Rliberni's Blog – Radical language

August 20, 2011


I have worked with IELTS students for many years and over this time students have told me many things about the IELTS exam that I term ‘myths’.

The reason I consider them to be mythology is because they are mostly not true and secondly they can become a huge distraction to students who are preparing for the exam. At best they are harmless pieces of  ‘folklore’ but sometimes they can actually be detrimental and act against good performance in the exam.

So here are 10 IELTS Myths (there are plenty more) all of which have been said to me by my students quite recently. I want to explain to you why you should ignore these and stick to the real work of preparing successfully for your exam!

In this post I would like to explode some of these myths and explain why IELTS candidates should ignore them.



So here are my top 10 myths:

  • You can get a higher band at X centre

When I was an IELTS examiner in London some years ago,  this belief used to amuse me. I often examined with other examiners who attended various different centers. We would meet each other at different centres and so wherever students went for their IELTS exam the same examiners would be there! There are many more centres nowadays but examiners do still move around.

Secondly, examining the IELTS  is standardised and all examiners do a lot of training to ensure that they are all ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’ i.e. all giving a standardised result. Wherever you take the exam you will get the same experience and chance.

  • Some examiners are stricter than others

If you take on board what I’ve said above then this cannot be true. All examiners have to give all candidates the same experience and they train rigorously for this.

All examiners want you to be successful and get a good score but they can only score what you give them on the day!

  • Only x number of candidates will get a high band at each centre

Every IELTS candidate has the same chance and if you perform well enough to achieve a high band then you will get a high band.

The way to make sure that you get the band you want is to prepare well, make sure that your English is at the right level and not waste time worrying about these things.

  • If I pause for more than 10 seconds in the speaking I can’t get a high band

This could be a very dangerous thing to believe because it means that you are counting time instead of thinking about how you perform in the speaking test.

I am quite sure that the examiner is not checking the length of your pauses. If they were doing that they would not be paying attention to what you say and then they would not be able to score you at all! If you think about this it is ridiculous.

It is true that if you hesitate too much then your speaking will not be fluent and that will affect your score. Instead of counting pauses though, make sure that you can answer the questions fluently. Counting the length of your pauses can only interfere with your communication and I am sure that it will end up being stilted.

  • Certain centres will not give high bands to candidates from x country

This is a new one on me. Examiners only check passports to see that you are the person you say you are. Their role is to test your English performance and not to make judgements about your nationality. IELTS examiners have no control or influence over visas – they are simply assessing your English.

  • I have to include these words (usually a list) in my task two or I won’t get a high band

Sadly I have seen essays that are ‘word-packed’ and often the communication is lost. The most important thing about the essay is that you answer the questions in a communicative and convincing way. You are at liberty to use any words and phrases you wish and,of course, if you use a range of good vocabulary that will hep you with your final score but throwing words at the essay just because you think they will impress the examiner is a dangerous thing to do. Using words appropriately and sensibly to give your essay some sophistication will get you marks but throwing words at your essay willy-nilly because you think they will earn you marks won’t help you at all.

It’s better to spend your time broadening your overall vocabulary and perfecting your writing style so that you are able to use new words in the right way.

  •  I have to keep practising the IELTS practice test to get a good band score

This can be a very boring and limiting way of preparing for the test. While it is important to prepare for the IELTS and understand what is expected in each part of the test, you need to remember that this is a test of English and the better your English, the better your chances of doing well. Don’t limit yourself to IELTS tests use the great wealth of English language material on the internet to help you too.

  •  IELTS is the most difficult English exam

IELTS is actually a very straightforward exam – there are no tricks. It tests your ability to use English in certain tasks at a certain level and that is all. There are many tests of English for many different purposes and if you are well prepared and have the right English level (this is very important – you need to be band 7 to get band 7) then IELTS is no more difficult than any other exam.

  • If the examiner doesn’t like my opinion I won’t get a high band

The examiner’s job in the writing and speaking is to see if you are able to present ideas and arguments in good English and to test that those ideas are plausible and backed up so that they are convincing. At no time will the examiner judge your ideas (as long as they are sensible and fit in with the question).

