I’ve been marking IELTS essays for many years now, and there are some mistakes that commonly appear. Some of them are related to word choice, some are due to content, while some are errors of punctuation. Improving your accuracy could move you up half a band, so if you’re looking for a quick way to boost your writing performance, make sure you avoid the following ten mistakes.
1. Capital Letters after Commas
Punctuation is extremely important in English, and even native speakers sometimes struggle with commas. One mistake that native speakers rarely make, however, is putting a capital letter after a comma. Capital letters are only used for proper nouns and at the beginning of sentences, i.e. after a full stop, question mark, or exclamation mark.
Incorrect: Despite a fall in the value of the pound, The UK economy remained strong.
Correct: Despite a fall in the value of the pound, the UK economy remained strong.
2. Starting Sentences with And & But
Although this isn’t always an error, starting sentences with these two words is not advised in academic writing. You’ll probably see and and but at the start of sentences in IELTS Reading passages, but those articles are often written in a magazine style, rather than academic. If you want to link two thoughts, either use a different linking phrase after a full stop, or join the sentences with a comma.
Incorrect: The government should decrease the price of train travel. And car tax should be increased.
Correct: The government should decrease the price of train travel. As well as that, car tax should be increased.
Correct: The government should decrease the price of train travel, and car tax should be increased.
3. Inexact Numbers
Inexact numbers are generally used when we want to sound more casual. If my boss asked me what time I was going for lunch, I’d probably tell her, “At 12:15,” (exact) whereas if my friend asked me, I’d be more likely to say, “Some time after 12” (inexact). Academic writing is obviously a formal situation, so when an exact number is known, be specific. This doesn’t mean you can never use inexact numbers. When it’s sunny, how many people go to the park? No one knows the exact figure, so you can write, “On sunny days, many people visit the park.”
Incorrect: This essay will offer some reasons why sports education in schools is important.
Correct: This essay will offer two reasons why sports education in schools is important.
4. Repeating Information
It is important for test takers to show the examiners that they can explain a point in depth. For IELTS Writing Task 2, I train my students to start the main paragraphs in an essay with a topic sentence that clearly explains what the paragraph is about. Strong candidates then develop this point, whereas weak candidates simply repeat the topic sentence with slightly altered wording.
Incorrect: One advantage of an increase in the number of people who exercise is a lowering of the obesity rate. When people exercise more, the number of obese people falls. Therefore, regular exercise can cut obesity.
Correct: One advantage of an increase in the number of people who exercise is a lowering of the obesity rate. When people exercise, their bodies burn more calories than when they are sedentary. These calories are taken from the body’s fat stores. Thus, when there is an increase in the amount of physical activity, more people burn through their body fat, causing the rate of obesity to fall.
5. Emotional Language
Any English speaker with a postgraduate degree will tell you to avoid using emotional language. Students are trained to use neutral language in an attempt to sound as impartial as possible. In the IELTS General Training Writing Task 1, you might be asked to write an informal letter to a friend in which you can use emotional language, but in all other circumstances, you should try to sound neutral. Emotive language includes words such as awful, fantastic, disgusting, and amazing. When in doubt, try to sound as factual as possible.
Incorrect: Due to a terrible rise in the unemployment rate, over a million people now sadly rely on unemployment benefits.
Correct: Due to a large rise in the unemployment rate, over a million people now rely on unemployment benefits.
In academia, very is seen as a lazy term that people use when they can’t be bothered to explain something. If you really want to emphasise an adjective, you can use a more academic-sounding word like extremely. Or better still, explain the situation in more detail.
Incorrect: In 1917, there was a very high inflation rate.
Correct: In 1917, there was an extremely high inflation rate.
Correct: In 1917, the inflation rate was the highest in British history.
Although you will see questions in IELTS Reading passages, I advise you not to do the same in a written exam. Instead of asking a direct question, rephrase it to make it into a statement.
Incorrect: How can the government decrease pollution?
Correct: Citizens are asking how the government can decrease pollution.
8. Weak Adjectives
Weak adjectives like nice, good, and bad are – like very – seen as lazy words that students use when they don’t want describe something in more detail. They are more commonly used in spoken English, but even for IELTS Speaking, I advise students to use more intelligent-sounding vocabulary. Think about it. If someone says to you, “Paris is a good city,” what have you learnt? Is it cheap? Safe? Does it have the best food in the world? It’s given us almost no new information. For IELTS Speaking, I think this sentence is okay if you clarify what you mean by good, e.g. “Paris is a good city to travel around because it has an integrated transport system,” but for IELTS Writing, I recommend avoiding these weak adjectives altogether.
Incorrect: Seoul is a good city for tourists.
Correct: Seoul has a lot of facilities for tourists.
9. To Get
Get is used regularly when we speak, but there is almost always a more accurate verb. Try not to use get in your writing exam. If you can think of a more specific verb, use it.
Incorrect: The CEO was hospitalised after he got pneumonia.
Correct: The CEO was hospitalised after he caught pneumonia.
Incorrect: Traditionally, children get presents from their parents on Christmas Day.
Correct: Traditionally, children receive presents from their parents on Christmas Day.
Tautology is the act of using redundant words. If someone says, “It’s a big, huge building,” that is seen as an inefficient use of language. If the building is huge (i.e. very big), it is unnecessary to tell us that it is also big. Thus, “It’s a huge building” is a more efficient sentence. The most common tautological mistake that I encounter is that of unnecessarily explaining nouns, but repetition of synonymous verbs is also a problem.
Incorrect: Students should learn and study English from a young age.
Correct: Students should study English from a young age.
Correct: Students should learn English from a young age.
Incorrect: Americans from the United States have higher rates of lung cancer.
Correct: Americans have higher rates of lung cancer.
Correct: People from the United States have higher rates of lung cancer.