I run an IELTS writing correction service, which means that every day I mark 5-10 essays by IELTS students from all around the world. This means that I have become very familiar with the common grammar mistakes people make when trying to write essays for task 1 and task 2 of the exam. As part of my service, I correct their errors and then try to explain why they were wrong. As such, I have decided that I should post this article for that same purpose – telling you the most common grammar errors for IELTS and how to fix them.
There are lots of mistakes that are regularly made, so this is just a partial list, but it covers the ones that I think are most important. If you have anything else you want to know about, you can leave a comment below the article.
One of the most common grammatical errors in the IELTS writing test is subject-verb disagreement. Although there are some mistakes that native speakers make, this is not really one of them and so it stands out very clearly. An examiner would immediately notice this error and it would certainly be considered a major one.
Subject-verb disagreement means when your subject (a noun or pronoun) is not in the right form to match your verb. Or, perhaps it is more logical to say it the other way around because the subject comes first. In any case, it would look like this:
- The man walk his dog.
What is wrong with that sentence? Hopefully, you can see that we have a singular noun (the man) and a verb that should match with a plural noun (walk). Either of the two following sentences would be correct:
- The man walks his dog.
- The men walk their dogs.
This is only really a problem with certain tenses such as the present simple because for others, like past simple, we do not change the form of the verb according to the number of the subject. We can say either of these:
- The man walked his dog.
- The men walked their dogs.
You can see that the verb is the same in each case. However, you have to be careful with auxiliary verbs because these do change while the main verb does not:
- The man has walked his dog.
- The men have walked their dogs.
One final thing to consider is that it can be more confusing when there are multiple subjects or there are other words in between the subject and verb. In such cases, you have to think very carefully:
- The man that lives in the house next door walks his dog every morning.
- The men that live in the house next door walk their dogs every morning.
There is now a clause in between subject and verb but the rules still apply. You must make sure that they match, so pay close attention.
Misuse of Articles (a/an/the)
One of the biggest troubles that people face when learning English is using articles, and this is made worse depending on your native language. For example, people who speak Russian as their first language often struggle badly with articles compared to other learners. However, whatever your native tongue, you should make sure to learn the rules of article use in English.
Firstly, it’s important to note that there are three different articles: a, an, and the. Of course, those first two are just variants on the same one. We only use “an” as a replacement for “a” when it appears before a word starting with a vowel sound.
Articles are used before nouns (or before the adjective that modifies a noun) but there is an essential difference:
- a/an is used before one of various possible nouns
- the is used when we know exactly what noun it is
Let’s take a look at an example to understand it better:
- The man read the book.
- A man read a book.
In these examples, we have basically the same sentence but with different articles. In the first case, both the reader and writer know who the man is and what the book is. (We can imagine they both see the man and the book, or maybe they were mentioned previously in a piece of writing.) In the second one, we don’t know who the man is or which book is being read.
You can see, then, that we use the definite article (the) to refer to things that we know. In some cases, both speaker and listener can see the thing, or in a piece of writing the writer has already introduced it. We also use this when there is no mistaking what is being referred to.
Interestingly, we always say “the sea” and “the moon” even though there are many seas and thousands of moons in the universe. However, we think of “the sea” as one big entity and we all know which moon is being talked about.
We use the indefinite article when we don’t know exactly what is being referred to because it is one of several or many possible things. For example, I would say, “I saw a stray dog yesterday.” This is because there are many stray dogs in the world. We would only say, “I saw the stray dog” if both people knew which dog was being talked about.
You can find out more about articles in these links:
Incorrect Verb Tense
English is difficult to learn in part because we have so many tenses. In fact, it is probably the most complex language in the world when it comes to reflecting the time when an action happened.
People often think of tense as past, present, and future, but for each of those we also have the simple, continuous, perfect, and perfect-continuous tenses. Then, of course, we have passive and active voices to consider, which change the tense use again! As I mentioned above, sometimes the verb needs to change form because of the subject… 😒
Unfortunately, every English learner has to learn and practice using our 12 verb tenses. This is a long and difficult process, but it’s made easier by the fact that not all of them are used equally. In fact, the majority of our language is made up of just three of those tenses: present simple, past simple, and present perfect. If you can use these easily, you should be able to get by in English quite well.
Written language is a little different because it is more formal than spoken language. As for IELTS, we also have certain quirks that regular language doesn’t. Still, the chances of you needing to use future perfect, future continuous, or future perfect-continuous are pretty slim. As such, you can spend far less time on these tenses than the more common ones.
It is pretty common to see IELTS writing candidates misuse tenses in their essays. This can happen in so many different ways, but we often see a tense clash with other words in the sentence. For example:
WRONG: People are interested in climate change since Al Gore’s 2006 movie, An Inconvenient Truth.
CORRECT: People have been interested in climate change since Al Gore’s 2006 movie, An Inconvenient Truth.