You are in control of your speaking and writing not the examiner. You should use this position to demonstrate your excellent use of English. If you are waiting for the examiner then you will not perform as well. Take the lead and convince the examiner of your opinions.

  • I have to give the examiner the answer they want in the speaking

This tallies with the above myth. The examiner has a list of questions that they will ask you but it is your job to take those questions and use them to demonstrate your English. The examiner has no idea what your answers will be and they also have no idea in their head of  an answer that they want – that is your job. They will simply listen and mark you according to how you managed to respond.


So my advice is not to listen to these myths they will not help you. You should concentrate on what will help you and that is sustained, regular practice in both your English language and the IELTS exam preparation.


Do you need help with your IELTS exam?

As a former IELTS examiner and with over 15 years of experience preparing and coaching people for the exam especially at Bands 7 and 8 I know what it takes to achieve these scores.

I work a lot with professionals (especially doctors) who need high band scores to move on with their careers.

Using my own Advanced English training site, Gapfillers and my own expertise in IELTS I can help you to get the score you are looking for.

Join my free IELTS Group in Gapfillers and get regular updates about preparing for the exam and also the chance to join in my teleseminars and seminars and all the other IELTS training opportunities I offer.

Joining is easy;  follow this link, register (it’s absolutely free), (don’t forget to tick the IELTS group button) and that’s it!

As soon as you register you will have access to my free 1-hour presentation THE TROUBLE WITH IELTS – the link is on the welcome page. Watch or download it, it’s your choice.

I hope to see you there 🙂





May 20, 2011

English language learning tips – my Top 10 posts

I decided to go through my archives today and see which of my posts for English language learners were the most popular and put them all in one space so that they would be easy to find.

So here goes my top 10 posts of all time giving tips for language learners

And the winner at number 1 is…………

10 top tips for improving IELTS Scores

It does what it says on the tin I think.

Coming in a very close 2nd….

10 goofy ways to practise speaking skills.

Another obvious title – I really enjoyed writing this 🙂

Pipped at the post at number 3 ……

10 ways to increase your vocabulary

Mmm, seems the number 10s have it!

And in a respectable 4th place ……..

How to be a good language student! 10 suggestions

Those number 10s really have a certain Je ne c’est quoi!

Half way at number 5…….

Are some people better at learning languages than others?

Well – find out here 🙂

Coming up close behind at number 6……

English Verbs that Confuse!

I was certainly confused – hope it sorts you out!

Getting to the end – in at number 7 ……

7 great virtues to help you write well in English

I think I preferred the 7 Deadly Sins

In 8th place (one fat lady number 8 – think about it – Bingo???)…..

Register – choosing appropriate language for the context

An oldie but popular it seems

Not last nor least ….. at number 9..

Using Modal Verbs – part 3

I wonder what happened to parts 1 and 2 ?

And in 10th place – Wayhey you made the Top 10!!

Countable and uncountable nouns – now you get it, now you don’t!

Wow! What a collection.

So my top 10 most popular posts of all time.


And just in case you get bored with reading all of these here’s a video of my place where you can come and study all of the above!!

June 14, 2010

Prepositions – pearls of great price!

I’ve been doing some work on prepositions lately and it struck me that for such insignificant little words, they have quite a powerful role to play in English language and seem to be a common bête noire at all levels of learning.

I looked up a definition of prepositions, it seems they are a group of words that show relationships between nouns, pronouns, or gerunds and other words in a sentence. They show place, time, direction and other attributes in relation to these words. The good news is that they never change their form. The bad is – it’s not that simple! They can be free or bound (they can depend on other words).  They can be complex too, they come along in pairs or sometimes threes and fours for good measure and take on new meanings. Occasionally they are in disguise – they might look like prepositions but in actual fact they are adverbs or adjectives! It is often when they hook up with verbs that they are at their most demonic! They form phrasal verbs, prepositional verbs, and horror, phrasal-prepositional verbs!! Is it any wonder that these enfant terribles of the English language learning world put fear into our hearts

So, I thought in this post I’d try to break down the uses, give some examples and see if we can’t engender a little respect for these feared yet very hard-working and versatile little words!

