IELTS is a test of your English skills, but unfortunately most people seem to think that it is more like a computer game. You cannot fool the examiner by using a few “magic words,” no matter what some wannabe teacher on YouTube says.

One of the problems that emerges from this situation is the use of “IELTS phrases” or “IELTS words.” As a test of English, there should be no such thing because any word from the Oxford English Dictionary should be valid; however, there are some words that are grossly overused or misused.

One of my first posts on this website (4 years ago! 😵) was all about phrases to avoid. I wrote that post because my Chinese students kept repeating the same things over and over. When I told them not to use the same language, they argued, “But our Chinese teacher told us this would guarantee a band 8!”

Though this sounds ridiculous, it is a very common attitude. In this article, I am going to explain some of the words and phrases that you should STOP using in IELTS and I will tell you a few reasons why.

Words That IELTS Candidates Usually Misuse

I run an IELTS writing correction service and so I read many IELTS essays each day. Here are some of the most commonly misused words.


The word “demerit” is really, really uncommon in daily English, but for some reason it is common in IELTS. A quick look on Google shows an obvious cause:

bad ielts teacher

As with most widespread IELTS errors, this one has been caused by a non-native speaker of English who is acting in the role of an expert. There are countless videos and articles online by people who do not speak English perfectly. They often find a word that they recommend, but unfortunately this leads to big problems for the people who follow them.

The word “demerit” is frequently used as a synonym of “disadvantage” and so some students write long task 2 essays about the “merits and demerits” of something. This is just not correct.

Aside from not being a perfect synonym, it is a very old-fashioned word that is no longer in use, as you can see:

It is also a word with another meaning. In American English, it means something like “a deduction against a total score.” Because of this, using it in an essay can lead to great confusion.

I posted this mini lesson on my Facebook page a few days ago. It can help you to understand the problem better:


I know that I talk about too much, but please STOP saying “plethora.” It is  a really, really annoying word for IELTS teachers and examiners. A woman used it in a popular but terrible YouTube video several years ago and unfortunately she got millions of views. This is bad because:

  1. She does not know how to use the word
  2. She cannot even say it properly

As such, she has influenced 3,000,000 people to use the word incorrectly! Can you imagine a teacher having such a bad influence on her students? It is shocking to me.

Alas, I see this at least twice a week now. People often say things like, “I have plethora hobbies.” It is completely wrong.

In fact, by now I would say just avoid this word entirely. Even if you used it perfectly, the examiner would know that you are just copying vocabulary from the internet. That is not how language should be used.


I think that almost every IELTS candidate knows that the word “increase” means “to go up.” However, it is very commonly misused as well.

This word is a little different from the others I have mentioned because it is definitely ok to keep using “increase.” Still, you need to think more carefully about how you use it.

The basic problem, as you can see from this mini lesson, is that not everything can actually increase. Look at this example:

  • In the first two years, housing increased by fifty percent.

This is not right because housing is not a numeric value. It cannot increase or decrease. However, we could easily change that:

  • In the first two years, the number of houses increased by fifty percent.

Now we have fixed it. This is something you should think very carefully about when you attempt to sit task 1 of the IELTS writing test.

Individuals and Citizens

In IELTS, it is pretty common to say the word “people.” For this reason, many candidates tend to look for synonyms. This is good because English speakers really dislike repetition.

However, a problem that emerges is the incorrect use of “individuals” and “citizens.” These are not perfect synonyms for “people” because they each have slightly different meanings.

The word “individuals” can certainly refer to people, but it refers to them not as a group but as individuals – ie individual people. Thus, you must be careful when using it.

“Citizens” really refers more to the people who live in a certain place, when taken from a legal aspect.

Other Words and Phrases to Avoid in IELTS

The above are just some of the words you should avoid (or carefully use) in IELTS. Generally, I recommend steering clear of all IELTS cliches. These differ from country to country, but they include things like:

  • With the development of…
  • It is said by some that…
  • Every coin has two sides…
  • Broaden (one’s) horizons…
  • It cannot be denied…

Basically, avoid any memorised phrases. If a teacher every tells you, “You should use this phrase!” then it is a warning sign that (1) you have a bad teacher, and (2) this is a bad phrase to use.