I would if I could, but I can’t

I enjoy using Facebook because I could see photos of my friends there.

Students are often confused about can/could, will/would. Sometimes they have learned at school that could and would are more formal, or more polite than can and will. That may be true when you are requesting something, but in IELTS speaking and writing you’re usually using can and will to communicate possibility or ability rather than to make a request.

Possibility

How possible is it?

  • I enjoy using Facebook because I can see photos of my friends there.

In this case there is a strong possibility (almost 100%) that I will see my friend’s photos on Facebook. In this case I need to use can.

Let’s imagine a similar situation where there is no possibility:

  • If I had an Internet connection, I could see photos of my friends on Facebook.

Here the writer clearly does not have an Internet connection and so there is no possibility of him seeing his friend’s photos. Notice that in this example could is part of a structure called ‘second conditional’, which is used to describe an unreal or imaginary situation in the present:

If + subj + V2 + ‘,’ + subj + could/would + V1

In the ‘second conditional’ the situation you are describing is unlikely:

  • If I found a million dollars in the street I would buy a new house.

This kind of imaginary situation is by far the most common context for could and would.

Will

Indonesian flag Indonesian students tend to overuse ‘will‘ because they want to translate ‘akan‘. But ‘will‘ is not used in English as much as ‘akan’ is used in Indonesian. Actually there are generally only three situations where will is suitable:

  1. ‘First conditional’ – a situation in the present that is highly possible:

Look at those clouds. I forgot my umbrella. If it rains I will get wet!

  1. Predictions

Look at those dark clouds! It will probably rain soon.

  1. Habits (usually annoying habits)

He drives me crazy. He‘ll (he will) trim his nails and then leave the cuttings all over the floor for me to clean up!

Ability

How able are you (or were you)?

It’s unusual to talk about past abilities, because once you acquire an ability, for example the ability to swim, you rarely lose that ability. It would be ridiculous, for example, to write:

  • When I was younger I could swim, but then I forgot how to swim so now I can’t.

We generally only lose this kind of ability when something terrible happens to us:

  • When I was younger I could swim, but then I lost my arms and legs in an accident and so now I can’t swim.

On the other hand ability can sometimes be a matter of degree. for example we can talk about partial ability, and about changes in our level of ability:

  • When I was younger I could swim 20km, but now that I’m old I can only swim 20 metres!

Most of the time when we talk about ability we use can – present tense – because, most of the time, we’re making a claim that is true now or always.

Summing up

Next time you write could or would stop and think. You probably should be writing can or will!

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!

In terms of

Google also increased steadily, although not as significantly as Facebook.

You make us extremely curious. Did Google and Facebook get bigger? Did they multiply? Or is it something more subtle that ‘increased’?

There’s a magic phrase you can use in IELTS Task 1 writing that will help you to make yourself clear:

in terms of

One more time:

in terms of

One mo, one more time:

in terms of

  • Google also increased steadily in terms of the number of users, although not as significantly as Facebook.

How to use it?

in terms of + the statistical unit being described

(In IELTS Task 1 writing the statistical units are usually given on the x and y axes of a graph, or somewhere close to a chart or table).

In terms of‘ is a lexical phrase in which all three words collocate strongly. In terms of IELTS vocabulary this is high band territory! And since it makes your writing clearer, your scores for Task Achievement (TA) and also for Coherence and Cohesion (CC) will also increase!

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! 🙂

Dogs don’t have voices

Moving on to look at the various factors irritating theatregoers, six include undesirable voice including sneezing, whispering, snoring, rustling sweet papers, mobile phones and coughing.

Indonesian flag Indonesians stop and think the next time you want to translate ‘suara‘!

None of the sounds in the above example represent an attempt to ‘voice’ (v) speech or song, and so they are not examples of voice‘ (n), they are simply examples of ‘sounds‘. Note that whispering, which is a form of speech, is nevertheless notvoiced‘ (your larynx does not vibrate when you whisper):

  • Moving on to look at the various factors irritating theatregoers, six include undesirable sounds including sneezing, whispering, snoring, rustling sweet papers, mobile phones and coughing.

When you are sick with a heavy cold or flu you sometimes ‘lose your voice‘, so that people cannot hear very easily what you are saying, and singing becomes impossible. However, only humans can lose their voices. All other animals, vegetables and minerals simply make ‘sounds‘.