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:


  • 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.


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..

Close to edge(?!)

Many countries are spending a lot of money on space exploration in order to reach edge of the universe.

Unfortunately in English nouns usually need some grammar in front of them in order to answer at least one of the following questions:

  • Which one(s)?
  • Whose?
  • How many?

So let’s apply these questions to each of the five nouns in our example and make sure we have the right grammar in front of the noun. Here’s the example with the nouns highlighted:

Many countries are spending a lot of money on space exploration in order to reach edge of the universe.
  1. countries
    1. Which ones? – It doesn’t matter.
    2. Whose? – Doesn’t matter.
    3. How many? – ‘many’ answers this question. The number is not exact, but it doesn’t need to be exact. It’s enough to know that more than one country is being referred to.

So far, so good!

  1. money
    1. Which? – It doesn’t matter.
    2. Whose? – We can assume the money is being spent by the ‘countries’.
    3. How much? – ‘a lot of’ serves the same function as ‘many’.
  2. exploration
    1. Which? We don’t need any grammar to tell us which ‘exploration’. The word ‘space’ already answers that question. We know that it’s ‘space exploration’, and NOT ‘jungle exploration’ or ‘ocean exploration’.
    2. Whose? – We can assume the countries.
    3. How much? – Not important at this stage.
  3. edge
    1. Which one? – There is some text immediately after ‘edge’ that tells us exactly which edge – the edge of the universe (NOT the edge of the table). However, if it’s clear to both writer and reader exactly which noun is being referred to then in English we have to use the definite article ‘the’ in front of the noun. This was the grammatical error in the sentence – a missing ‘the’: the edge of the universe.
    2. Whose? – Irrelevant.
    3. How many? – Also irrelevant.
  4. universe
    1. Which one? – This is a special use of ‘the’ to tell us which one – when there is only one in the writer and reader’s shared context of reference! (Like the moon, the kitchen, etc.)
    2. Whose? – Irrelevant, although it would make for an interesting philosophical discussion!
    3. How many? – Irrelevant, but also interesting from a scientific / philosophical perspective!
Indonesian flag Indonesian students are generally clear about whose and how many. However, they often forget to use articles to communicate which one(s).

Note that when a noun is followed by a preposition phrase (e.g. of the universe), that phrase usually tells exactly which noun you’re talking about. Next time you write a preposition phrase after a noun, especially one beginning ‘of’, think about using ‘the’ in front of the noun!

There is an idiom – ‘Close to the edge’ whose idiomatic meaning is perhaps best communicated in the song The Message by Grandmaster Flash:

Don’t push me, ‘coz I’m close to the edge
I’m tryin’ not to lose my head
It’s like a jungle sometimes
It makes me wonder how I keep from going’ under

You can listen to The Message here and follow the lyrics, but be warned – it’s full of other less useful idioms!

And while we’re talking about music, back in 1972 British prog rock band Yes made an album called Close to the edge!

Book or film?

Students, especially Indonesian students, often tell me that they would much rather watch a film than read a book. Reading is boring, they say.

I would like to invite you to think again about reading.

My teaching colleagues and I would all agree that reading novels is fun, and we all recommend this kind of ‘extensive’ reading to our students. Most of us would also agree that when a film is made based on a book, the book is always much more satisfying than the film of the book.

Let’s try an experiment. Let’s see which you prefer – the book or the film? First you’re going to read and listen to a short text. Then you’re going to watch a movie clip based on the same text. Finally you’ll reflect on the experience and think again about which you prefer – reading or just ‘watching’.

1. Reading

Read the text shown in the clip below and use your imagination to picture what’s going on in the ‘story’. Think carefully about the imagery and about characters in the story. What do the people in the story look like? Where are they?

2. Watching

Now watch the ‘movie’. Compare what you see in the film to what you saw in your mind as you were reading. Did you ‘see’ the same things? How are the images in the video different from the images you saw in your mind when you were reading?

3. Reflection

So what do you think? Do you still prefer watching somebody else’s thoughts. Who is the best ‘director’? You when you read? Or someone else when they read?

I’d be very interested to know your thoughts about reading vs. viewing. What are your preferences and why? Please comment below.

And why do you think I showed a picture of an iceberg as the featured image for this post?

How low can you go?

Women having a first child was low in both years (1995 and 2005).

Women was low(?!) Here we have some subject/verb disagreement, and so I’m guessing that it was actually a different singular countable noun that was low, and not ‘women‘!

  • The percentage of women having a first child was low in both years (1995 and 2005).

Your opening theme was ‘women‘. If the women you mention were indeed low then this could mean several things (click for captions):

When you’re describing numbers, you must describe numbers. Remember that numbers are represented by statistics words: number, amount, percentage,rate, ratio, etc. If you do not use one of these words then your writing becomes very difficult to follow, and obviously this affects your IELTS score.

Be a people person!

The event was extremely successful. It was attended by more than a thousand persons.

The only time I ever use this word (‘persons‘) is in the classroom. Outside the classroom – 99.9% of the time – the plural of ‘person‘ is ‘people‘.

  • The event was extremely successful. It was attended by more than a thousand people.

Only use ‘persons‘ in extremely formal, especially legal situations. I’m such a nice teacher that I’ve prepared some examples (with captions!) for you to click through. This will be followed by some music.

Hope you enjoyed the gallery!

And now, before the music, an idiom. Perhaps you saw the featured image for this post? The ‘people person‘ mug? If you’re a ‘people person‘ then basically you much prefer to be with other people than to be alone.

Well, you’ve had a gallery, and an idiom. Now some music – a song about ‘people‘ from two famous ‘people persons’Barbara Streisand and Stevie Wonder!

Is it worth it?

This post comes with a fun challenge. Continue reading or jump straight to the challenge!

Is it worth to spend large amounts of money on space exploration?

Indonesian flag This is an expression that doesn’t really have a nice translation in Bahasa Indonesia, (closest equivalent = layak) and so I seldom hear it from students. But it’s extremely common in spoken and written English, and so it’s one you should learn to use.

This is the correct collocation:

  • Is it worth spending large amounts of money on space exploration?

Possible answers include..

  • Yes, it’s (it is) worth it.
  • Yes, it’s (it is) worth spending money on space exploration.
  • No, it isn’t (it is not) worth it.
  • No, it’s (it is) not worth it.
  • No, it isn’t (is not) worth spending money on space exploration.

When you ask “Is it worth it?” you’re asking..

  • Is it basically more advantageous than disadvantageous?
  • Is the extra expense justified?
  • Is the additional time investment justified?

And so we have the idiom “If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right!” If you’re investing extra time and/or money into a job or task, then it would be a sin to put in less than 100% effort:

one job to do - school

And now for the challenge. Can you think of 5 activities that require additional time, effort and expense but are still worth it? Comments below! 🙂