The top six grammar points for IELTS
Summary: The most important grammar for IELTS Speaking, Writing and Listening.
I first started thinking about this topic when I was asked to review a proposal for an IELTS grammar book for one of the big ELT publishers. My conclusion was that so little grammar is important for IELTS that a whole book would be a waste of everyone’s time and money. They ignored my advice, but I think I can now prove my point by summarising all the important grammar points for IELTS in just one article.
Future forms for IELTS Speaking and Writing
Vocabulary is much more important than grammar in IELTS Speaking, and especially IELTS Speaking Part One. However, there are a few relevant grammatical points that candidates can study to improve their range and accuracy. The grammar that IELTS candidates most need to know in order to do well in Speaking Part One is a range of future forms, especially ones to talk about, in approximate order of usefulness:
- desires (“want”, “would like”, “would love”, etc)
- plans (“be going to”, “be planning to”, “be thinking about”, “be considering”, etc)
- arrangements (“I’m meeting…”, etc)
- preferences (“would prefer to”, “would rather”, etc)
- predictions (“will”, “will probably”, Future Perfect, Future Continuous, etc)
As well as trying to use the correct tense in their answers, candidates should pay close attention to what the question means, especially in Yes/ No questions. For example, in seemingly similar but actually quite different questions like “Are you planning to move house?” and “Would you like to move house?”, answering “Yes” or “No” would depend on whether that candidate specifically has future plans or future desires (rather than arrangements, predictions, etc).
“Will” is bottom of the list above as it is the least useful for talking about yourself. “Will” tends to be overused in IELTS Speaking Part One by candidates who are actually trying to talk about their arrangements, plans or desires. “Would” is not a future form at all, but should be used to answer the (rarer) hypothetical questions like “Where would you live if you could choose anywhere at all?” and “What would your dream/ ideal… be?”
In complete contrast to Speaking Part One, in Speaking Part Three candidates are often asked to make predictions about the future of other things that they cannot change, making “will” the best choice. They will also need similar phrases that express different levels of doubt like “will almost certainly”, “will probably”, “may well”, “might”, “could possibly” and “probably won’t”.
There are also Academic Writing Part 1 tasks such as line graphs that have future data. The language is similar to Speaking Part Three in that candidates need to describe predictions of things that the writer can’t affect. However, because candidates are not supposed to speculate on how likely things are to happen, they can only use “will”, not “will probably”, “may” etc. In order to use a wide range of language and avoid repeating too much, they should mix up “will” with verbs with the same meaning such as “is expected/ predicted/ forecast/ projected to…”
Candidates are unlikely to be able to correctly use Present Simple for the future in IELTS, as phrases like “The train leaves at seven” are not common topics in the exam. They should also avoid using Present Simple to explain future data in IELTS Writing Part One, both to avoid confusion and to show off how much language they know by using a range of future forms.
Candidates can also impress the IELTS examiner with a range of future time expressions such as “within five years” and “the day after tomorrow”. To really impress the examiner, candidates will also need to use them accurately, avoiding confusions such as:
- “in two weeks” for two weeks from now (= “the week after next”)/ “two weeks after/ later” for two weeks from another time (e.g. meaning “in four weeks” if you say “in two weeks” and then “two weeks after/ later”)
- “within three days” for a deadline/ “in three days” for one particular time (not the times in between)
- “next week” for the time after “this week/ month/ year”/ “in the next week/ month/ year” for the time from now for that length of time (basically the same as “within…”)
- “sometime” for no particular time in the future (the same as “one day”/ “someday”)/ “sometimes” for how often
There are worksheets on this site with classroom activities for the future in the IELTS speaking and writing papers.
Past forms for IELTS
Candidates should always use past tenses when they have to describe past data in Writing Part One, as Present Simple would be too simple and sometimes confusing. Present Perfect can theoretically be used with graphs with past, present and future data (“Sales have doubled since 1990”, etc). However, this is only suitable in the very rare situation of the present being an important point on the graph that is worth specifically mentioning, so most Present Perfect uses by candidates are wrong. Past Perfect can be used to describe past data, but only to go back in time (“Before that, sales in Asia had already reached…”) or to compare two lines (“By 1999, sales in American had overtaken…”).
