Using Capital Letters (Part 2)

In an earlier blog post, we looked at some situations when it is essential to use capital letters – at the beginning of a sentence; when writing the names of people, institutions, companies, and brands; when referring to cities, countries, nationalities, religions, and languages; and when using the personal pronoun ‘I’.

Here are some more rules to help you capitalise words appropriately.

Rule 5: Capitalise days, months, holidays

The names of the seven different days of the week, twelve months of the year, and holidays are all proper nouns. Do make it a point to begin with a capital letter when you write them. However, the names of seasons (e.g. winter, summer) do not fall into the same category, so they shouldn’t be capitalised unless they appear in a title.

Examples

Can we meet early next week, say Monday or Tuesday?

Both my sons were born in the month of May.

Where did you spend Christmas last year?

Haley and Tom got married on Valentine’s Day.

Rule 6: Capitalise key words in the title of a book, movie, poem, etc.

As far as capitalising words in a title is concerned, be it books, movies, poems, or other works, much depends on what style guide you choose to follow. Generally speaking, all content words get capitalised. This means that nouns, main verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc. need capital letters at the beginning. By comparison, smaller words, such as articles and prepositions, tend to be in lower case, unless they appear as the first or last word in the title.

Examples

Alice in Wonderland’ is a fascinating tale.

The Lord of the Rings’ is a series of epic fantasy films.

Have you read ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ by Charles Dickens?

Rule 7: Capitalise the first word of a quote

When quoting someone, or quoting from a literary work, always capitalise the first word if the quotation forms a complete sentence. On the other hand, if the quote is just a phrase, it doesn’t need to be capitalised. 

Let’s compare:

Cindy said, “My husband is far from loving.”

Cindy said that her husband was “far from loving”. (No capitalisation required, as the quote is a phrase) There’s more to follow, so watch this space if you’d like to learn more about capitalising words.

Using Capital Letters (Part 1)

Capitalisation, the appropriate use of capital letters, is an area of punctuation that many learners pay little attention to. One reason might be that this topic can look deceptively simple at first glance. However, on exploring further, you very quickly realise that there’s quite a bit to learn. What also becomes evident is that like most grammar points, rules related to the use of capital letters aren’t always cut and dried.

Here are some handy tips to help you decide when to use capitalisation.

Rule 1: Capitalise the first word of a sentence

This one is as straightforward as grammar rules come because there’s hardly any complication here. Every time you begin a new sentence, start the first word with a capital letter.  

Examples

Hello there! How have you been?

You cannot go in there without permission.

Rule 2: Capitalise names of people, institutions, companies, brands

It goes without saying that people’s names are always capitalised. Similarly, the names of institutions, companies, and brands generally begin with a capital letter. Remember, if the name has more than one word, all important words in the name have their initial letter capitalised. 

Examples

Alan and Mathew are coming over this evening.

He works for the National Health Service.

United Airlines is a major player in the aviation sector that operates domestic and international flights.

Most people consider Sony to be the pioneers of portable music.

Rule 3: Capitalise cities, countries, nationalities, religions, languages

The names of cities, countries, nationalities, religions, and languages are proper nouns, so they should be capitalised. In the case of religion, the names of various deities are also capitalised.

Examples

Prague is a breathtakingly beautiful city.

He is from the United Arab Emirates.

Her father is Irish, whereas her mother is Scottish.

He’s had a Christian upbringing.

He speaks English, Spanish, Italian, and German.

Shiva is an ancient Hindu deity.

Rule 4: Capitalise the personal pronoun ‘I’

Unlike other personal pronouns (e.g. we, you, she, it), the personal pronoun ‘I’ is always written as a capital letter, no matter where it appears in a sentence.

Examples

I don’t know about the others, but I don’t want to go back to that restaurant.

James and I were the only ones to score goals yesterday.

We’ll be back soon with more on the use of capital letters. 

Understanding the IELTS Writing Section

Writing is arguably the most difficult language skill to master. Contrary to popular belief, skilful use of grammar and vocabulary alone wouldn’t necessarily make a person a good writer. This is because good thinking which follows a logical path and which is easy to understand lies at the very heart of good writing.

Read on to understand what to expect in the Writing section of IELTS.

Tasks

Task 1 (Academic)

Test takers are given information ‒ usually in the form of a graph, table, chart, or diagram ‒ and asked to describe it in their own words, writing at least 150 words. This could involve describing and explaining data, describing the stages of a process, describing how something works, or describing an object or event.

