Don’t forget the whole!

The graph illustrates information about the results of a poll of theatregoers regarding disturbances during theatre performances. In general the 4 most disturbing problems are coughing, rustling sweet papers, whispering and arriving late. Their percentages stand at above 50%.

Thanks to the context setting at the start of the essay, I can see that 50% means 50% of the  theatregoers who took part in the poll. But it’s not immediately obvious and I had to read the opening a second time to make sure I understood what you meant. If a text is difficult to understand then it will receive a low score in IELTS for coherence and cohesion (CC). In the example above it can also affect your score for task achievement (TA), because you don’t really say anything meaningful about ‘50%‘. (See IELTS Task 1 Writing band descriptors)

A good strategy to introduce and develop percentages in IELTS Task 1 can be seen in this extract from an article in The Economist (analysis below):

Data collected by USC Annenberg (University of Southern California) demonstrate that the “hyper-sexualisation” of men in films has increased substantially in less than a decade. Of the 100 top-grossing films at the US box-office in 2007, 4.6% of male characters [1] were seen dressed in “sexualised attire” and 6.6% [2] were shown “with some nudity”. In 2014 those figures stood at 8.0% and 9.1% [3]. 2013 marked the highest point of this trend (the year that “Man of Steel”, featuring Mr Cavill, was released), with 9.7% of male characters [4] shot in sexually alluring clothing, and 11.7% [5] taking some—or all—of their kit off on film.

That said, Mr Cavill and Mr Harington would do well to remember that these figures are paltry when compared to those of actresses. In 2014, 27.9% of female characters [6] wore ‘sexy’ clothing and 26.4% [7] exposed their chests, legs, or other body parts on camera: they are roughly three times more likely to be objectified on screen than men.


What is ‘good’ about this reporting of percentages?

[1] The first percentage is expressed using the following pattern:

x% + of + noun (‘male characters’) + verb (‘were seen dressed..’)

Notice that the reader knows exactly what is meant by ‘male characters thanks to the clear context setting of the opening sentence. Setting a context like this makes your writing coherent. When you use this structure you explicitly state the ‘whole’ – in this case ‘male characters’.

[2] The second percentage obviously also applies to ‘male characters’, and so there is no need to repeat ‘..of male characters’.

[3] ‘Those figures’ signals back to the previous two percentages, which we understand refer to ‘male characters’. Notice the structure:

past time expression (‘In 2014’) + subject (‘those figures’) + ‘stood at‘ + x%

[4] ..follows the structure:

x% + ofnoun (‘male characters’)

[5] is in the same sentence as [4], and so we can assume the figure also refers to ‘male characters’.

[6] ..follows the structure:

x% of + noun (‘female characters’).

We’re not surprised to read ‘female characters’ because this new context was set in the opening sentence of the paragraph. Again, this context setting makes your writing both cohesive and coherent since you explicitly state the whole (now ‘female characters’).

[7] is in the same sentence as [6], and so we can assume the figure also refers to ‘female characters’, which is the new context of this second paragraph.

Whatever you do..

Make sure your first mention of a percentage includes an explicit reference to the whole:

x% of + noun (the whole)

Would anybody like to try and re-write the text about theatregoers to make the ‘50%’ figure mean what it’s supposed to mean? Answers in comments below! 🙂


PS. Another example of what I’m talking about just came to my attention:

Researchers identified 990 fatal shootings in 2015 – more than twice as many as had ever been recorded in a single year by the federal government – and Washington Post data journalists and graphic designers built an interactive, searchable database detailing those incidents.

A team of Washington Post reporters dug into the data and revealed that most of those who died were white men armed with guns who were killed by police in threatening circumstances. But The Post also uncovered some troubling patterns: A quarter of those killed were suicidal or had a history of mental illness. More than 50 of the officers involved had killed before. And while only 9 percent of people killed by police were not armed, unarmed black men were seven times more likely than whites to die by police gunfire.

source: Washington Post

Pronoun substitution and an alternative

When people go to real shops, the goods are visible. They can try clothes on and know what materials were used.

Almost! But..

A personal pronoun at the beginning of a sentence refers back to the subject of the previous sentence, and in this case the subject of the previous sentence is ‘the goods’. ‘When people go to real shops’ is an adverb phrase. So obviously that doesn’t make sense: The goods can try clothes on!?

