In this podcast, our essay corrector, Ellen goes through some of the most common grammatical mistakes she sees IELTS students make. Some of the most frequent errors are:
- Relative clauses
Listen as Ellen explains what students do wrong, how to correct those errors and what resources you can use to improve your grammar.
You can download or listen to the audio version here:
READ THE TRANSCRIPT BELOW:
Female Voice: You are now listening to the IELTS podcast. Learn from tutors and ex-examiners who are masters of IELTS preparation. Your host Ben Worthington.
Ellen: Hi again, podcast listeners. This is Ellen and welcome to today’s podcast. The podcast that I’m going to cover today deals with common errors, primarily grammar errors, I should say, common grammar errors that I see both correcting essays for IELTS podcast, but also through my many years of teaching and preparing students for IELTS.
There are certain things that just keep coming up over and over again regardless of the student’s native language. So, I just wanted to pull everything together and the reason that I thought that you could all benefit from people’s mistakes is because maybe you can see where you also possibly make some of these mistakes.
I think that awareness is the first step in improvement. So, if you are aware of errors that people make and potentially you make as well, this way you can be a little bit more conscious when you write and try to avoid them and overcome these errors.
Like I said the people whose essays I’ve kind of drawn from come from really all over the world. So, it’s not just like one language set or just European languages or just Asian languages. So, it’s really a wide variety. It’s interesting that the same problems keep creating problems basically for students no matter where they are from or what language they speak or use.
Let me get into the first one. The first one is a huge problem and I’ll tell you in all honesty, it’s a huge problem especially for students who speak Russian. So, if Russian is your native language– also from India, maybe it’s Hindi, maybe it’s different languages within India, but the problem I’m going to cover first is really common.
It’s articles. People have a hard time with articles and you know what? I don’t blame you. Articles in English are difficult. This requires an advanced grammar book to tell you the truth. I know a lot of you need a 7. So, if you don’t have a really, really good book of advanced grammar, and maybe I should correct that and say several really good books of advanced grammar, this is going to present a problem.
Articles are really difficult. It appears that there is no rhyme or reason in English as to how we use articles. There are some rules. There are and you can pretty much depend on those rules. Obviously, there are some exceptions, but basically, if it’s an abstract concept, you’re not going to use an article.
So, things like education. You will use ‘the’ in front of a word like education if you’re going to describe a specific kind of education. For example, the education of teenagers, okay? That’s a specific example of education and you can tell it’s a specific example because I have explained which education. It’s education of teenagers. So, in this type of instance, yes, you will use an article.
Another place where people get really confused is when we use ‘the’ in front of plurals. It’s kind of a similar thing. So, for example, I see something like the teachers, the governments, the parents. The only time this is appropriate is if you’ve already explained which governments, which people, which parents you are talking about and the reader knows which of these things you’re talking about.
If you’ve done that, so, for example, “Governments need to create measures to reduce pollution. The governments must do this by…” I don’t know, “…enforcing laws or something.” That’s okay, but a lot of times people just put ‘the’ in front of plurals and it’s wrong. So, just be aware that that’s a really big one. Plurals and articles and just articles in general.
Again, a good tutor can help you with this, grammar books if you really, really study and trial and error and of course, the best is getting feedback for your writing. These are all some good ways to overcome this problem.
Another huge problem that I see is– well it’s also with articles, but not only. It’s a problem with uncountable nouns. Countable nouns are the ones that are kind of collective and they don’t– they can’t be used in the plural and they also don’t take an article.
So, because a lot of you write essays where you refer to studies, where you refer to research, the number of times I have corrected “…a recent research said this…” or “…researches say this…” That’s absolutely wrong. Research cannot be plural and it cannot have an article in front of it. Even if you put the word ‘recent’ in front of it, you just don’t do it. So, it’s always ‘a recent study’ or ‘recent research’. It’s just– it’s the kind of thing that you should know. If you’re aiming for a 7, it’s the kind of mistake that you probably want to avoid. So, that’s a big one.
There’re other countable nouns– I’m sorry, there’re other uncountable nouns that I find as well that students often use with an ‘a’ or make them plural, but research is really the one that’s most common. It comes up all the time, almost daily. Just be aware of it.
If you’re not sure, you can’t keep it straight then just forget about ‘research’ altogether and just use the word studies. It’s fine, okay? That’s one way to avoid it if you’re just not sure. You’re like, “Well, which one is it? I don’t know.”
Another way you could avoid this whole issue altogether is by using something like a recent publication. “A recent publication from Harvard University explained that 20% of the children in the school do this” whatever that is, okay? So, there’re ways if you’re not sure if ‘study’ is correct or if ‘research’ is correct, you can just say publication and be done with it.