Task 1 (General Training)

Test takers are presented with a situation that people commonly encounter in their everyday life. They are then asked to write a letter of at least 150 words requesting information or explaining the situation. As far as the style of writing is concerned, the letter could be personal, semi-formal/neutral, or formal.

Task 2

In both Academic and General Training, test takers are asked to write an essay in response to a point of view, argument, or problem. Essay topics in Academic Writing are suitable for individuals entering undergraduate / postgraduate studies or seeking professional registration in an English-speaking country, whereas topics in General Training Writing tend to be of general interest and less complex.

Duration

Overall, test takers receive 1 hour to finish writing both tasks. Although the recommendation is to spend 20 and 40 minutes on Task 1 and Task 2 respectively, it is up to you to decide how to divide the time. Remember, Task 2 contributes twice as much to the final Writing score as Task 1, so you may need to spend adequate time on it.

Skills tested

Broadly speaking, the test is designed in such a way that a range of skills gets assessed. These include the test taker’s ability to produce a response that is appropriate, organise ideas skilfully, and use a wide range of vocabulary and grammatical structures with accuracy.

Marking

Writing answers are evaluated by certificated IELTS examiners using the IELTS Writing test assessment criteria: Task Achievement (Task 1) / Task Response (Task 2), Coherence and Cohesion, Lexical Resource, Grammatical Range and Accuracy. Scores are reported in whole and half bands.

Remember, a common mistake that test takers make is not finding out enough about the Writing section format before the exam; do familiarise yourself with the task types so that you can fulfil all task requirements.

Improving Intonation (Part 2)

In a previous post, we spoke of why it’s useful to better your ability to use various intonation patterns while speaking. We also looked at two common types of intonation, falling and rising.

In this post, we’ll first consider some more intonation types and then give you tips on how to improve your intonation.

Types of intonation

3. Rise-fall intonation
In this type, you raise the pitch of your voice and then drop it. This pattern is often found in:

  • alternative questions
    E.g. Would you like tea or coffee?
  • lists (pattern in the example – rise, rise, rise, fall)
    E.g. We’d need milk, sugar, flour, and eggs.
  • conditional sentences
    E.g. If you seeDanny, please ask him to call ➘ Rebecca.

4. Fall-rise intonation
In this type, you drop the pitch of your voice and then raise it. This pattern is commonly used to suggest that something is uncertain or incomplete. Have a look at these examples:

I don’t like drinking tea in the morning.

(perhaps hinting that the speaker enjoys drinking tea at other times of the day)

The first half was exciting.

(perhaps hinting that the second half was boring)

Do you think this is allowed here?

(perhaps hinting that the speaker is not sure if something is permissible)

I can’t afford a car at the moment.

(perhaps hinting that the speaker may be able to buy one in the future)

Ways to improve intonation

Here are some tips to help improve your ability to use various intonation patterns.

  • Listen carefully to short recordings of native speakers of English, paying particular attention to the way their voices rise and fall. Then, imitate their intonation by just humming along, without saying the actual words. Remember to focus on the melody, not the words.
  • Record yourself saying a sentence with absolutely no intonation, just like how a robot would do. Later, repeat the same sentence by using stress and intonation. Listen to both versions to know the difference that intonation can make.
  • Record yourself saying any common word over and over again, changing your attitude each time. For example, repeat the word ‘coffee’, giving it different meaning each time to indicate different emotions, such as enthusiasm, displeasure, surprise, and relief.

Remember, it’s difficult to listen to our own pitch, so working with audio materials is the way forward for improving your intonation.

Improving Intonation (Part 1)

A key pronunciation feature that helps you convey your thoughts and feelings with precision is intonation. In its simplest sense, intonation can be described as the melody of spoken language, i.e. the rise and fall in your voice when you speak. The focus here is on how we say things, not what we say.

It goes without saying that the concept of intonation is common to all languages; yet not many pay attention to this area while they speak, as they are so caught up in choosing the right words to express what they want to say. What they don’t realise is that intonation can be as important as word choice if not more.   

Why improve intonation

Here are a few good reasons why it is worthwhile to work on your intonation:

  • Bettering your understanding of intonation helps you become a skilled communicator.
  • Failing to use intonation could mean that listeners may soon lose interest in what you’re saying and switch off.
  • Getting your intonation patterns wrong might give rise to misunderstandings, with listeners even taking offence.
  • Not having enough awareness of intonation can impair your listening comprehension too, as you’re likely to misinterpret what others say.

Types of intonation

Here are some common intonation patterns found in English speech.  

