One family

I have one wife, one child, one cat and one dog.

In the IELTS speaking test candidates often mention their families when talking about their homes. Sometimes they do this to justify only having a small home, or maybe they want to explain why they chose to live in a particular area.

But in any situation when you offer information about your family, your listener will make certain assumptions, in particular about numbers, and if the number is one then this is often best communicated without using the word ‘one’. Continue reading

Lost in translation


The sentences below demonstrate some common misuses of English.

A flag (Indonesian flag) at the end of an example indicates that meaning has become distorted or even lost in translation from Bahasa Indonesia to English.

Clicking on opens posts that describe these problems in detail. Many such posts include activities to practice correct language use.

Continue reading

Commoners turn from opera to Oprah!

Common people watch television every night for six hours.

I don’t think the writer intended to be so negative, or worse – insulting! Let’s explore the meaning of common, first of all by looking inside an opera house.

Opera house

Seating inside a typical opera house

Some seats in opera houses have always been more expensive than others. The cheapest seats are in ‘The Stalls’ or in ‘The Gods’, because in these areas the view of the stage is limited. Wealthier people can afford to pay for a private ‘box’, and they get a better view. The best view, meanwhile, is from the ‘Royal Box’. Continue reading

Youths or young people?

These days youths are more challenged by the future because making decisions about the future is not easy.

This is grammatically correct but inappropriate.

The countable noun youth tends to have negative connotations, especially when it’s plural or part of the lexical phrase the youth of today:

  • Youths at football matches often cause trouble.
  • The youth of today have no respect for others.

Youths are troublemakers, at that awkward age between childhood and adulthood when they rebel against authority and indulge in sex, drugs and rock and roll, often with negative consequences. Youths hang around town in gangs and old ladies are afraid of them.

'Youths' in a residential area
Youths in a residential area

Most of the time in IELTS Task 2 essays you want to maintain a more positive – or at least neutral – attitude to young people, and so it’s probably best to refer to them as exactly that – young people!

  • These days young people are more challenged by the future because making decisions about the future is not easy.

Another option for IELTS writing would be:

  • These days the younger generation are more challenged by the future because making decisions about the future is not easy.
'Young people'
Clean living young people facing the future
as responsible members of society!

In IELTS Task 2 you also often want to make a prediction about how a situation may affect young people in the future. In this case you are talking about future generations:

  • Global warming is a problem that governments need to solve for the sake of future generations.
  • Future generations will prosper as long as they follow a healthy lifestyle.

Notice that we assume there will be more than one future generation and if we’re generalising then there is no article (the).

My yard is wide

Of course I love my house. It has a yard. Actually it’s not a very wide yard.

Indonesian flag Here an Indonesian candidate is translating ‘luas’ (lit. ‘wide’).

In English, ‘wide’ is one of several dimensions (including ‘long’, ‘deep’, etc.), and doesn’t really communicate the idea of overall size.  If you tell me your yard is wide, I immediately want to know whether it is long. Then I might be able to decide whether it is big or small. For example, a yard might be 10m ‘wide’, but only 10cm ‘long’.

To communicate the idea of overall size – when speaking about the land next to or between buildings – it would be better to say:

  • Of course I love my house. It has a yard. Actually it’s not a very big yard.

More academic synonyms for ‘big’ might include ‘spacious’, ‘expansive’.

Labouring over ‘labourers’

Some people claim that working hours for labours in factories are too long.

Indonesian flag Here an Indonesian student is trying to find a synonym for ‘worker‘. Unfortunately the hierarchy of ‘work‘ is labelled differently in English.

In English a ‘labourer‘ (‘labour‘ + ‘er‘) does work that distinguish him or her from other kinds of worker:

  • Labourers are usually unskilled.
  • Labourers often have to use physical strength because their work requires them to lift and carry things.
  • The work of labourers is generally outdoor work.
  • Labouring is often dirty work.
  • Labouring is not very well paid in most countries.

Here are some pictures of ‘labourers.

If you want to use a synonym for ‘worker’ then try to consider:

  • where the work takes place
  • the level of skill involved
  • the salary it attracts

These considerations will lead you to a more accurate label for the work you are talking or writing about. In IELTS a more accurate label is also likely to get you a higher score for Lexical Resource (vocabulary).

This dictionary entry offers a wide selection of labels for different kinds of work.

Other word forms and idioms

Labourer – the person (countable)

Labour – noun (uncountable, abstract meaning)

Labour – verb

Laborious – adjective (Sometimes skilled work can be ‘laborious’, especially if it requires physical effort or is repetitive).

Hard labour – A form of punishment used by tyrannical governments, often for political prisoners. If my work feels like hard labour, it’s very hard work!

In labour – Giving birth!

Labour over something – Work extra hard at a task.

Humans are usually redundant

In conclusion, long working hours are necessary for human beings.

Indonesian flag I’m guessing this may be a cultural issue.

Let’s try a quick test. Which of the following sentences is NOT about working hours and humans?

  1. Long working hours are necessary for human beings.
  2. Long working hours are necessary.
  3. Long working hours are necessary for ants.

Hopefully you chose number 3. In any discussion of working hours, and indeed of many other topics, we’re usually talking about human beings, unless otherwise specified.

The only time we really need to mention humans is when we’re contrasting them with non-humans!