Alright, so those are the first two big errors that I see quite a bit of. A third one which I see over and over and over again– and it’s funny, this is one I see typically in more advanced writing, where the grammar, in general, is more advanced. People have a problem with this because they’re trying to use advanced structures and they’re trying to do more complex things, but that effort doesn’t always pan out.
What am I talking about? I’m talking about relative clauses. This is a big one. Let me see if I can come up with an example sentence for you so you can see what the problem is. A sentence like this would be something like, “Pollution is a problem in cities which they have many people.”
You can see that the whole purpose of using the relative pronoun which is to combine the two sentences, so you don’t need that ‘they’ afterwards. It’s redundant, it’s superfluous, you just don’t need it and it sounds wrong.
So, that’s the kind of error I see with relative pronouns a lot. Anytime there’s a problem with a relative pronoun that’s usually what the problem is. People have mistakenly, after the relative pronoun ‘which’ or ‘that’ or ‘who’ then put the noun or the pronoun when they just didn’t need to.
Another problem that I’ve seen with relative pronouns recently especially again, in some of the higher level ones is– it’s again, it’s an advanced grammatical construction where you have to say ‘to whom’, ‘of which’. So, there’re these kind of complex structures where you have to use a preposition with a relative pronoun.
I’m really, really impressed when people try to do it because it’s not the simplest thing to do in English or in any of the other languages I know. So, good job trying it, but just be aware that it’s effective if you do it right.
If it’s not done correctly, then again, the examiner will say, “Well, great job for trying. This is a person who takes risks, so well done,” but it doesn’t’ necessarily guarantee you say a 7, for example, if you haven’t done it right. So, those are a couple of problems with relative clauses.
Another huge problem that I see is with tenses. Students of IELTS love to overuse certain tenses and I can tell you which tenses they are. The biggest one that students love to overuse is the present continuous. I think there is this kind of misunderstanding with what the present continuous is.
I think that people think that, “Oh, well, if it’s something that happens all the time, then it’s continuous. Therefore, I need to use the present continuous.” I often wonder if it’s part of the problem with the name. The fact is when you want to talk about something in general, it’s just a general truth, it happens all the time, it’s just a fact of life, you actually need to use a simple tense.
So, probably you’re going to use the present simple. Like I read something today, I can’t remember what the sentence was, but something about, “Education is being a difficult situation for many parents…,” or something like that. There’s absolutely no reason to use the continuous here especially since we don’t use ‘is being’ like that.
It’s just an example, but usually, when you are talking about things that are always true, they are just the fact of life, you just want to use a simple tense, okay? So, that’s the first one.
The second problem is sometimes people overuse the present perfect and I see this a lot in task 1 actually. A lot of these diagrams in academic task 1 are very clearly in the past. Your dates are really specific and so there’s absolutely no connection with the present, yet for some reason students are connecting it with the present because they are using the present perfect.
So, you can see that’s really inaccurate especially when we’re talking about, I don’t know, 1990, 2000, 2005, and all of a sudden, people are using the present perfect. It’s just not right. There’s no reason at all to do it. It’s an inaccurate use of the present perfect. So, just be aware of that.
Along with this issue, there is something else that is kind of related. A lot of people also like to overuse the past perfect. They think that if something happened a really long time ago, they need to use the past perfect. The truth is that the past perfect is used in really kind of specific instances when we’re really trying to show that something happened further in the past, then something else. Making this kind of difference and really sort of emphasizing this difference in time is important.
So, that said, yes, there is a place for it in task 1 or it’s possible there’s a place for it in task 1, but I also do see people over using or maybe kind of overcomplicate their writing when really even in this instance the simple past would have been okay especially when you are referring to years like this happened in 1990, this happened in 2000.
You don’t necessarily need to use the past perfect with 1990 because the sequence of events is really quite clear. So, it’s not necessary. That’s just another comment about that. I think it’s probably– of the three that I mentioned in terms of tense, it’s probably the one that’s the least problematic, but do be aware of it when you do try to use the past perfect.
And because I didn’t mention it before, by past perfect we mean ‘it had risen’, ‘it had declined’, any time you use this sort of construction. The next problem that I see a lot is the word ‘although’. Students love to use ‘although’. It’s a well-loved linker for many people. Unfortunately, I also see people using it incorrectly.
To use although, you need to have it followed by a clause and when I say clause, I mean at the very least a subject and a verb, okay? So, “Although entertainment is important, I believe education is the most important function of a school.” All right, that’s how we use although.
Instead though, what I see a lot of students do is use although and then directly after that a comma. So, although, and then the rest of the sentence, but that’s incorrect. This in fact, is how we use ‘however’. So, you could say, “However, I believe a, b, c, d, e…”
Although has to be used in a very specific fashion as I have just mentioned. It has to be followed with a clause. So, again, clause is at the very least a subject and a verb and then a comma and then the part of the sentence that contrasts with that first part of the sentence follows.