  1. Falling intonation
    In this type, you drop the pitch of your voice at the end of the sentence. This pattern is usually found in:
  • statements
    E.g. I’m going for a stroll on the beach.
  • commands
    E.g. Get your hands off my coat!
  • wh-questions that seek information
    E.g. What’s your name?
  • question tags that invite agreement
    E.g. It was such a lousy film, wasn’t it?

2. Rising intonation
In this type, you raise the pitch of your voice at the end of the sentence. This pattern is generally found in:

  • yes/no questions
    E.g. Do you like my newdress?
  • question tags that seek an answer
    E.g. You haven’t had a fight with Tom,have you?

We’ll be back with more in the next part. Meanwhile, think about whether your pitch goes up and down when you speak in English.

IELTS Test Day Advice (Part 2)

In a previous post, we spoke of how it’s important to be well-rested, well-fed, and comfortably clothed on the test day so that you can give a good account of yourself in IELTS.

Read on for some more tried and tested tips that can help you on the day.

Take your ID document along

On arrival, one of the first things that a test taker needs to undergo at the test venue is an identity check. When registering for IELTS, you receive information on what type of ID you’ll be expected to carry. In many regions, this would be the test taker’s passport. If you fail to take along your ID, you will not be allowed to sit the test. So, whatever you do, do not forget your ID.

Carry enough stationery

If you’re taking paper-based IELTS, you’ll have to write mostly in pencil. Time is invaluable, so anything that helps you save precious seconds is good news. Have 3 to 4 pencils ready to be used so that you don’t lose time sharpening when one goes dull. Similarly, an eraser, a pencil sharpener, and a couple of pens are also essential.
In some cases, the stationery is provided to you at the test venue. But, if this is not clearly mentioned to you when you book the test, ensure you carry enough stationery with you on the test day.

Leave electronic devices outside

Mobile phones or other electronic devices shouldn’t be taken into the test room, so leave them at home. At some test venues, designated places may be available where personal belongings can be stored. Remember, if an electronic item is found on you while you are in the test room, it would be considered a serious breach of test rules.

Arrive early

It’s really in your best interest to arrive on time at the test venue. For one thing, when you’re running late, you slip into panic mode. More importantly, test takers who report late may not be allowed to participate.

Watch how much water you drink

The Listening, Reading, and Writing tests are conducted one after the other, with no breaks in between. If you do choose to use the toilet, you’ll lose that time. Hence be mindful of how much water you drink during the test. It might also be a good idea to pay a quick visit to the toilet just before you enter the test room.

Remember these tips, and you should have a stress-free test experience.

IELTS Test Day Advice (Part 1)

Sitting an exam can be pretty nerve-wracking for most, even if it happens to be a straightforward language test. Often test takers are so caught up in exam preparation that they fail to get the simple things right.

Every year, thousands take IELTS, the world’s most popular English language proficiency test for higher education and global migration. If you are thinking of having a crack at it anytime soon, we have some handy advice to help you perform to the best of your abilities.

Get adequate sleep

The IELTS test is considerably long, with the test taker spending 2 hours and 40 minutes to complete the Listening, Reading, and Writing tests alone. Add to this the time taken by venue staff to check identity, collect biometric data, and give instructions, and the test taker might spend close to 4 hours under examination conditions.

To get through test day without having your energy levels drop, it’s important that you give yourself sufficient sleep. Once you’re well-rested, you’ll arrive at the venue feeling fresh, ready to take on any challenge. 

Have a heavy meal

It is common to experience pre-exam jitters on the eve of a high-stakes test such as IELTS. Test takers are so consumed by the anxiety to do well that they don’t always eat adequately.

If you begin the test on a near-empty stomach, you’ll soon suffer hunger pangs, and consequently lose your concentration or feel nauseous. See to it that you have a hearty meal before you set off for the exam venue. Food and drink cannot be taken into the test room, so what you eat has to be substantial.

Wear something comfortable

Formal or casual, the clothing you wear has no bearing on your test scores, so choose wisely. While you may be tempted to dress to impress, comfort should clearly be the priority here.

Wear something that you’ll be comfortable in and that’ll give you confidence to perform. At many test centres, the air-conditioning will remain switched on throughout, so don’t forget to take along an extra layer of clothing to keep warm.

We’ll be back soon with more simple yet effective exam tips.

The View From Campus – How Do U.S. Universities Help International Students on Campus?

This month, we hear from Krista McCallum Beatty, Director of the International Students and Scholars Office, at Michigan State University, on the very timely topic of the ways international offices assist overseas students adjust to life on a college campus

Q: Describe your institution in 5 words?