Prepositions pure and simple 🙂

Using prepositions in their simple form is fairly straightforward.

Place – relationships are bound by position  – on, in, under, above etc..

Some to note are:

over and under (rather than above and below)

  • used when something is  covering something else – the spoon fell under the table, the fog drifted over the village
  • for horizontal movement – the birds flew over the trees
  • to show more, less, fewer than – we made just under/over £3,000!

above and below

  • are used for rank or level – Sergeant is below the rank of captain.

in, at, on

  • these are specific – I’ll meet you at the cinema (probably outside) or in the cinema (inside). It’s on the corner (the outside of the corner). It’s in the corner (surrounded, probably a Square or in a room).
  • In with cities, countries etc.- in France but on with streets – I’m on North Street, at with named places – at Oxford Circus.
  • At when people gather together – at a party, at the conference.

towards and up to

  • towards shows the direction of the movement, up to usually indicates a purpose – I went up to her to get directions.

Time – relationships are bound by duration or a point in time


  • indicate the start and end time – I’ll be here from Monday to Friday. (note American English often uses just through) I’ll be here Monday through Friday. The American usage tells us that Friday is included in the stay the British version is less clear.

Bound prepositions – those with no meaning in life! 😦

Bound prepositions are dependent upon certain words (or the words ‘take’ a certain preposition). These prepositions have no independent meaning as meaning is conveyed by the word/s to which they are bound.

It is important to learn these and commit them to memory as you come across them.

Some general rules exist:

  • Prepositions can follow verbs nouns or adjectives – rely on,  success in, keen on etc… (here is a list)
  • These prepositions always take an object – rely on somebody,  success in his exams, keen on riding horses
  • Where the object is a verb – it is often in the …ing form – They accused him of lying.
  • With adjectives describing emotion then ing form or infinitive with to is possible.  They were angry at seeing animals mistreated. They were angry to see animals mistreated.


verb + preposition

  • These multi-word combinations are called prepositional verbs.
  • Here are a few examples – complain to, rely on, confide in, part with, look into etc..
  • Another verb + preposition combination is the phrasal verb – these  are different because the meaning is changed completely with addition of the preposition, which is not the case with prepositional verbs.
  • Here are some examples – wear off,  break down, look after, put off, own up etc…
  • A third  multi-word verb using a preposition as a particle is a phrasal-prepositional verb (verb + adverb + preposition)
  • Here are some examples –  look up to, hand over to, get out of, put up with, get back to, come out of etc….

noun + preposition

where a noun and a verb are related both will usually take the same preposition

  • They succeeded in getting the contract
  • Their success in getting the contract was the turning point in the life of the company.

sometimes  a noun takes a preposition where the related verb does not

  • She had always had a fear of spiders.
  • She had feared spiders from childhood.

adjective + preposition

as above, where an adjective is related to a verb or noun taking a specific preposition then the adjective will also take this preposition

  • They were very anxious about the merger.
  • We could sense their anxiety about the merger.

adjectives describing feelings and opinions often have bound/dependent prepositions

  • I’m not keen on the blue one.
  • She’s quite nervous about tomorrow.

Try an exercise

Prepositions with a complex! 😦

Complex prepositions are always free prepositions but need support. Although their meaning combines with that of the other word/s  they rely on these other words, which go in front.

Here are a few examples:

  • for:    as for, except for, save for
  • from:    away from, aside from, apart from
  • to:    close to, due to, on to, next to
  • with:    along with, together with
  • of:    ahead of, out of,  irrespective of
  • on:    depending on

Some have such low self-esteem that they require a larger support team!

  • for:    in exchange for,  in return for
  • of:    by means of, in case of,  in favour of, on top of
  • to:    in addition to, in contrast to, on relation to
  • with:    in contact with, in comparison with, in line with

In this last group they are hardly visible amidst their entourage !