Here, the word “since” tells us that the verb “interest” has taken place over a period of time and until the present moment. As such, we need to use the present perfect tense. We also need to take into consideration that the subject is “people” and so we use “have” instead of “has.” (See the subject-verb disagreement section above for more information.)
You can find out everything you need to know about verb tense in my book, Grammar for IELTS Writing:
Some people, like Shelly Cornick at My IELTS Classroom, think that punctuation is not massively important for IELTS. Let me qualify that for a moment so that I don’t misrepresent her. She says in her book, An Ex-Examiner’s Guide to the IELTS Band Descriptors,
…it is rare for punctuation to have a really detrimental effect on a student’s score but, when it does, it is usually because a student has tried to add TOO MUCH punctuation rather than too little.
Shelly is an expert on IELTS and I respect her hugely as a teacher. But I do think that this understates the importance of punctuation.
It’s true that most native speakers know little about punctuation. I even read books by major publishers that have misused commas and semi-colons! However, as an IELTS candidate, you do need to be able to master the basics of punctuation if you want to get a decent score. Shelly points out in her book that having run-on sentences in your essay will make it unlikely that you get higher than a band 6 for Grammatical Range and Accuracy, which is true.
I have written extensively about punctuation on this blog, most notably in these two articles:
My main point in those two articles is that you don’t need to have a perfect grasp of punctuation in order to score band 7 or higher in terms of GRA. You can certainly make some errors and get a high score. After all, most native speakers don’t realise that it’s wrong to put a comma before the word because (in most cases).
However, please do watch out for major punctuation mistakes like these:
This is where you lack punctuation and your clauses continue where there should be a comma or period. For example:
WRONG: Rising levels of carbon dioxide in the air will ultimately cause the polar ice caps to melt this should be prevented by passing laws to punish offenders.
CORRECT: Rising levels of carbon dioxide in the air will ultimately cause the polar ice caps to melt, and this should be prevented by passing laws to punish offenders.
CORRECT: Rising levels of carbon dioxide in the air will ultimately cause the polar ice caps to melt. This should be prevented by passing laws to punish offenders.
One of the biggest and most obvious punctuation mistakes IELTS students make is the sentence fragment. This is when you have just one dependent clause by itself. These should be joined with other clauses to make complex sentences:
WRONG: Because governments have not yet taken sufficient action on the matter.
CORRECT: The problem has gotten worse because governments have not yet taken sufficient action on the matter.
Note that dependent clauses can be recognised by their subordinating conjunction. Common subordinating conjunctions include: because, while, if, although, even if, until, etc. When you see one of these begin a sentence, you must ask, “How many clauses are there?” If the answer is “one,” then you have a problem.
To avoid this serious error, make sure you know all about sentence types. I have an article about it here and it is also included in this video:
Other Comma Issues
As Shelly noted, some comma errors are so common and minor that they will probably not even affect your score. I think that most native speakers would struggle to write a paragraph without misusing a comma! However, I will outline some comma mistakes that are worth considering.
First of all, when you have relative clauses, you need to use commas to show whether the information in the clause is essential or non-essential. When it is essential the meaning of the sentence, you should not use a comma, but when it is just extra information, you should use commas around the clause. For example:
WRONG: Copyright theft which is a crime in most countries is still incredibly common around the world.
CORRECT: Copyright theft, which is a crime in most countries, is still incredibly common around the world.
What is the problem here? Well, in the first sentence, the information in the relative clause is not essential to understand the whole sentence. It does not, in other words, define the subject (copyright theft). As such, we can put it in commas. This may seem a minor point, but it does actually change the meaning of a sentence in some cases, and so accuracy is important.
We also need to consider the type of sentence and the order of clauses. When using a complex sentence (which are important for IELTS), we should remember these formulae:
DEPENDENT CLAUSE + COMMA + INDEPENDENT CLAUSE
INDEPENDENT CLAUSE + DEPENDENT CLAUSE
In other words, when the dependent clause comes first, it should be followed by a comma. If there is an independent clause first, there should be no comma. As I mentioned in the “sentence fragment” section above, we can identify dependent clauses by the word that starts them: because, if, when, although, etc. When one of these words comes first, there should be a comma before the next clause. For example:
WRONG: If people don’t act now government spying will become completely normal.
CORRECT: If people don’t act now, government spying will become completely normal.
CORRECT: Government spying will become completely normal if people don’t act now.
To be honest, this sort of mistake would not necessarily cause you to score poorly in your IELTS writing test, but getting it right is important if you are looking to get a very high score. This sort of accuracy and control over your language is essential if you want to get more than band 7.
Another common problem is the issue of word order in a sentence and, in particular, the placement of adverbs. For various reasons, these are often put in the wrong place within a sentence by IELTS candidates. Sometimes it is a matter of direct language translation, meaning that the candidate has thought of a sentence in his/her own language and attempted to put it directly into English. We see this very often among European students, whose languages are close to English.
