How to Avoid Misusing the Exclamation Mark

The exclamation mark (!), informally known as a bang or shriek, is arguably the most widely abused punctuation mark, especially in the electronic era. Almost every single day we come across text messages, tweets and emails laden with this sign.  

The thing is, when we speak, the tone of our voice and body language make the intent behind what we say quite clear. Written words, on the other hand, might not always convey our emotions effectively.  This is perhaps why many people use exclamation marks generously, hoping that it will make them appear friendly or adequately enthusiastic about something. What they don’t realise, though, is that excessive use will make their writing appear juvenile, or even shouty.

The Use of the Exclamation Mark

The exclamation mark is generally used to express strong emotions (e.g. joy, surprise, anger, frustration) or to indicate a sense of urgency. We generally add one at the end of exclamatives beginning with what or how (e.g. What a lovely coat!). Here are a few points to help you use the exclamation mark judiciously.

  • The key to using the exclamation mark effectively is to use it sparingly. Overuse will certainly cause distraction, lessening the impact it can have on the reader. If there are too many bangs, it would be rather tough to identify the really exciting parts of your writing. Solution? Ideally, an exclamation mark should be summoned only if there is a clear need to express very strong feelings. Rewording sentences can oftentimes help you avoid the bang, so do explore this possibility.
  • Using exclamation marks in a row (two, three or more) to stress the way you feel about something is a definite no-no. A single exclamation mark will do, at the very most. 
  • The bang is often spotted in advertisements, novels and signage. Its presence in a piece of formal communication, however, will be considered inappropriate by most. Therefore, it is best to rely on your vocabulary range to intensify what you are saying.

Now that you’ve had some help, remember not to unleash a platoon of exclamation marks on the reader the next time you compose a text message or email; use a bang only when it is unavoidable.

Making Your IELTS Essay Sound Formal (Part 3)

So far in this blog series, you’ve read about some handy tips that can help improve your use of academic English, such as avoiding statistics that are made up and limiting the use of personal pronouns.  

In this final part, we’ll introduce you to a few more essential features of academic English.

6. Learn to use passive voice

The passive voice is often used to change the focus of a sentence. Unlike a sentence in active voice, here, who or what gets affected by the action gets more importance than the performer of the action. 

People often destroy woodlands to make way for development. (active voice)

Woodlands are often destroyed to make way for development. (passive voice)

It is clear that people in general are the performers of the action in the above sentence, so the passive version does not even mention them. If used appropriately, passive structures can make your writing impersonal.

7. Avoid vague language and short forms  

One noticeable aspect of academic English is clarity. There is no room for ambiguity when you are putting together an IELTS essay, so avoid language that will make your writing sound vague. For example, do not use the phrases ‘et cetera’ or ‘so on’ – it sort of indicates indolence on your part. Stating one or two specific examples in support of your point will work better, making your writing clearer. Similarly, avoid using short forms such as ‘e.g.’ and ‘i.e.’ in your essay; write phrases like ‘for example’ and ‘in other words’ instead.

8. Do not use sexist language

In the past, it was okay to use words such as he, him and his to refer to all humankind, but not anymore.

If an employee is running late, he will have to inform his line manager without fail.

Sexist language, such as in the sentence above, is language that excludes one gender, or which suggests that one particular gender is superior to the other. In the present-day world, not every police officer is a he, and not every nurse is a she. Because of diminishing gender differences, people are increasingly finding sexist language offensive, so you would do well to avoid it. You could use alternatives such as ‘he/she’ or ‘they’ in place of ‘he’.  

Finally, remember that what you have read here are some basic rules of academic English; getting the tone of your essay right each time will take some practice.

To get more Writing tips and practice, visit the British Council’s LearnEnglish website by clicking here.

Making Your IELTS Essay Sound Formal (Part 2)

In the first part, we looked at some features of formal language and ways to ensure that your IELTS essay has an academic tone throughout.

Picking up where we left off, here are three things to avoid if your IELTS essay needs to be appropriately formal.

3. Avoid slang words

Choice of vocabulary is arguably the key to controlling the level of formality of your written work. Naturally, it goes without saying that informal words or expressions that are commonly found in spoken language have no place in your IELTS essay. For instance, do not replace the word ‘children’ with an informal expression such as ‘kids’, as this would be inappropriate.

4. Do not use contracted forms

Contracted forms, also referred to as short forms, are words or phrases that have been shortened by dropping one or more letters. Here are some examples:

  • I’m (short form of I am)
  • they’re (short form of they are)
  • I’ve (short form of I have)
  • she’d (short form of she would and she had)
  • we’ll (short form of we will)

When forming a contraction, an apostrophe is used in place of a missing letter, or missing letters. Although contracted forms are very common in English, especially in everyday speech, they are considered inappropriate in formal writing. In IELTS Writing, the only time you can confidently use contractions is when you have been asked to write an informal letter in the IELTS General Training test.