  • for the sake of
  • with the exception of
  • in the light of
  • on the grounds that

Stranded prepositions (who’d be a preposition!) 😦

Our final example in this woeful tale of prepositions is the stranded preposition.  It stands alone at the end of a sentence or clause.

  • In questions – Who are you applying to work with?
  • In the passive –  What percentage can the cost be reduced by?
  • Relative clauses – Yesterday I saw that woman (that/who) you introduced me to!
  • Infinitive clauses – She managed to see the film that it is impossible to get tickets for!

Don’t forget to check your grammar book for more detailed information!

Prepositions strike back! 🙂

Despite their sorry state prepositions can form interesting and very common idioms which you might want to consider adding to your vocabulary.

Useful idioms formed from prepositions

Sometimes we simply pop a couple of prepositions together

Here are a couple of examples – in for, in on, up to (more examples)

Other prepositions hook up with nouns to form handy little phrases (see here)

Here are some examples – on the go, on the case, on the house

Prepositions certainly do need some respect and it is worth spending time to study and learn how to use them well – it is one of those niggling areas of grammar which, if mastered, can make a big difference to your language performance!

Here are some other posts you may like:

How to keep motivated in language learning

English verbs that confuse

Language Immersion

Prepositions Aargh!

January 6, 2010

Using Modal Verbs – part two

In part one we looked at a definition and some of the language functions in English where we use a modal verb. I want to continue with more functions here.

If you listen or read English you will see that modal verbs are commonly used in a variety of different ways. It is, therefore, worth spending some time to make sure you know how and when to use them. Correct and appropriate use will enhance your English and help it to develop and grow.

Here are more functions which require a modal verb.

  • probability
  • prohibition
  • obligation
  • advice


May, might, ought to and should are the modal verbs used for probability.

  • I may go abroad to work next year. (I’m thinking about it)
  • I might apply for a job in the USA. (It looks good but I’m a little apprehensive still)
  • You shouldn’t have any problems getting a place on the course with your qualifications. (Id be very surprised if they didn’t accept you)
  • House prices should improve this first quarter. (The conditions indicate this.)

Note that should is used for positive situations. For negative statements we tend to use will.

  • House prices will plummet this year!
  • I’m sure that she won’t be chosen as team leader.


  • Things ought to get better from now on. (The newspapers are saying this.)
  • They ought not to have told her about Jenny and Steve. (probability resulting from an action in the past – she is upset or angry)

Try this exercise  from Gapfillers to test modal verbs for probability.


mustn’t, shouldn’t, oughtn’t to, may not, cannot are used to express prohibition it is also possible to use (be) not allowed to

  • You must not use pencil in this examination. (It is a rule and you will fail if you do.)
  • You shouldn’t tell anybody about the accident. (It might upset people.)
  • You ought not to stay alone in this house. (It isn’t safe but it is your choice.)
  • Visitors may not use the employee rest rooms – facilities are available in the foyer. (A softer/polite way of prohibition)
  • You  can’t smoke in public buildings in the UK. (This is a fact)
  • You are not allowed to ask questions during the presentation. (The speaker has requested this very strongly).

(We will look a little more at degree and politeness in the final posting on modal verbs.)


 must, should, ought to, all express an obligation to do something with varying levels of urgency. Have to and need to can also be used to express this language function. Sentences using these modal verbs are opposite in meaning to prohibition (where their negatives are used).

  • UK drivers must wear a seatbelt in their car. (It is the law.)
  • I had to go and see the Director this morning. (He asked me to go and see him.) We use have to where must isn’t possible, as here in the past tense.
  • You should stay in bed with that bad cold. (This is my opinion as you don’t seem very well.)
  • You ought to speak to Janice first before you ask Sean to help. (If you don’t she may be angry.)

Need (without to) can be used as a modal verb to show absence of obligation

  • You needn’t clear up, the cleaner will do that later.

or in questions.

  • Need you make so much noise? I can’t hear  television.

We use need to and have to interchangeably.