All of this means that the vast majority of sentences describing past information should just be in Past Simple. To make up for the simplicity of this, candidates can impress the examiner with the correct use of irregular past verbs such as:
- shot up
- took off
- went down/ up
Candidates may also have problems with doubled letters in past forms. Typical verbs which need doubled letters in IELTS Writing Part One include:
- dipped slightly
- slipped back
You can also make up for the simplicity of mainly or entirely using Past Simple by using a wide range of time expressions such as “a couple of years ago”, “the day before yesterday” and “when I was a toddler”. Ones to be careful not to confuse include:
- “ago” (the opposite of “in…” above)/ “before/ earlier” (the opposite of “later/ after” above)
- “last…” (e.g. “last year”, meaning January to December in the year before “this year”) and “in the last…” (e.g. “in the last year”, meaning in the twelve months up to now)
- “since 1990” (used when using a perfect tense to compare two times, e.g. Present Perfect for times up to now)/ “from 1990” (e.g. “to 1999”)
“Have you ever…?” questions are rare in IELTS speaking, and candidates should be careful not to confuse the more common “Do you ever…?” questions with these. Even in questions with Present Perfect like “Have you visited many foreign countries?” and “How long have you been studying English?”, the answer is often mainly or entirely in Past Simple (“Just one. I went to Canada last year on a geography trip with my school”, “So long! I started when I was still in kindergarten”, etc).
Countable and uncountable nouns in IELTS Listening and Writing
Countable and uncountable nouns are perhaps the only grammar point that is very important in IELTS Listening, with many possible errors in gapfill tasks being due to writing down things that cannot possibly be correct like “informations”. Candidates also often make the opposite mistake of missing a final “-s” due to not realising that a word is countable and therefore needs a plural (especially when there is no article). Candidates can avoid such mistakes either by listening carefully for exactly what is said (as they never have to change the form of the word that is in the recording in order to fill the gap) or by thinking carefully about the grammar (both while listening and while transferring and checking their answers in the extra ten minutes at the end).
Countable and uncountable nouns from IELTS practice exams that candidates could easily make mistakes with include:
- garbage/ rubbish/ waste
- space/ room
Of those, perhaps “research”, “evidence”, “consumption”, “garbage/ rubbish/ waste”, “knowledge”, “money”, “profits”, “statistics” and “traffic” are the most important, as they can also come up in other parts of the exam.
Countable and uncountable nouns also come up at lot in Writing Part One and Writing Part Two. In Writing Part One, countable and uncountable nouns most often come up with flowchart tasks and then map tasks, but they could also be an issue with topics of line graphs, bar charts, tables and pie charts like “spending” and “sales”. Such topics are often general categories such as “consumption” and “expenditure”, and general categories are often uncountable, with the examples being countable (“baggage”/ “suitcases”, etc). The topics are also sometimes countable things, including tricky ones such as ones with irregular plurals (“people”, etc) and ones which are always plural (“sales”, “goods”, etc). Uncountable ones can often be rephrased as countable examples or units (“dollars”, etc).
The form that the candidates need to use is often already given in the question, with a noun with “-s” obviously being countable and most things given without “-s” being uncountable. The article (or lack of) can give a big hint about what the grammar of the topic is, with a noun with no article being uncountable and nouns with “a” and plurals obviously being countable. However, there are exceptions such as a diagram labelled with just “grinder” for “a/ the grinder”.
Countable and uncountable nouns that often come up with process tasks/ flowchart tasks and may cause problems include:
- steps/ stages
With map tasks, candidates might come across and be able to use:
- access/ transportation
- entrances/ exits/ (main) gates
- homes/ houses
- locations/ places/ sites
- transport links
To prepare for line graphs, bar charts and pie charts, it is worth learning:
- bars/ lines
- carbon (dioxide)
- carbon emissions
- cigarettes tobacco footwear shoes
- figures/ statistics/ numbers
- insurance policies
- market share
- natural gas
- nuclear power
- questionnaires/ surveys
- time spent
- transport/ transportation
- visitor satisfaction
Ones that can be used in all kinds of tasks include:
- forecasts/ predictions/ projections
- main features
There are quite a few similar ones above with different grammar which can be useful to learn together, as in “research” but “surveys/ questionnaires”.
Countable and uncountable nouns in Writing Part Two and Speaking Part Three also include some pairs of words which have the same meaning but different grammar, as in “advice” but “a tip/ recommendation/ suggestion”. Quite a few other matches are possible from this list of useful words:
- academic journals
- academic literature
- academic papers
- aims/ goals/ purposes
- arguments against
- bureaucrats/ civil servants/ public servants
- circumstances/ situations
- civil servants
- diversity road safety
- DNA genes
- foreign aid
- foreign language acquisition
- (previous/ future) generations
- good ideas
- illegal acts
- laws/ regulations
- medical spending
- motor vehicles
- my (partial) agreement views
- negative effects
- positive aspects
- positive developments
- positive remarks
- secondary education
- selling points
- sides of the argument
- support for this position
- traffic jams
Candidates may also make mistakes with countable and uncountable in typical Speaking Part One topics such as accommodation. Tricky words which are worth learning the grammar of include quite a lot which have related words with the opposite grammar, as in:
- furniture – chairs
- news – articles
- fiction – novels
- training – qualifications
- free time/ leisure – hobbies/ pastimes
- music – songs/ tracks
- travel/ (public) transport/ transportation – journeys/ trips
- work/ overtime – jobs
- weather - storms
- poetry – poems
- homework – assignments/ essays/ worksheets
- scenery – views
- haggling – bargains/ summer sales
- humour – jokes
- (aerobic/ physical) exercise – aerobics classes/ lessons
- review/ revision – exams/ tests
There is a worksheet on countable and uncountable nouns for IELTS on this site.