Explaining word order is difficult because there are so many rules and variables. However, I will attempt to show you a typical problem:
WRONG: I believe that the advantages that stem from changing frequently one’s habits outweigh those that come from maintaining the same routine.
CORRECT: I believe that the advantages that stem from frequently changing one’s habits outweigh those that come from maintaining the same routine.
Here, this is just a small change that has been made. The adverb “frequently” has moved from after the verb to before it. To an English speaker, it is very strange to see the adverb after the verb but it is normal in some other languages. Typically, for IELTS writing, short adverbs should be placed in front of the verb or adjective:
- quickly increase
- rapidly decrease
- readily available
However, there are cases when the adverb can come at different points in a sentence, such as longer adjective phrases, which often appear at the beginning or end of a sentence:
- Every day, people around the world go hungry.
- People go hungry on a daily basis.
- Charity is something that ought to be done regularly.
Here, the adjectives were every day, on a daily basis, and regularly. You can see how this could be confusing. There is a pretty useful guide to adverb placement here that might be helpful for you.
Note: It is much less common, but we are also quite strict about adjective word order in English. If you want to learn about that, you should take a look here.
Incorrect Preposition Choice
Another big problem among IELTS writing candidates (and speaking candidates) is the incorrect use of prepositions. I actually wrote a long and useful guide to learning these (you can read it here) because it’s such a difficult process.
Think about it: Why do we say “in a car” but “on a bus”? Why do we say “in a hurry” but “on the way”? It is really confusing and native speakers just know it. We honestly can’t explain why most prepositions are used, but we know them from hearing them in context all our lives.
This topic is too vast for me to cover here and the big problem with prepositions is that there are no rules for them. As such, I cannot even explain the rules. You really just have to learn them either in context or in groups according to their function. For example, you can try to remember the prepositions that we use for talking about time:
- We use “at” with the following categories:
- Times of the day
- at one o’clock
- at Christmas
- Times of the day
- “in” is used with in the following situations:
- Months and seasons
- in March
- Years and decades
- in 2018
- in the 1970s
- Centuries and other long periods of time
- in the 1900s
- in the twentieth century
- Parts of the day (more generally than the times
mentioned with “at”)
- in the morning
- Months and seasons
- We use “on” for these situations:
- Days of the week
- on Monday
- on 17th October
- For a part of a particular day
- on Wednesday afternoon
- Days of the week
Still, it is hard to memorise all that information and then to use it accurately when speaking or writing. I find that people who are around native speakers often or who practice every day just get better by hearing prepositions being used.
Problems with Plurals and Countable/Uncountable Nouns
It is quite common to see problems with pluralisation in IELTS writing. For example:
WRONG: Nowadays, it is common to work with people from other country.
CORRECT: Nowadays, it is common to work with people from other countries.
CORRECT: Nowadays, it is common to work with people from another country.
You see, it is important to determine whether the noun should be in singular or plural form. It is easy when you say “one table” and “two tables” but sometimes words are subtly used to indicate a number, such as “other” above. When we say words like “some,” “many,” or “few” then the noun is going to be in plural form.
This sounds pretty easy, but it’s a really common mistake. It’s even more common at the beginning of a sentence, when you use a noun as a subject. When we are talking about things in general, we must always use the plural form unless giving one representative example:
WRONG: Dog is more loyal than cat.
CORRECT: Dogs are more loyal than cats.
CORRECT: A dog is more loyal than a cat.
This can be confusing when we consider that not all nouns actually have a countable form. There are nouns such as “water” that are uncountable. In those cases, we cannot say “Waters are…” Instead, we have to pick the correct form, which is the uncountable form: “Water is…”
This also affects the other words we use. For example, we have to pick carefully between “less” and “fewer.” .” We use “less” to describe uncountable nouns like salt, money, honesty, or love; however, we use “fewer” with countable nouns such as ingredients, dollars, people, or puppies. An easy way to remember this is to ask yourself whether you can count two or three of something. If you can, then you should use fewer:
WRONG: There are two money here. That’s fewer than I expected.
CORRECT: There are two people here. That’s fewer than I expected.
Here’s a visual guide to the difference between “less” and “fewer”:
Ok, folks. That’s enough common grammar mistakes explained for today. I hope that you find these useful in preparing for IELTS. Obviously, this is not a list of all the mistakes that people make… These are just the most common ones that I have found in a collection of more than 1,000 essays. If you have any questions about these, you can e-mail me or post a comment on this site or on my Facebook page. I will try to answer you.
I will finish by mentioning again that I have several books, a writing correction service, and a free writing course that all deal with grammar in some way. Each of these can help you prepare for IELTS by recognising and eliminating errors in your writing.