  • I don’t need to/have to attend the meeting on Friday.


ought to, ought not to, should, should not, must, must not, had better, had better not are all used to give advice which is another function of modal verbs. (for advice using conditionals see my post on conditionals)

  • You really ought to re-draft that proposal. (It’s not very well written.)
  • You ought not to go out tonight. (The weather is very bad.)
  • You should get your application in early. (It will show that you are organised.)
  • You shouldn’t let things get you down. (They’re not so important.)
  • You must get a new suit for the interview! (You want to make a good impression.)
  • You mustn’t let him borrow the car. (He’s a terrible driver!)
  • You had better let Dr Jones look at you. (You don’t look well to me.)
  • You had better not go out this evening. (The weather is bad and you are not well.)

Check you understand these usages. Learn them and above all use them as soon as you can!

December 21, 2009

Using narrative tenses

This morning I woke up bright and early. The ground was covered in a thick blanket of snow and everything looked so beautiful outside. I pulled on warm clothes and boots and took my two dogs Duffy and Maguire for a  snowy walk.

At the end of our walk I let them off their respective leads and into a small paddock at the side of our house where they could run freely. As I stood looking at the scenery I thought how marvelous it would be to have more students come to stay and study with us in 2010.  In any season the scenery is wonderful, the place welcoming and the opportunity for making excellent improvement in English language skills assured.

As I was thus looking and contemplating, I heard a loud meow and there, atop the gate was our little black cat, Nip (her brother, Tuck,  has gone walkabout again). I called to her and she came bouncing over the snow towards me. All of a sudden Maguire spotted her and leapt across to join us followed, in a flash, by Duffy.  All three animals began gambolling in the snow – it was a lovely scene and I hadn’t a camera!

Leaving the cat and dogs I flew into the house to get the camera. It hadn’t been put back in its usual place so took a while to track down. After a frantic hunt, I rushed back to the paddock camera in hand to find the animals scattered!

The perfect picture of animals having fun in the snow had gone! I did manage a few shots which you can see here but sadly the original masterpiece will remain forever in my head only!!

OK,  let’s get down to the topic. I’ve highlighted my use of tenses in the piece.

Can you identify them all and consider why each one was used?

I wrote the piece ‘off the cuff’ and completely spontaneously so the tense usage is random.

  • Past simple – you will see that this tense is used far more than any other. This makes sense, the incident is in the past and the ‘story’ mostly relates the events that happened in a sequential way.
  • Present perfect – there is only one use here – in a reference to the missing cat. The cat is missing , we only know this – no other information is provided.  He may return. This is a classic Present perfect use. (see posts on Present perfect  and choosing simple or continuous )
  • Present simple –  again one use when describing the scenery. This is a state and unchanging.
  • Past perfect – two occurences; when referring to the whereabouts of the camera – clearly the camera was used by someone else before the events of this story took place and on returning to the paddock – the frolicking of the animals in the snow is now relegated to the past.
  • Future tense – this is the final tense used referring to a missed chance to capture the scene and preserve it for the future.

When relating stories and events we tend to use mostly the past simple,  present perfect and past perfect tenses as a frame work and hang on the other tenses where required. It is important to sequence the events in order to choose the correct tense.

Try this Gapfillers exercise on narrative tense use.

This post is the second of six on English verbs and tenses.

More information on English courses at Fleetham Lodge  and see here on the blog Fleetham Life

December 14, 2009

English Verbs that Confuse!

Before I begin this post I have to report that a few days ago I was asked ‘What is a tamper-evident-seal? I was thrilled at this question. It proves that some of what I am saying about language exposure is right!! So flowers for me. Hurray!!! If you have read my posts on increasing vocabulary you will know what I am talking about if not then you can find out here (More Vocabulary on the go)

I thought it was time to say something about verbs in English. This is a daunting task as there is so much to say! I decided to begin with two thorny verb problems

  • verbs that are similar in usage and as a result often confused
  • verbs which are confused although they are in fact opposites

Verbs with similar meanings

make/do, take/bring, been/gone etc..

