IELTS Writing test

How Punctuation Can Improve Your English Writing (Part 1)

Image courtesy of Mark Morgan (CC Flickr)

Ever felt punctuation is just a set of decorative symbols that can be done away with? Well, think again!

 

A poorly punctuated sentence can severely distort meaning, thereby confusing the reader. Here’s a good example:

  1. I had lunch with my parents, an architect and a Labrador.
  2. I had lunch with my parents, an architect, and a Labrador.

 

What these two sentences mean are entirely different, the change in meaning caused by the presence or absence of a comma after the word architect.

Sentence 1 means: I had lunch with 2 people, i.e. my parents. One of them is an architect, whereas the other is a breed of dog (Labrador).

Sentence 2 means: I had lunch with 3 people and an animal, i.e. my parents, an architect, and a dog.

 

Though many of us make an effort to use punctuation, we often restrict ourselves to just two – comma and full stop. It’s a shame that a dozen other punctuation marks that can make our writing cohesive remain largely ignored.

 

In this series, we’ll explore the entire set:

 

full stop comma exclamation mark question mark hyphen dash apostrophe
. , ! ?
quotation marks colon semi colon slash ellipsis square bracket round bracket
“ ” : ; / [ ] ( )

 

  1. Full stop

The most common use of a full stop is to signal the end of a statement; it is also used in indirect questions and abbreviations. Do keep in mind that there is no space between the last letter (in a word) and the full stop.

 

Used Example
to signal the end of a statement I work as a teacher.
at the end of an indirect question She asked me where I had been.
with abbreviated (shortened) forms etc. | e.g. | Sept. | p.m.

 

 

  1. Comma

Generally speaking, commas indicate slight pauses or breaks in a sentence: they may separate items in a list, extra information, or clauses.

 

Used Example
to separate each item in a list We bought flowers, fruit, pudding, and sweets.
to separate extra information that is not part of the main sentence Graham’s brother, Phil, is very naughty.
to separate a clause Tim, who lives in London these days, was at the party.

 

Remember, efficient use of punctuation can make your writing a lot clearer.

 

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

do away with (something)
Form : phrase
Meaning : remove; get rid of
Example : We’re doing away with all the traditions this Christmas and not having a tree.

 

distort
Form : verb
Meaning : to change a piece of information so that it is no longer accurate
Example : Newspaper articles sometimes distort the truth. 

 

a shame
Form : phrase
Meaning : used to mean that something is disappointing
Example : It’s a shame that they lost the match even after playing so well.

Five Cardinal Sins to Avoid in the IELTS Writing Test

 Look out for an overall trend in the maze of data; identifying it is half the battle!

In the IELTS Academic Writing test, candidates attempt two tasks of 150 words and 250 words. The first is an information-transfer task, asking you to describe information given in a graph, table, chart or diagram. Simple, right? Why then do so many candidates make a real hash of it?

It’s quite possible that they are guilty of one (or more) of these five cardinal sins…

 

  1. Not meeting the word limit

Even a cursory glance at the writing booklet will tell you that your response to Task 1 should have at least 150 words. Fail to meet this word limit and you’re hurting your score. Scripts that are under the minimum word length attract a penalty, which could be severe if the response is very short.

TIP: Learn to identify how long 150 words looks in your handwriting beforehand!

 

  1. Not using figures to support descriptions

Are your descriptions of the pictorial data just a series of words that describe trends?

Does it, for instance, say: “Even though the price of crude oil hit a trough, it soon surged to its earlier level, remained stable for a short period, before peaking towards the end of the year?”

Without any figures to substantiate these descriptions, it’s difficult for the reader to fully comprehend how exactly crude oil prices fluctuated over an entire year.

TIP: Add figures where necessary to provide a clear context to the reader!

 

  1. Answering the wrong question!

Example: “As per the data provided on the question paper, it’s evident that crude oil prices saw a great deal of fluctuation in just 12 months. Could it be the Gulf war? Perhaps it’s the result of a change in foreign policy?”

Why prices varied is well and truly beyond what’s provided as task input, so do not attempt to speculate. If you do that, you end up wasting time, adding totally irrelevant information to your response.

TIP: The test shouldn’t be used as a platform to showcase your general knowledge. Your job is to summarise the information provided by selecting the main features; so focus on that!

 

  1. Not producing full, connected text

IELTS Writing tasks require candidates to produce answers as full, connected text. Obviously, this means that use of bullet points and note form are inappropriate; scripts that use of them are penalised.

TIP: While writing, just stick to creating paragraphs. Disregard this simple rule and you may have to pay the penalty!

 

  1. Not drawing a conclusion

A report is a document written after careful consideration of various aspects of a situation; it needs a logical conclusion. If your response doesn’t refer to the bigger picture ‒ a statement that summaries the pictorial data provided ‒ it would be incomplete to say the least.

TIP: Look out for an overall trend in the maze of data; identifying it is half the battle!

 

Remember these handy tips when you begin preparing for the writing test; they’ll save you from underperforming when you eventually take IELTS.

Best of luck!

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