving to school rather than walking or riding a bicycle to school are all common and it is incorrect to use popular in these cases.
“Kids” is far too informal to be used in formal writing. The original meaning of a kid is a “baby goat”, it is the equivalent of “kitten” or “puppy”. It is highly informal and should never be used in formal writing and probably should not be used in formal speaking (including an IELTS speaking test).
The purpose of punishment is to cause pain to people who have behaved badly. The aim of discipline is to teach people who have made poor choices. For children the aim is always to teach, therefore children should be disciplined and never punished. Punished is also commonly misused in IELTS questions by examiners to test whether students know the correct language.
Surfing the Internet/On the Internet
Students often use surfing the Internet as a general term for using the Internet. Surfing is riding a wave and implies that a person goes where the wave takes them with limited control. In an Internet context this means that a person has no set direction and will simply follow links that attract their attention. Surfing the Internet is a leisure activity.
When using the Internet for a specific purpose such as research or for work it is incorrect to use surf the Internet. Normally it is “use the internet”, “be on the internet” or simply “be online”.
Students often use “academic study” when describing areas of importance for young people; however, this language is imprecise. Studying is an action but it is always better to describe the purpose of the action rather than the action itself. In this case the purpose of the action is to become educated and it is far more standard to use phrases such as “young people should focus on their education” rather than “young people should focus on their academic study”.
Avoid Unnecessary Language – Fillers
In speaking, people tend to use unnecessary language and expressions that are sometimes referred to as “fillers”. However, this is not normally done in formal writing and leads to indirect language.
Unnecessary language tends to be found at the beginning of sentences and reduces the impact of sentences as they become more long-winded and less direct. This has the effect of reducing the impact or diluting the ideas being presented.
Examples taken from actual student essays are shown below:
Nowadays, parents become more conscious about their children’s growth than they were before.
In recent days, it is easy to find many news stories on television, in newspapers and on the Internet that describe violent crimes.
As we all know, life on campus is totally different from high school.
Deleting the underlined phrase will make the sentence more direct.
The words or phrases before the comma add no meaning because they are far too vague for formal writing. Educated native speakers almost never use them in writing and as such they should rarely be used. They are used in speaking in order to give the speaker time to think.
Common Phrases that should be avoided include the following:
From my perception
In recent days
As we all know
One of the things
Some people believe
From my point of view
I am convinced
As far as I am concerned
First of all
One of the things
On one hand, on the other hand
Unnecessary Language – Duplication
Similarly, at other times students will add information at the end of sentences (and occasionally in the middle of sentences) that is unnecessary as it is implied already and is a form of duplication.
Some people like to try various ways to live, they are willing to try different things and they enjoy change things.
This makes time more available for students to control by themselves.
It helps them to develop the ability to face problems with urgency and solve them by themselves.
Therefore, because people’s standard of living is improved at the time when society improves, people purchase goods because of their popularity instead of buying them for actual use or satisfying their needs.
In all of the examples given above the underlined words can be removed as this information is already stated or implied.
Avoid Oral Language
Sometimes words are used only in oral language and should be replaced by a formal word. Many examples are given below.
Not a mystery – not surprising
A lot of/plenty – many/a great deal of
Get – obtain
Still – continue to/avoid
Happen – occur
On the right track – avoid
Chance – opportunity, probability
Know – understand
Anything/something/things – replace with the actual name
Job hunting – searching for a job
Much more – many more/much greater
Worried – anxious
The rest – the remaining
Like – similar to/such as
Kids – children
Unreal – inaccurate
Try – attempt
Big – large/significant
What’s more/Besides – In addition
On one hand/On the other hand – Although
Finish – complete
At the same time – During the same period
Avoid “some/those” Before General Nouns
IELTS Task 2 writing requires students to speak about a topic in general. As a result plural forms of nouns without an article are widely used. However, many students incorrectly add “some” or “those” in front of a noun to show that they are speaking in general, which is a form of duplication. The “some” or “those” is not required and should be deleted:
Those companies that do not show care for their employees are likely to have their best employees leave.
Companies that do not show care for their employees are likely to have their best employees leave.
When patients are terminally ill, some doctors may feel that they should help patients die to avoid suffering.
When patients are terminally ill, doctors may feel that they should help patients die to avoid suffering.
Academic writing requires that the writer expresses their ideas objectively and therefore expressions of exaggeration should usually be avoided.
Avoid “just”, “only” and “even” because academic writing is objective and facts should be stated without emphasis.
Similarly adjectives that are highly emotional and have extreme meanings should be avoided.
Fantastic/amazing/incredible – Use high quality, excellent
Horrible/disgusting – Use undesirable, unacceptable
Use Precise Language
A much higher level of precision is expected in academic writing compared to spoken language because a reader cannot ask questions of the writer and the writer does not have the opportunity to adjust their language if they can observe that people are not understanding what they are attempting to communicate.
As a result there is some language that should be avoided.
Things – “things” is too vague for academic writing and it is far better to name the object that you are describing.
Always/never – In spoken language people often say sentences such as “John never goes to the cinema” when he rarely goes to the cinema. In written language a higher level of precision is required. If “never” or “always” is used there must be no exceptions.
When using verbs ensure that the most precise verb is used.
People need to jump out of their old style of thinking if they are to adjust to new technology.
People need to change their old style of thinking if they are to adjust to new technology.
It must also be possible for the subject to perform the action implied by the verb and it must be possible for the action to be performed on the object.
An argument, which disagrees with women in engaging in combat roles, is that women are not as strong as men.
This sentence is incorrect because an argument does not have the ability to agree or disagree.
An argument, which implies that women should not engage in combat roles, is that women are not as strong as men.
Use Positive Language – Negatives of Positives rather than Negatives
In formal English it is more acceptable to use the negative of a positive word rather than a negative. For example, it is more common (and much more polite) to describe someone as “unsuccessful” rather than a “failure” or “unwise” rather than “stupid” etc.
Ensure that Subjects are Fully Described
English as a language is precise and literal and therefore it is critical that subjects are fully described otherwise it will lead to confusion. It is often the case that subjects are very long because of the level of precision that is expected in written English.
“The number of women who have children over the age of 35 in India”
In this case the subject is how many women there are, not the women themselves and is an appropriate subject for a Task 1 response.
“Women who have children over the age of 35 in India”
In this case the subject is the women themselves and has no reference to their numbers and is therefore inappropriate in a task that is focused on data. This subject is appropriate for a Task 2 response.
The most common errors with subjects occur in Task 1 responses where students routinely fail to add the “number of” or “the amount of” of when referring to data. Errors also commonly arise when students attempt to shorten subjects.
Avoid Describing the Amount of Attention Topics Receive
Often students describe topics as being “hot” or “receiving a great deal of attention” in their essays. This is irrelevant information because it adds nothing to the ideas of the essay and the examiner already understands how much attention a topic is receiving in the media or society in general. Using such phrases marks the essay as non-academic and makes an essay feel like a prepared IELTS essay rather than a natural piece of writing. An even more serious problem with using phrases describing the amount of attention a topic is receiving is that students often use them when they are simply not true. Any essay that contains information that is factually incorrect will leave a very poor impression.
Avoid Leaving Readers Hanging
Occasionally students will write that there are advantages of a particular action being taken but fail to say what the advantages actually are leaving the reader wondering what advantages the writer is referring to. This distracts the reader and their focus will shift from the essay to trying to guess what the writer is trying to say. If an essay states that something has advantages, disadvantages or benefits it must be immediately followed by an explanation of what the author is referring to.