The difference between these verbs is often quite subtle. They often have similar meanings but are used in different ways.  Sometimes the meaning is identical but a preference for one has been made in English (see post on collocation)

Here is a list of the most commonly confused verbs:

These verbs collocate with certain words. Find a list of these in your grammar book and make sure you know which to use when. 

  • lay/lie

Lay describes an action – They laid out the papers for signing.

 lie a state  – He found the papers lying on the table.

Lay takes a direct object.

  • raise/rise

Raise describes an action done by someone – to raise tax

rise describes the action itself  – taxes will rise 

Raise always has a direct object.

  • talk/speak

These have very similar meanings and can be used interchangeably. – I’ll talk/speak to her about it.

 However there are some differences;  

a formal speech uses speak – He spoke to the Board of Directors.

Also when referring to languages – She speaks French, Italian and Japanese.

Talk would be used for speaking at length – He talked to them about his war experiences.

  • steal/rob

Again very similar in meaning. We use rob for the place that suffered the theft and steal for the items taken.

They robbed the shop and stole cash.

Check in your grammar book to make sure you have them right.

Verbs with opposite meanings

Although this may sound strange some verbs with opposite meanings can be confused. The two most common pairs are;

  • lend/borrow

Borrow from (you take the item) –  Can I borrow your pen?

Lend to (they give the item) – Can you lend me your pen?

  • bring/take/fetch

Bring means that you carry the item with you here – Can you bring some salad with you to the picnic? (towards the speaker – the picnic may be at the speaker’s home)

Take means you carry the item with you there – Can you take some salad to the picnic?  (away from the speaker – the picnic is in some other place)

Fetch is used when you have to collect something and then bring it with you. – Can you fetch the car from the garage tomorrow?

Make sure you understand the difference and then memorise and practise!!

Try these exercises on Gapfillers

October 22, 2009

7 deadly sins to avoid in your writing

This is the second of 3 posts about English language writing.

A piece of English language writing whether for an exam, an assignment or work should demonstrate your ability and flexibility with the language. Getting your message across clearly and expressing yourself  with good style will gain you more marks and/or make a good impression.

Here are my 7 deadly sins that are easy to avoid and will certainly help you to add a little more sophistication to your work.

  1. nice, get –  useful words but they really don’t mean much. Write down a list of synonyms that you can use instead.
  2. translating – this rarely works, if you can’t express your idea well in English then think of another idea that you can! (see my post on thinking in English)
  3. phrasal verbs – these are not appropriate for formal pieces of  writing – make a list of alternatives. (see my post on Register)
  4. wandering apostrophes – its/it’s, your /you’re – PLEASE make sure you understand the difference and know where and when not to use these!
  5. adding new ideas in the final paragraph – this is usually the result of not planning and it not only destroys your piece it also shows a lack of  joined up thinking. Even if it’s an earth shattering idea if it ruins your essay or report it’s not worth it!
  6. not planning – if you don’t plan you won’t know where you are going and you’ll end up with a very fragmented piece and the danger of Number 5 above!
  7. not sticking to your plan – I have known students who constructed their plan after the essay just because I had asked for a plan! This shows a fundamental lack of understanding, in my view, of the writing process. It causes Nos. 5 and 6 and if you have a good plan then stay with it – remember the ideas will not come across if your language is poor and it doesn’t flow. This, again in my view, can only be achieved by careful planning. (see my last post on planning and checking your writing)

For a general overview of writing and the process of producing exam essays see the section How to Write on the Gapfillers site.

My next post will look at the ‘dos’ rather than the ‘don’ts’ of writing.

October 19, 2009

Warning: mistakes cost marks!

Why would you spend time studying for an English language exam, revise, prepare well before the exam day and then hand marks to the examiner on a plate? It doesn’t make sense, yet I see students time and time again doing this because they don’t plan or check their essays well enough in the exam itself.