If you want to use ‘They’ as a substitute for ‘the goods’, that’s tricky but not impossible:

  • When people go to real shops, the goods are visible. They can be touched, and the material from which they were made can be seen and felt.

But that’s probably not what you wanted. You wanted ‘People’ as the subject of the second sentence, right? In that case you simply need to state the subject in the second sentence:

  • When people go to real shops, the goods are visible. People can try clothes on and know what materials were used.

Now you have nice cohesion between the two sentences, with ‘people’ in both sentences. However, to make your writing more coherent you could be more specific about ‘people’:

  • When people go to real shops, the goods are visible. People in real shops can try clothes on and know what materials were used.

And finally to avoid repetition you can do this:

  • When people go to real shops, the goods are visible. Customers in real shops can try clothes on and know what materials were used.

So in fact you didn’t need to use pronoun substitution. Instead the two sentences are glued together (cohesive) thanks to the use of ‘people (who) go to real shops‘ in sentence 1 and ‘customers in real shops‘ in sentence 2.

You could probably also use a synonym for ‘real’ in sentence 2, but I can’t think of one. Can you? Comments below! 🙂


Not that sector, this one!

Agricultural sector is different from economic sector in the way research is conducted.

 First of all in English we tend not to label nouns as much as you do in Bahasa Indonesia. An easy example is colours. In English when we mention colours, it isn’t necessary to use the word ‘colour’:

  • Saya suka warna merah.
  • I like blue.

Therefore our opening example could easily be written:

  • Agriculture is different from economics in the way research is conducted.

However, if you must use the word ‘sector’, and if you are talking about specific sectors, then you need to communicate this one exactly:

  • The agricultural sector is different from the economic sector in the way research is conducted.

If you do not use ‘the’ when you mean this one exactly then you will receive a low score in IELTS for grammar and for coherence and cohesion. If you do not use ‘the’ when you mean this one exactly then your reader will stop reading and think “Does he mean this one exactly, or does he mean one of many, or does he mean all of them everywhere?” You must communicate one of these meanings if you want to be understood clearly.

If you want to communicate one of many then you need to use ‘a’:

  • Agriculture is a sector that requires different research approaches.
    (This implies that, in addition to agriculture, there are other sectors, like education, which also require different research approaches.)

If you want to communicate all of them everywhere then you need to use ‘s’:

  • Government sectors include health, education, agriculture and economics.


‘It’ or ‘this’? Theme or rheme?

The government has just removed fuel subsidies. It means that the price of basic goods will surely go up.

It’s sometimes useful to think of a sentence as having a theme (in this case ‘The government’) and a rheme (‘has just removed fuel subsidies’).

When you want to refer back to the theme, use a pronoun:

  • The government has just removed fuel subsidies. They felt that the fuel subsidies were not economically sustainable.

When you want to refer back to the rheme, use ‘this’ or ‘these’:

  • The government has just removed fuel subsidies. This means that the price of basic goods will surely go up.

Choosing the right referencing word (‘it’ or ‘this’) will make your writing more coherent (easier to understand). If you are preparing for IELTS, the right choice of referencing word will give you a higher score for coherence and cohesion (see IELTS public band descriptors for writing task 1, writing task 2, and speaking).


I am easy / difficult

Easy and difficult are sometimes difficult to use for Indonesian native speakers.

I am difficult to understand grammar.
Using a dictionary makes me easy to understand English.

If you say these in an IELTS interview, the examiner will understand you but you will get a low score for grammar. For a higher score, use the following:

  • I find it easy/difficult to understand grammar.
  • Using a dictionary makes it easy for me to understand English.
  • Smoke from my neighbour’s garden makes it difficult for me to breathe.

These last two examples will increase your IELTS scores for vocabulary as well as grammar. They include strong collocation as well as structural sophistication. At the same time, if you speak and write like this then the examiner will find it easier to understand you.

image You need to be very careful with the following:

I am difficult to understand.

This means that other people find it difficult to understand you, perhaps because you are talking and at the same time eating rendang yang kurang empuk (under-cooked beef), or because your neighbour is playing loud dangdut music and nobody can hear you.

I am difficult.

This means that you are an ‘orang susah’.

I’m easy.

This can mean that you are kind of ‘polos’, for example if you are in a restaurant, and perhaps in a hurry, and your friend asks you what you want to eat, you might say “I’m easy,” meaning “Apa saja!” (“Whatever..”)