5. Avoid clichés

A cliché is a stale phrase or proverb that has been overused and has, therefore, lost its charm. When you use a cliché like ‘all that glitters is not gold’ in your essay, you end up making your writing dull and unimaginative. A far better approach is to convey this idea in your own words – for example, something that is superficially attractive may not always be valuable or true.

Remember, clichés tend to be inherent in our everyday communication, so they may creep into your writing unnoticed. For this reason, do keep an eye out for clichéd expressions when your proofread your essay. And should you find any, paraphrase without any hesitation.

You can find more information on academic English in the final part in this series.

POWER Your Way Through IELTS Essay Writing (Part 3)

So far in this series we’ve talked about how you should ideally draw up a plan and then arrange your ideas logically before you begin writing your essay.

Let’s now discuss how the last two stages can help produce a response that is both error-free and relevant.

4. Evaluating

On studying the essay question carefully, generating ideas and sequencing them, it isn’t uncommon for test takers to spend the rest of the time available on writing as long a response as possible. In a language test like IELTS, such an approach is hardly advisable. Instead, it’s best to write only what is needed to meet the word limit and the requirements of the task, and then use the remaining time to check your work for errors.

It’s a race against the clock to finish writing an essay in 40 minutes. You are likely to make grammar mistakes, omit punctuation, or misspell words, any of which could affect your writing score.  Given the pressure cooker atmosphere of a test, even competent language users are known to make the occasional slip. Finding time to evaluate what you’ve written helps you to identify such errors and improve the accuracy of your response.

5. Revising

Revising what you’ve written forms the final stage of the POWER writing plan. Here you need to go through your response in its entirety and consider it in relation to the essay question. It’s worth remembering at this point that an essay will be penalised if it is tangential or completely off topic. The key is relevance. This means that you are now reading to make sure that all the paragraphs you wrote in stage 3 have come together to fully answer all parts of the essay question. If there’s any doubt that a point isn’t absolutely relevant, think of something more appropriate and write it in its place.

Now that you know what the POWER writing strategy is, practise using it so that your essays always stay on topic and never consume too much time.  

POWER Your Way Through IELTS Essay Writing (Part 2)

In the first part, we spoke about what you need to do in the ‘Planning’ stage of the POWER writing plan – analyse the task and generate ideas. 

Read on to know about what happens in the next couple of stages.

2. Organising

Once you’ve gone through the essay question with a fine-toothed comb and jotted down some useful ideas, it’s time to think of how you’re going to organise your writing. The essay type you receive on test day should help you decide the overall structure of your response. For instance, if you receive an opinion essay, you would want to state your position clearly at the beginning and then provide reasons for taking such a stance in two to three paragraphs.

If you experience difficulty expanding upon an idea that you’ve generated, now is the time to get rid of it and think of an alternative. Remember that irrespective of how brilliant an idea sounds, you’ve got to be able to say more about it and add details in order to write a meaningful paragraph. Failing to do so could mean you end up with an essay that lacks progression in parts. To make your writing cohesive, see to it that you link sentences and ideas using discourse markers, such as besides, further, and for example.

3. Writing

As far as essay writing goes, building a skeleton is without doubt half the battle. Having done that, you can focus your energies on fleshing out the skeleton by adding more details and examples. Although this stage of POWER writing should obviously last the longest, work done in the previous stages will help you write faster than usual. It’s also the time to impress the examiner by showing off your grammar and vocabulary skills – the range of grammar structures and lexical items you display is just as important as how accurate your language is.

While writing, invest more time developing the body paragraphs of your essay because that’s where all your ideas lie. Of course, for this very reason, your examiner will spend a lot more time reading those paragraphs, deliberating how well you’ve met the requirements of the task. 

Do read our next blog post in the series that’ll deal with the remaining stages of the POWER strategy.

IELTS Writing: Describing a Life Cycle

In the Academic version of IELTS Writing, test takers can be asked to write a report describing the life cycle of a living thing, such as a butterfly or frog.

Here’s some advice to help you do a good job of it.

Introduction

Like other question types in Academic Writing Task 1, a life cycle needs only a one-sentence introduction. The easiest way to introduce the task is by paraphrasing the information given in the question. Here’s an example:

QuestionSuggested introduction
The diagrams below show the life cycle of a species of large fish called the salmon.The diagrams provided illustrate various stages in the life of a large type of fish called the salmon.

Main Body

A life cycle is the series of changes that a living thing goes through from the beginning of its existence to the end. In general, most creatures begin life as fertilized eggs, develop into juveniles and later become mature adults. Since a life cycle is a set of scientific facts, most of your sentences will be in the present simple tense. Begin with the first stage and then describe each stage in some detail, using descriptive adjectives (e.g. immature juveniles, sandy river bed). Don’t forget to use sequencing words such as to begin with, later, and at this stage so that the descriptions you write stick together. Remember, overusing discourse markers can make your writing look artificial, so use them only when necessary. To avoid repetition, look out for opportunities to use synonyms and reference words (e.g. it, this, their).