Let me dispel some myths:

  1. I don’t need to plan my essays, they flow – er.. I think you do, no, they don’t and with time and exam pressures you’ll waffle and digress.
  2. I don’t have time to plan, it’s wasting my writing time – yes you do and no it doesn’t, it helps you use that time to write a good essay.
  3. I’ll check if I have time at the end – why not check as you go along?
  4. I can’t check, I have to get my ideas across – but isn’t this a language exam? the ideas are important up to a point but isn’t it the way you use language to express those thoughts the priority here?

I think students often lose sight of what they are doing which is demonstrating their ability to get ideas and opinions across in English and the key word here is English. Your exam is not medicine, or sociology although the subject may be – it’s English and it’s important not to forget this!

Two things can ensure that you produce a well written and well expressed essay to the best of your ability – planning and proof  reading.

Planning: some tips (I’m sure you’ve heard it all before!)

1. read the essay title carefully and underline the keywords – have a look at this essay title, what are the key words?

  • Juvenile crime is often ‘blamed’ on single mothers. Young parents today do not have the commitment required to maintain a relationship and look after their children. What measures are required to help young couples keep their families together?

The most important is – What measures – that tells you what sort of essay to write, the main topic is Juvenile crime, single mothers is a possible cause and the second sentence gives you some background.

2. sketch out your paragraphs (this is just an example, your version will depend on your essay and ideas)

  1. introduction: re-hash the opening with phrases like People feel, Some people think that juvenile crime etc…
  2. paragraph 1: maybe the reasons for the situation
  3. paragraph 2: the measures to support families referring to your reasons above
  4. conclusion: this should balance your introduction and may include your own opinion

3.  Decide how many ideas you want in each paragraph and make sure you support each statement and give examples for some of them

your plan will look something like this: (this would be an essay of about 200 – 250 words IELTS type)

  • Intro – juvenile crime – big problem – some people say – single mothers
  • P1 problems – lack of support, stress, commitment e.g. need to work, too busy, children look after themselves….
  • P2 measures – good free child care, parenting classes, mentors/experienced parents in a buddy system etc…
  • conclusion: – society we live in so need to help and support not criticise…..

4. write the essay – your introduction and conclusion will have 2/3 sentences and your main paragraphs perhaps between 6 and 9 (make statement, support it and give (if appropriate) examples). This should give you your 200-250 words and you simply need to convert your notes into sentences. The structure is tight and the writing therefore controlled so there is less room for mistakes.

Now make sure you proof read – don’t leave anything to chance!

Checking your writing:

You should know the mistakes you often make. If not then make sure you compile a mental list before your next exam! (see my post on Doing a language audit)

The following mistakes are very common and you should check for them:

  1. articles – are these used correctly? You will have used a lot so it’s a good idea to check as you write.
  2. subject-verb agreement – any problems here?
  3. ‘s’ on the 3rd person –  the silliest of mistakes
  4. use of present perfect tense – check any you have used
  5. past participles – are they right?
  6. check any long sentences to make sure you haven’t got ‘lost’ in them and it’s clear who or what you are talking about (if your sentence is going over 2 lines I would be inclined to look at it as this can be a sign that you’ve got lost.)

For more in-depth study check out this Gapfillers section on writing.

Practice does make perfect but only if you get good feedback 3 essays written in the same evening are likely to contain the same mistakes.

Look at good models for ideas.

Try and read your work out loud and you will see and hear any mistakes more easily.

For short one day and weekend courses in Writing skills and IELTS check here

October 14, 2009

Dealing with Proper Nouns

This is the final post in my series on nouns and noun types. The final category is proper nouns.

