You are NOT a staff!

I am a staff at the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

Although you will occasionally find an example of staff as a countable noun, it is extremely rare.

Used as an uncountable noun, staff refers to people who work for a particular organisation:

  • Staff at the Ministry of Religious Affairs receive a competitive salary.

Used as a countable noun, a staff is a kind of stick with certain features and functions:

  • often very long – longer than its user is tall
  • usually made of wood
  • usually quite ornate, possibly hand-crafted
  • used by someone with special powers, for example a wizard
  • often used in specialised fighting, like kung fu
  • otherwise used to assist in walking (elderly people, etc)

For example:

  • He used his staff to scare away evil spirits and then used it to turn my horse into a brand new Ferrari. I noticed the staff also helped him to walk!

In the context of your writing one of these meanings, staff countable / staff uncountable, will probably be more obvious than the other. However, if you want a high score in IELTS for vocabulary, I suggest you choose the most appropriate meaning!

If you really must use a countable noun, you can do this:

  • I am a member of staff at the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

‘That’ and ‘V3’ in noun phrases

The table shows the percentage of money that allocated by people in different countries for different reasons in 2002.

Indonesian flag Here an Indonesian student has made a noun phrase based on ‘yang di alokasikan‘. A grammar error has affected her IELTS score, but this could have been avoided using more sophisticated – and easy-to-learn – vocabulary.

Improved grammar

  • The table shows the percentage of money that was allocated by people in different countries for different reasons in 2002.

Here I added ‘to be‘ before the V3 to produce a correct passive. However, a native speaker would probably choose more sophisticated vocabulary:

Improved vocabulary

  • The table shows the percentage of money allocated by people in different countries for different reasons in 2002.

Here, instead of the ugly passive structure, which Indonesians always get wrong, I made a nominal group that contains the following elements all joined together:

  • the percentage..
  • of money (preposition phrase)
  • allocated by people (V3 phrase)
  • in different countries (preposition phrase)
  • for different reasons (preposition phrase)
  • in 2012 (preposition phrase)

Other elements are possible in nominal groups, but these are common. I will come back to nominal groups in future posts (for example here) as problems experienced by my current class arise.

Note that there is no ‘that’ in the V3 phrase (Indonesian ‘yang’). And BTW ‘V3 phrase’ is not its official name, but it’s much easier to remember than the official name (which I will keep secret for now..).

Stating subjects in IELTS Task 1

Americans rose steadily, while Indonesians fell dramatically.

Well, maybe. Something like this?

USD_IDR

With a sentence like the one above you are unlikely to communicate anything meaningful about a graph, table or chart. If there was a rise or a fall, then you need to state precisely what it was that rose and what it was that fell – What is the subject?

For example:

divorce rate

  • The divorce rate in America rose steadily, while the divorce rate in Indonesia fell dramatically.

Here there are 2 subjects:

  1. the divorce rate in America
  2. the divorce rate in Indonesia

Some of you will complain about the repetition in this sentence (‘the divorce rate‘). However, it’s better to repeat words and phrases and communicate something meaningful than to avoid repetition and communicate nothing.

Actually in this example repetition can be avoided:

  • The divorce rate in America rose steadily, while that in Indonesia fell dramatically.

* Many thanks to Diro, Nando and Ari for the ‘falling Indonesians’ photo – You guys rock! 🙂

Nothing ‘needs’ high cost

Studying abroad needs high cost!

Indonesian flag This one does not translate directly from Indonesian. In fact the meaning changes dramatically!

In English if you say something ‘needs high cost‘ then you are saying:

  • It is better if this thing is expensive!
  • If it is not expensive I’m not interested!
  • Indonesian flag I am ‘gengsi’!

This is like the king who is building a palace that is bigger and better than all of the other palaces owned by all of the other kings.

High cost‘ is used in English as part of a longer noun phrase:

  • the high cost of living
  • high cost housing
  • cheap clothing’s high cost

The preposition phrase (‘of blah blah’) is probably the most common:

  • the high cost of studying abroad

If you are writing about the cost of studying abroad then you might say:

  • The high cost of studying abroad needs to be taken into consideration. Studying abroad is expensive.

The price is expensive (2)

The price of natural pearls is more expensive than the price of man made pearls.

Indonesian flag This is an Indonesian student translating ‘harganya mahal‘!

We see what you mean. But in IELTS if you want a better score for vocabulary (LR)1, and if you want to be more accurate with meaning (FC, TA, TR, CC)1, then you need better collocation (LR)1.

First of all ‘price‘ can be ‘high‘ or ‘low‘:

  • The price of natural pearls is higher than the price of man made pearls.

Products and services, meanwhile, can be ‘cheap’ or ‘expensive’:

  • Natural pearls are more expensive than man made pearls.

We can use the same collocation to talk about this bottle of wine:

price

  • Penfolds Grange Hermitage 1951 is very expensive. Only a rich person can afford to pay such a high price for wine!

If you say the price is expensive, strictly speaking you are saying that a sequence of numbers (in this case $38,420) is expensive! The wine is expensive, not the numbers!

Here’s a song illustrating common collocations involving ‘price’.

(See IELTS public band descriptors)

Being trendy without ‘trend’

In general, all the lines show that there is an increasing trend of people with bronchitis.

When students are preparing for IELTS Task 1 writing they learn the importance of describing ‘trends’ in graphs, tables and charts. Not surprisingly, they go ahead and use the word ‘trend’ to describe these trends. But native speakers almost never do that.