Irregular plurals in IELTS Listening, Speaking and Writing
This grammar point is often related to countable and uncountable nouns (above), with candidates misunderstanding words like “people”, “children”, “data” and “media” to be uncountable. Candidates can also sometimes just make mistakes with making irregular plurals (using “childs” for “children”, etc). Ones which have come up in or could have been used by candidates in past Listening, Writing and Speaking papers include:
- (fellow) alumni
- means (of production)
There are also occasionally words which refer to whole groups such as “staff” and “cattle”.
Articles and determiners in IELTS
In IELTS Writing Part Two, articles are most commonly used (or avoided) in order to make general statements about people in the world, companies, governments, etc. Possibilities for making general statements in English include:
- Cats don’t care about their owners.
- A cat doesn’t care about its owner.
- The cat doesn’t care about its owner.
There is a small difference between the “cats” and “a cat” sentences above. In the former the writer wants the reader to picture all cats doing that thing, and in the latter the writer wants them to think of one typical cat doing it. “Cats” only has this general meaning, and so cannot be misinterpreted, and so is usually the first choice for making general statements.
In different sentences, “a cat” also has the meanings “one cat/ any cat” (it doesn’t matter which, often used for the first mention of something) and “the cat” usually has the meaning “this cat/ that cat/ the only cat/ the cat I have just mentioned” (used for all subsequent mentions of the same cat). “The cat” is only used to make general statements on scientific topics such as biology. This means that this structure is probably not needed in IELTS Writing. However, it can often come up in the lecture in the Listening and/ or the IELTS Reading texts, so candidates need to understand this general meaning. “The cats” only has the “specific cats” meaning, not a general meaning like “cats”. “Cat” with no article and no plural is always incorrect.
The situation with uncountable nouns is different, as obviously uncountable nouns cannot take “a/ an”. Instead, uncountable nouns like “evidence” are used with no article for general meanings or when first mentioned, with “the evidence” only meaning specific evidence (not evidence generally, unlike the general biological meaning of “the cat” above).
With determiners/ quantifiers more generally, many candidates miss a chance to show how strong or weak their opinions are and support their arguments with rankable determiners and similar expressions like:
- “almost all…”
- “most…”/ “the majority of…”
- “many…”/ “a large number of…”
- “few/ a few…”
- “very few…”
Passive voice in IELTS
Candidates often have problems using Passive forms correctly in IELTS Writing Part One. Changes in maps and processes in flowcharts should mainly be described with passive forms like “was demolished” and “is filtered”. However, the writer should also mix in some active forms like “The liquid moves…” to add some variety and a wider range of language.
There are also some useful verbs for IELTS maps and/ or process tasks which cannot be passive such as:
- consists of
- contributes to
- happens/ occurs
- lies next to/ above/…
- remains (the same)
It is grammatically correct to say “was increased” for trends like spending on line graphs, etc. However, as we are not focused on the action being something that is done by someone, candidates should always use active voice to talk about trends (“increased”, “rose”, “will reach”, etc).
As with past forms (see above), candidates can avoid mistakes and show their range of language with the correct forms of the past participle in Passive forms. In fact, many process tasks seem to be specifically designed to test this kind of knowledge, with topics like grinding and weaving being more common in IELTS than in normal life. Irregular past participles which candidates should memorise include:
- brought to a close
- dug (up)
- held (in place)
- set up
- spread (out)
- taken apart/ away
- thrown away
Some candidates also make errors with doubled letters in past participles such as “wrapped”.
In Writing Part Two, many candidates overuse expressions like “It is said/ believed/ thought that…” If I read a sentence like “It is said that students should study more creative subjects at school”, I want to ask the writer “Said by who?” Such sentences should therefore include phrases showing how many and/ or which people have such opinions (“Many experts believe that…”, etc). Basic passive voice sentences should be saved for proverbs, sayings and ancient wisdom like “It is said that the middle child has problems getting attention in their family”.
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