Proper nouns

This is the name given to nouns which name people, institutions, organisations, books, paintings, plays etc. Proper nouns need a capital letter. They usually have no plural but can sometimes take a definite article (see my posting on names and titles)

some examples:

  • The United Nations
  • The Thames
  • Beethoven
  • Fanny Adams
  • Paris

Use of the definite article (the) with proper nouns

The following groups of proper nouns are usually used with the;

  • Geographical names the Galapagos Islands, the Rockies
  • Geographical features, canals, rivers, seas – the Suez Canal, the Nile, the Pacific, the Mediterranean
  • Names of ships – the Britannia, the Titanic, the Golden Hind
  • Public institutions (hotels, libraries, galleries, museums, restaurants)-  the Savoy, the National Gallery, the Victoria and Abert Museum, the Karachi
  • Newspapers and magazines – the Times, the Spectator, the National Geographic (note, however,Vogue, Newsweek)

 Some advice on capitalisation

In addition to the proper noun categories outlined above the following groups of words are usually written with an initial capital letter

  • Commercial products/brands – Ford, Mercedes, Mini
  • Holidays, months, and days of the week – Christmas, Monday February
  • Religions and their concepts – Christianity, Islam, a Hindu, God, Heaven, Devil, Hell
  • People or bodies with public function – the King, the President, Parliament, Commonwealth
  • Political parties – the Conservative Party, the Democrats, the Socialists
  • Languages and nationalities French, Chinese, the Germans, an Australian, Dutch
  • Family members – (optional) Uncle, Mother, Grandfather
  • Adjectives from proper nouns  Victorian, the Georgians, Socialism, Londoners

Proper nouns as common nouns

Sometimes proper nouns can behave like common nouns. The following are examples:

  • A person or family called …. – The Pearsons are coming next Friday.  I once knew a Jocelyn at school.
  • A person named for a particular characteristic – We can’t all be a Florence Nightingale! He’ll never be a Churchill!
  • Products or works by someone – Her art collection contained a Monet and a Gauguin. He had three Rolls and a Bentley!

 A little more information on the grammar and a quick exercise .

For more on nouns see these posts

That concludes my series on nouns. As ever practice makes perfect. If you are not sure check in a grammar book or post me a message and I’ll try and help you!

October 12, 2009

How to use collective nouns

This is the fourth and penultimate post in my series on nouns.

Collective nouns general rules.

The main things to be careful about when using collective nouns are; whether to use singular or plural verbs and which collocation you should choose to accompany the nouns.

What is a collective noun?

It is a noun that refers to a group of people or things. Examples are:

army, family, team, press, flock, committee, group

Singular or plural:

Generally speaking  collective nouns can be used in the singular or plural (grammatically it is a singular noun but in our mind’s eye we perceive a group).

  • The family are coming to dinner next week.
  • The army are planning a new offensive.
  • The finance committee meet once a month.
  • A flock of geese is flying over the lake.

A large number of proper nouns also fall into the collective noun type: the United Nations, the BBC,  the Air Force, Parliament, Ford, Coca Cola etc..


  1. Note, however, that in American English the plural form is often considered incorrect and the singular form preferred.
  2. We also tend to use a singular verb if the collective noun is used with the indefinite article a/an rather than the definite.    A team of accountants has been appointed to oversee the project.
  3. Some collective nouns always take the plural form:  police, people
  4. Some only take the singular: press, public

Collective nouns cannot be used with numbers:

  • We cannot say Four staff have been made redundant – rather – Four members of staff have been made redundant.

For more information on collective nouns 

Choosing the correct collocation

Now comes the fun bit!

  • a pride of lions
  • a host of angels
  • a swarm of bees
  • a clutch of eggs

The list goes on and on and even native speakers get into competitions about who know the most obscure ones (especially for animals).

These collocations (see my post on collocation in general) are mostly associated with certain groups collective nouns, most especially


  • a pack of wolves, a flock of birds, a shoal/school of fish, a herd of cows


  • a bunch of daffodils, a clump of trees, a bouquet of flowers

inanimate objects

  • a battery of tests, a batch of cakes, a set of books, a group of friends

Bunch of, group of and set of  are the most commonly used and can be attached to a variety of nouns.

So, how to choose which one? Again it is something to study and remember. Choose a group (the animal collocations can be fun) and try out a few.

For noun collocation in general try this exercise from Gapfillers.

For collective noun collocation try this .  or this

For a complete list of animal collocation             Just for fun – try this!

Next time – Proper nouns!

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