In the opening example a trend is described, but the word ‘trend’ is redundant. It is enough to write:

  • In general, all the lines show that the incidence of bronchitis is increasing.

This kind of statement stands out as ‘a trend’ because it says something general about a change over time without mentioning data.

So here’s your checklist for a trend:

  1. It is expressed as a sentence
  2. It does not feature the word ‘trend
  3. It says something general without mentioning values from the graph, table or chart
  4. It describes a change over time
  5. The thing that is affected by change is named specifically (‘incidence‘).

Understand also, that a trend is often ‘hidden’ in data that is highly irregular. In the following graph grammatical accuracy goes up and down erratically over time, but the general trend (shown by the straight line) is downward.

trends

The ‘trend’ in this graph can be described:

The more frequently the word ‘trend’ is used, the less accurate the writing.

Reaching a peak in IELTS Task 1

In general, the 6pm news reached its peak for almost 5 million viewers per day in the first month.

This is actually quite communicative and in IELTS this sentence might give you a satisfactory score for TA. However, the language problems would leave you with a much lower score for GRA and for CC.

  1. It doesn’t make sense to signal this statement ‘In general‘, because it’s not general. It features data values taken from the x and y axes of the graph. Better to put this information in the detail section of your essay and signal it “In detail,“.
  2. You need to treat ‘reach a peak‘ as a phrasal verb. If you want to change the tense – and the tense will most likely be past simple tense – then you can modify ‘reach‘ (past: ‘reached a peak‘). Otherwise don’t mess with ‘a‘ and don’t mess with ‘peak‘.
  3. The preposition ‘for‘ is not right.

So, if you really are making a general statement, do this:

  • In general, the popularity of the 6pm news reached a peak in the first month.

If you want to mention detail, then do this:

  • In detail, the 6pm news reached a peak of almost 5 million viewers per day in the first month.

Pay careful attention to this pattern:

something + reached a peak (+ of + value x) (+ time expression)

If you don’t believe me, check out these examples!

And whatever you do, don’t write ‘reached the peak‘! That applies to climbers only, where ‘the‘ refers to the mountain that they happen to be climbing at the time!

Children living behind the bar

Famous people are followed everywhere by the press. Their families sometimes feel they have to hide from reporters, and the children of famous people may feel that they are living behind the bar.

Here, again, we have a breakdown in communication caused by inaccurate use of articles.

Remember that for any noun there are 3 possible meanings:

  • all of them everywhere (or all of it for non-count nouns)
  • one of many (or some of many for plurals)
  • this one exactly (or these exactly for plurals)

I think the writer of the opening example meant to describe the bars in a prison, and was trying to use the idiom ‘behind bars‘ (grammar = some of many).

  • the‘ indicates this one exactly. If you are talking idiomatically about a prison window then that doesn’t look right. If there’s only one bar and unless it’s a very small window – or a very large bar – then the prisoner will be able to escape easily!
  • Meanwhile ‘the bar‘ has very strong connotations with the part of a pub or restaurant where people sit to drink alcohol. Add ‘behind‘ and you get ‘behind the bar‘ – the area where drinks are stored and where the bar staff prepare drinks for customers. Clearly this is not a suitable place for children!

behind the bar

I’m pretty sure the writer meant something like this:

  • Famous people are followed everywhere by the press. Their families sometimes feel they have to hide from reporters, and the children of famous people may feel that they are living behind bars.

Now the text carries two correct meanings:

  1. The ‘s‘ on ‘bars‘ gives us the grammatical meaning some of many – so, more than one bar. (high score in IELTS writing for grammar)
  2. behind bars‘ is an idiom – we don’t imagine the children actually in prison, they’re just ‘trapped‘ somehow, or their movements are restricted. (high score in IELTS writing for vocabulary)

Be careful with your meanings and choose articles (or ‘s‘) with care!

Use ‘it’ with care

People who live in remote areas sometimes have limited access to the things they want to buy. Since it cannot be provided by retail shops, online shopping may be the solution.

To make your writing ‘flow’ so that pieces of information connect together well, use ‘itonly when ‘it‘ refers back to the subject of the previous sentence.

When you use ‘it’ then the subject will be either singular countable or uncountable:

  • My watch was expensive. It is a gold watch. I love it.
  • Beer is delicious. It is also expensive. I love it.

In the opening example the reader searches for but cannot find a subject to match ‘it‘. For a start, all of the nouns are plural!

After re-reading the text two or three times we see you are using ‘it‘ to refer to ‘the things people want to buy‘, which is rather confusing since ‘the things people want to buy‘ is not the subject of the previous sentence and it is neither singular countable nor uncountable.

This kind of mismatch interrupts the flow of information in the text and brings down your score for coherence and cohesion in IELTS writing, as well as your score for fluency in IELTS speaking.

In order to maintain ‘flow’ in the online shopping example, you need to do this:

  • People who live in remote areas sometimes have limited access to the things they want to buy. Since the things that people who live in remote areas want to buy cannot be provided by retail shops, online shopping may be the solution.

And for even better flow you can remind your reader about the context of those retail shops. After all, you’re not talking about retail shops in the middle of a large city, are you?

  • People who live in remote areas sometimes have limited access to the things they want to buy. Since the things that people who live in remote areas want to buy cannot be provided by retail shops in those areas, online shopping may be the solution.

Students often complain, “..but now there’s a lot of repetition!”

Perhaps, but your first priority is to communicate effectively. If the only way to achieve this is by repeating a few words, then you MUST repeat them.

And remember – ‘it‘ refers back to the subject of the previous sentence. Do not make the following mistake:

If your dog poos..