IELTS Writing Part 2 – Punctuation

It is said that good punctuation can add an extra 0.5 to an IELTS writing score. Learn how to use more than .  (full stop) and , (comma).

A good writer uses punctuation subtly – too much looks strange. The IELTS exam wants to see punctuation, but don’t look for overkill: two or three examples should be sufficient.

An important note on , (commas)

In English, a comma does not usually replace a conjunction (and, but, because). In some languages, such as Chinese, the comma is stronger; when translated into English, however, it often does not work.

I like chicken, it’s delicious. (wrong).

I like chicken because it’s delicious. (OK)

We went to the zoo, I didn’t like it. (wrong)

We went to the zoo but I didn’t like it. (OK)

: (colon)

There are 3 ways a colon could be useful in an IELTS essay:

(i) to start a list
(ii) to give an extended example
(iii) instead of ‘because’

(i) to start a list

Dave likes many types of ice cream: strawberry, chocolate, vanilla, mint, and anything made by Haagen-Daz.

There are many reasons why a teacher should not wear a uniform: it makes no difference to the quality of teaching; it allows the teacher to appear less authoritarian; and, most importantly, it is irrelevant to the quality of teaching.

(ii) to give an extended example

Dave is certainly the worst member of staff at the company: last week, for instance, he forgot to bring the notes to the merger meeting and then had to run back across town while all the bosses waited for him.

Even outside global war modern super states have a habit of becoming involved in disputes overseas: the American efforts in Vietnam and Korea, for instance, were long costly affairs fought on the turf of others (and the US continues to be involved in a great deal of brokering and arbitration), while the Russians and Chinese have also recently found their politicians and forces at odds with neighbours.

(iii) instead of ‘because’

With 5 minutes to go before the dinner guests arrived, Dave had to throw the food in the bin: the cat had been eating it.

On the matter of whether schools should be free to hire whoever they wish, I personally do not think qualifications necessarily make for a good teacher: it is more important to be engaging and inspire the will to learn than to amass certificates.

Note: colons can also be used to introduce long quotes, but it is unlikely you will have quotes in your head ready for an IELTS exam. 

; (semi-colon)

The two most obvious ways a semi-colon can appear in a piece of writing:

(i) a semi-colon is most creatively used to connect two related ideas. It is an alternative to making two shorter sentences, or using more conjunctions.
(ii) it is also used to separate long items in a list.

(i) connecting related ideas

Dave looked at the meal, and how pleased the guests appeared to be; there seemed to be no suspicion that he had ordered it from the takeaway across the street.

Whilst the call from some for increased technology in schools has grown louder, there are others that take a more traditionalist approach to the matter of learning, believing textbooks and paper have yet to have their day; it is also of interest that a large percentage of these voices can be heard from within the teaching profession itself, giving more authority to the claims.

(ii) longer items in a list

The smell of the garden reminded Dave of his childhood: the pine musk in the wind just as it was back home when he had crawled in the branches of the trees; a whisper of slightly salted air drifting across the lawn; the manure spread in the adjacent field.

Overseas experience can provide an employee with several advantages: increased language capability, not only in the visited nations but in their geographical neighbours; a wider perspective on the logistics of globalisation and how it affects trade (and thus the company’s own position in this system); international contacts that can aid in expansion and creative ideas; and even the potential personal growth in independence and consideration that can be catalysed by leaving a comfort zone.

( ) (parentheses)

Parentheses (also called brackets) are a good way to add more information about a subject.

(i) Putting parentheses directly after a subject allows more information on that subject.
(ii) They can also be used to add more information about an entire clause or sentence. In this case they are put at the end.

Note: if the parentheses and contents are removed, the sentence should still make sense.

(i) after a subject

Dave (who had not thought about owning a pet since his dog Invincible died two decades earlier) was surprised to come home and find a puppy waiting for him on the doorstep.

The Falklands War (for which Britain sent its navy halfway around the world to undertake warfare with Argentina) is perhaps the best indicator of how the fate of the Chagos Islands has been abandoned by the government, for this is a similarly sized set of islands who were in crisis at approximately the same time, and yet received very different treatment.

(ii) after an entire clause or sentence

Last week, despite the rain, Dave headed out to the zoo to look at the monkeys (it was better, he thought, to be out-and-about than stuck inside, even if it meant getting wet).

GDP is undoubtedly a flawed concept when it comes to judging the standard of living within a nation, because it does not measure how fairly the money is distributed, nor even how the money is being acquired (indeed, theoretically three computers on a rock constantly transferring money to each other could raise the GDP without altering the rock itself).

– – (dashes)

Dashes are a very useful tool and are often used by good writers. They work by pausing the sentence, adding more information, and then restarting the sentence.

Note: if the dashes and contents are removed, the sentence should still make sense. 

pausing a sentence

Dave picked up the bottle of whisky – it had been a long day, filled with heartbreak and angst – and poured himself half a glass.

Certainly teaching sciences and other technical subjects can improve a country’s level of innovation – one need only look at how the Enlightenment and subsequent Industrial Revolution moved Britain to a position of global dominance – yet there must also be room for artistic expression, not only because it adds a level of pleasure to living, but also because it can help create the imaginative minds who can inspire and use invention.