Okay, if you’re not sure, you can just use however and probably be safer although I do admire that a lot of you try to kind of mix up your cohesive devices. Well done. You should be doing that. The best thing of course, to do is learn how to use it correctly, but if you’re not sure, there’re other alternatives for you as well.
Okay, so, let’s see. I think we’re about number seven right there on my list of common errors. Another error that I see quite a bit is with agreement. What do I mean with agreement? I mean making sure that you have plurals with plurals and singulars with singulars. That applies for verbs and it also applies for pronouns as well.
I read an essay today; something about governments and it said, “Governments must do this. It must do this as well.” Since your subject was governments, it’s plural, you clearly cannot refer to governments as ‘it’. There has to be ‘they’, okay? So, that’s an error that I see really quite a bit.
In fact, it’s one I see especially when sentences get longer, when they get really kind of complex and sometimes a little too complicated. People get confused, they get whether they had used the singular or the plural and so they make this kind of mistake.
Another thing that people do wrong a lot really quite often is, “Governments has been an issue.” This is a frequent error and it is a shame because it’s a basic error especially if you want to be at a 7. I really hope you are not making this mistake. “Governments have been confronting this problem or governments have been addressing this issue.” So, make sure that if it’s a plural subject, you’ve got the appropriate verb form following it. Okay, so that’s number eight, agreement.
Another problem, number nine on my list of most common errors is commas. A lot of you either adore the comma, you absolutely love it and you overuse it or some of you are so afraid of it or you just don’t like using it that you don’t’ use it anywhere.
Now, the truth is that in English nowadays, we have kind of strayed away from overuse of the comma. The reason for this is because the comma essentially is like a speed bump. When you are reading and you see a comma, you kind of mentally have to pause.
So, modern English nowadays has kind of led us away from that. We are not using them so often, but there are times when you absolutely need a comma like when you say, “For example,” okay, or with the example I mentioned before with although. “Although there are benefits to this issue, there are….”
There’re some places where we definitely need a comma. There other places where it’s kind of optional. So, what I would really like you all to do, again, is to sit down with your tutor or sit down with a good grammar reference and find out what some of the major rules of commas are. There’re some that you really do need to follow and should follow.
Punctuation is graded in IELTS. I wouldn’t say necessarily that it’s the most important thing, but yes, if it’s creating misunderstanding, then absolutely it’s going to be a problem. It’s part of your grammar score, so it’s something that you want to be aware of and you want to be as accurate as you can be. Okay, so, commas was number nine.
Number ten in the biggest problems that I see in writing is prepositions. I know they are difficult. I agree with you, but there are some that you really, really should try to familiarize yourself with and memorize if you need to. Work with them as much as possible. I know that some grammar books I have have pages and pages of common word– I’m not going to say just word, it could be verb, it could be noun plus preposition combinations, okay? They’re out there.
If that’s a little too much work for you, another really good thing to do because you’ve probably heard from my previous podcasts that I love the internet as a resource, so if you are not sure if your preposition combination is correct, just google it really. Use the word, use the preposition and see if you get any hits. See if results come up, okay?
Again, like I said in my last podcast, also check to see what the source is. If it’s something reliable that you can depend on say, okay well this is from, you know, the London Times. So hey, if they say it, then I can say it too.
So, prepositions are a big one. People typically put the wrong one in. That’s the most frequent problem I see. Occasionally, I see too many prepositions. Like I saw the other day, “…to which he replied to…” That was something I saw in an essay the other day.
Obviously, if you’re going to use this structure with ‘to which’ then you didn’t need that second preposition at the end of the clause. “…to which he replied…” not “…to which he replied to…” That goes back again to one of the common errors I see with relative clauses. So, prepositions are another big one and I know they are difficult.
It really just requires, like everything else in IELTS, a little extra care, a little extra attention, whether that’s with self-study or like a said with a tutor before or someone who’s correcting your essays. Just be aware of some of the combinations that you need to make in your writing, that you find yourself making and learn some new ones. It will absolutely be a service to you both for IELTS and also in the long run as a student of English.
Okay, so I think I covered my nine biggest mistakes in grammar. There are more, but they have more to do with, I think, just overcomplicated sentences and other things like that. In terms of grammar, these really are the biggest errors that I see as an IELTS tutor all these years and also as an essay corrector.
I wish you all lots of luck. Keep on writing. Keep on practicing. What you are doing is so important and it’s part of your future. It’s going to get you to wherever you want to be, wherever that is. Good work to all of you for taking your preparation seriously.
If you haven’t checked out please how you could collaborate with us here the IELTS podcast team whether it’s through the online course or if it’s through essay corrections, we’re here. We’d love to hear from you. We’d love to help you reach your goals. So, do reach out to us. Thanks for listening. I hope you found my ten common errors helpful. Hope you learn from them and I hope you are on your way to improving your English. Thanks a lot.
Female Voice: Thanks for listening to ieltspodcast.com