A Top 100 Global University

Q: For what is your institution best known overseas?

Michigan State University is known worldwide as a top research university, home to renowned scholars and scientists from around the globe and a vibrant and diverse community of undergraduates and graduate students. MSU has a legacy of collaborating with international partners to create new knowledge and explore innovative and practical solutions to the world’s most pressing problems—particularly in the areas of food and agriculture; education and capacity building; global health and nutrition; and water, energy and the environment.

Q: What are your top academic programs (undergrad and grad)?

Michigan State University is ranked in the Top 100 universities globally. Individual academic programs ranked number one include:

  • Supply Chain/Logistics
    • Elementary Teacher Education
    • Higher Education Administration
    • Secondary Teacher Education
    • African History
    • Nuclear Physics
    • Industrial and Organization Psychology
    • Rehabilitation Counseling
    • Agricultural and Applied Economics Departments (Global)

In addition, Michigan State University has over 30 individual academic programs ranked in the Top 25, and many more academic programs ranked in the Top 100.

Q: What are the top 5 countries represented at your college/How international is your institution?

The countries with the most students enrolled at Michigan State are China, India, Korea, Taiwan and Canada.

Q: How does your institution use IELTS in the admissions process? How valuable a tool is it in evaluating prospective students?

Michigan State University uses IELTS scores to determine whether an international student whose first language is not English meets the university’s English proficiency requirements. Assessing English proficiency is essential in helping international students to be successful while studying at Michigan State.

Q: What is the role of an international student office on campus?

At Michigan State University, the Office for International Students and Scholars (OISS) is a comprehensive office, meaning we provide a wide range of support for international students and scholars. Examples of the support OISS provides include new student orientation, immigration advising, assistance with obtaining a driver’s license, individual support for students experiencing personal difficulties, lots of great social activities including trips around Michigan, leadership development programming, and a weekly Coffee Hour, that is a long-standing tradition.

Q: What steps do universities take to help international students feel welcome on campus?

Universities start helping international students feel welcome before they even arrive in the US. For example, at Michigan State new international students complete an online orientation program prior to traveling to the US. Once students are on campus, universities provide an orientation program that includes important information about classes and immigration regulations as well lots of information about student life, other laws and policies, and lots of great opportunities to meet other new students, both international and US. Universities also have many staff committed to helping international students feel welcome and part of the community. Many of these people work in a department commonly known as student affairs or student life. International student offices work very closely with student affairs offices to help international students feel welcome on campus. Examples include opportunities to be involved in student organizations, social events, trips, leadership programs, and campus traditions.

Q: How seriously do U.S institutions value having international students on campus? Give examples.

International students are highly important to colleges and universities. They enrich the campus in so many ways – through their academic work, their leadership, sharing their perspectives which may differ from domestic students, and the many informal and formal ways they contribute to all students learning about the world.

What advice would you give prospective international students considering U.S. colleges to help them understand what life would be like for them in the U.S.?

Do lots of research! The U.S. is a large and diverse country and there are many different colleges and universities to consider. Don’t make your decision based on rankings and cost alone. Those are important factors, but you should also consider the academic programs, size, faculty to student ratio, opportunities to get involved on campus, leadership programs and career development support, living arrangements, and opportunities for research. Whenever possible, try to talk with a current student and a graduate of the university to learn first-hand about their experience.  Alumni are a great resource not only to learn more about the university, but to network after graduation and stay in contact with your alma mater. Michigan State has a large and active alumni association with local chapters all over the world. In addition, the alumni association offers many opportunities for alumni ranging from social activities to career support and networking events to opportunities to mentor current students.

Q: What is the most common challenge new international students face when adapting to the academic environment at U.S. colleges?

International students will face challenges adapting to the US. However, international students face different challenges depending on their backgrounds and experiences. Common challenges include:

  • adjusting to being immersed in an American English language environment 24/7;
    • learning to eat new foods and at the same time find ways to get familiar food from home;
    • making new friends, often from around the world;
    • adjusting to different culture norms.

The best advice I have for meeting these challenges is to be patient. You will be in the US for several years, and with time you will adjust and thrive as a student here. You will be amazed at how much you learn studying in the US not only about your area of study but about the world and about yourself. My absolute favorite part of my job is talking with students about their experiences and listening to them reflect about how they have grown during their time here.

It is the end of the academic year at Michigan State University right now. This is a joyous time on campus when we celebrate our students, especially our international students. The campus is filled with students getting ready to graduate, and the commencement ceremonies are about to begin. Families and friends have travelled from all over the world to celebrate. Students are walking around campus taking photos in their favorite places, while reminiscing about their time here. They will carry their stories of the ups and downs of life as a university student with them the rest of their lives, knowing that they have grown and changed for the better.