Overview

As far as Academic Task 1 goes, the overview you write can pretty much decide the fate of your response. A quick glance at the IELTS Writing band descriptors will tell you that in the absence of a clear overview, the best score you could hope for on Task Achievement is a band 5. Naturally, it’s common sense to invest sufficient time so that you’re able to produce a well-thought-out overview that summarises the main stages.

Broadly speaking, it is easier to write a response to a life cycle than to most other task types, provided that you know what to do and that you’ve had enough practice.

Using Capital Letters (Part 3)

In this final part in our series on capitalisation, we’ll look at some more important rules that’ll help you punctuate with confidence.

Rule 8: Capitalise titles of people

Just like how we capitalise the first, middle, and last names of people, we also capitalise suffixes (e.g. William Frank Jnr, Alexander the Great) and titles (e.g. President, Governor, Senator). If the title appears just before the individual’s name, especially when it replaces the individual’s first name, it should be capitalised. However, if the title appears after the individual’s name, or if it is followed by a comma, then we do not capitalise it. 

Let’s compare:

  • Carol is a huge admirer of President Obama. (Appears before last name)
  • George W Bush served as president of the USA from 2001 to 2009. (Appears after the name)
  • The president of the club, Frank Moorcroft, has resigned. (Title separated by comma)

Formal titles that are used to address individuals should also be capitalised.

Examples

  1. Why do you think I’m losing so much weight, Doctor? (Used as a direct address)

2. I’m afraid we can’t continue funding your project, Professor. (Used as a direct address)

Rule 9: Capitalise names of family members

When we use the names of family members – such as dad, mum, and grandpa – to address them, such words should be capitalised. Also, if such a word appears just before a personal name, it gets capitalised. However, if the same words are used to denote relationships, they need to be in lower case.

Let’s compare:

  • Why are you being so difficult, Dad? (Used as a form of address)
  • My dad has been in a bad mood this entire week. (Refers to relationship) 
  • I have always been incredibly close to Aunt Cathy and Uncle Will. (Appears before personal name)
  • I have an aunt and uncle living in Canada. (Refer to relationships)

Rule 10: Capitalise letter salutations and closings

In letters, the first word in salutations (Dear Sir, Dear Cathy) is always capitalised. Similarly, when ending a letter with a closing (Yours sincerely, Lots of love, Warm regards), the first word should be capitalised.  

Capitalisation is an area of punctuation that is tricky, so the more you read and write, the more likely that the rules stick in your mind.

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. 

Five Key Essay Writing Tips For Students


Image courtesy of Christine Warner Hawks via Flickr (CC 2.0)

 

Essay writing asks students to critically analyse arguments and write convincingly.   

Here we give you five tips to do this successfully…

 

  1. Understanding the question

If you don’t understand the question, then I’m afraid you have fallen at the first hurdle. Everything you do after this will be wide of the mark, so make sure you understand what the question is really asking.

The wording will give you the best indication of this. It may include words like ‘evaluate’, in which case you should be weighing up merits as well as shortcomings. Spend some time going over the question and thinking critically about what it is you’re going to do.

 

  1. Read widely

You need to know the key ideas and writings on the subject you’re arguing. This means you must read a lot. There is no escaping this.

Read from a variety of sources; historical essays, contemporary journals, newspaper articles, as well as primary sources. The greater the variety of reading material, the greater your understanding and your essay will be.

Tip: The balance of time spent reading versus writing should be heavily in favour of reading. Think long, work chop-chop.

 

  1. ‘Yes… No… But’

An essay is an argument. To know what you are arguing for, you must also know the arguments against your own position. This can be broken down (in a very simplistic form) to: ‘Yes, No, But’. This is the structure of your essay, sandwiched between an introduction and a conclusion.

‘Yes’ – in favour of your position; ‘No’ – you outline the key points against your position; ‘But’ – you criticise the shortcomings of the ‘no’ position and bring further points in favour of your argument.

This is your plan and structure all in one. It’s a tried and trusted formula.

 

  1. Key sentences

Every paragraph you write should start with a sentence that gets to the point. This indicates to the reader what the following paragraph will argue. It’s very easy to get side-tracked as a writer, so you need to keep focus and bring the reader along with you at every stage.

Get to the point quickly then you can expand on the idea. The key sentence helps to signpost to the reader what’s coming next. It may sound obvious, but it is effective.

 

 

  1. If you can speak, you can write

The tendency for university students is to think that they have to use lots of long, academic-sounding words to get a good grade. But, using clear language helps get your argument across best. Being wordy for the sake of it only papers over the cracks.

When writing, imagine you’re talking to a close friend (or pet cat) who knows a little bit about the subject. If you can get your arguments over to them in a clear, concise and convincing way, then you can write: it’s the same.

The best writers do – and so should you.

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