Structuring a Letter (Part 2)

 

We’ve already looked at two ways to help lend your letter better structure – beginning with a fitting salutation and stating the general purpose of your letter.

Here are some more tips for organising information effectively.

 

3. Match letter to the purpose of writing

A good letter is always a purposeful one, with its different parts sewn up together to achieve clear progression. So, before beginning writing, ask yourself why you’re doing so in the first place.

Once you identify the purpose, think of information that’ll help you achieve it and decide on an appropriate way of ordering it. For instance, if it’s a complaint letter, begin by explaining what the issue is, and then say how it is affecting you and what you’d want the recipient to do.

 

4. Have one main idea per paragraph

As far as writing goes, experts swear by one rule in particular: less is more. A letter that is verbose tends to be harder to follow, so it makes sense to keep things simple.

What is also important is that there’s sufficient paragraphing, helping the reader move from one point to another effortlessly. And the best way to achieve this is by creating short paragraphs, each with about two to four sentences. That way, when reading a new paragraph, the reader knows that they are looking at new information.

 

5. Use an appropriate ending

Just like how having a fitting beginning is important, so is the need to end your letter in a suitable way.

If a formal letter begins with ‘Dear Sir’ or ‘Dear Madam’, end it using ‘Yours faithfully’. If you’ve used a title and surname at the beginning, then the ending should be ‘Yours sincerely’. In friendly letters, like with salutations, the ending also needs to have a casual feel to it, so use something informal such as ‘Lots of love’ or ‘Cheers’.

And here’s a final tip: formal letters have more fixed rules than friendly ones, so not following them can make you sound rude.

 

 

GLOSSARY

fitting
Form : adjective
Meaning : suitable for the occasion
Example : Keith served us a tasty Asian dessert, which was a fitting end to the lovely meal.

 

sew up
Form : phrasal verb
Meaning : to put different parts of something together to get the desired result
Example : It took them almost a month to sew up the business deal.

 

swear by
Form : phrasal verb
Meaning : to have great confidence in something
Example : My parents swear by this herb’s ability to cure various ailments.

 

verbose
Form : adjective
Meaning : describes writing that has more words than needed
Example : His letter was both illegible and verbose. 

Structuring a Letter (Part 1)

 

Electronic means of communicating, such as emailing and text-messaging, may have long made letter writing passé, but the skills required to put together a letter remain relevant.

While vocabulary and grammar top the list of things that people most want to get right, not many give due consideration to a key component – structure. In some cases, the vocabulary may be precise and the grammar accurate, but the fact is that a letter without a clear beginning, middle, and finishing paragraph is likely to confuse the reader.

Although a one-size-fits-all approach clearly doesn’t work when deciding how to organise your writing, here are some useful pointers on what to include and in which order.

 

1. Begin with a suitable greeting

Opening a letter with a greeting is something that everyone does, but the beginning they choose may not always fit the context. How a letter should begin depends on two things: who the reader is, and just how well they know the writer.

A formal letter typical begins with ‘Dear Sir’ or ‘Dear Madam’, unless you’ve already spoken or written to the recipient. In that case, begin with the full title and their surname (e.g. ‘Dear Prof Higgins’, ‘Dear Ms Jackson’, ‘Dear Dr Floyd’). Friendly letters, on the other hand, usually begin with the word ‘Dear’ followed by the recipient’s first name.

 

2. State the purpose

It’s best to make clear right at the beginning of your letter why you are writing to someone. The benefit is that the reader knows straight away what the context is, making it easier for them to comprehend the information that is to follow.

If it is a formal or semi-formal letter that you’re writing, you simply can’t go wrong when you begin with the phrase ‘I am writing to’. By comparison, friendly letters are quite chatty right from the word go, so begin with an informal phrase (e.g. ‘It’s been a while since we last met.’) before you get to the topic.

 

Remember, how well you structure your writing depends on how well you’ve planned it.

 

 

GLOSSARY

passé
Form : adjective
Meaning : describes something that is no longer popular or effective
Example : I’m not surprised Pete’s film flopped. His ideas on film-making are so passé.

 

one-size-fits-all
Form : adjective
Meaning : describes something that is suitable for all circumstances
Example : In teaching, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all method that works for all types of students.

 

(right) from the word go
Form : phrase
Meaning : from the very beginning
Example : The band’s first performance was a disaster from the word go.

 

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