Punctuation is something a lot of IELTS students struggle with. I have read and marked many essays that were difficult to read because of the lack of correct punctuation. And yet punctuation is so important in English.
Why is punctuation important?
I think the best way to explain what I mean is to show you. Here is an excerpt (a small part) from one of my students’ essays. Take a look and see what you think of it.
after finishing school students have to decide whether to continue studying or to start working whereas some people believe that starting work immediately is beneficial for youngsters others think that obtaining a degree is an assurance for the future however in my opinion the present situation has both pros and cons which will be discussed and supported with a range of reasons and relevant examples
You probably found that pretty hard to understand, right?
That’s because punctuation helps the reader to follow the message. Without it, we’re a little lost, to say the least. Now, before you see the corrected version, go back and try to add the correct punctuation.
Finished? Here’s the excerpt again, this time with the correct punctuation:
After finishing school, students have to decide whether to continue studying or to start working. Whereas some people believe that starting work immediately is beneficial for youngsters, others think that obtaining a degree is an assurance for the future. However, in my opinion, the present situation has both pros and cons, which will be discussed and supported with a range of reasons and relevant examples.
That was much easier to follow, right? That’s because all the commas and full stops were in the right places.
What happens if you get punctuation wrong in IELTS?
Well, you probably know that punctuation is really related to grammar. So, not using the correct punctuation will affect your score in ‘Grammatical Range and Accuracy’. To get a 7 for this criterion, you must have ‘good control’ of punctuation. This means you can make a few mistakes with punctuation, but not many. And if incorrect punctuation affects your meaning (as with the excerpt above), then you probably won’t score higher than a 5 or a 6 for this criterion. (To see the IELTS band descriptors, click here).
How can I avoid making mistakes with punctuation?
To help you avoid getting punctuation wrong, I have put together a list of some of the most common punctuation errors that IELTS students make in their essays. In each case, try to fix the mistakes before you look at the corrections below it:
- Getting a degree can be useful for many people, however in my opinion the choice depends on the type of profession one is aiming for.
- Although, many people believe that children should be strictly supervised from an early age I disagree.
- In conclusion if we don’t start to act to change this situation we will be further destroying our fragile planet.
- Overall maths was the most popular subject for men at this university. While for women it was french.
- In 2002 the island which measured 2 kilometres was mainly uninhabited although there were a few houses in the southern part.
- The people, who live next door to our apartment, are very noisy which is extremely upsetting.
Here are the corrected versions:
- Getting a degree can be useful for many people. However, in my opinion, the choice depends on the type of profession one is aiming for.
- Although many people believe that children should be strictly supervised from an early age, I disagree.
- In conclusion, if we don’t start to act to change this situation, we will be further destroying our fragile planet.
- Overall, Maths was the most popular subject for men at this university, while for women it was French.
- In 2002, the island, which measured 2 kilometres, was mainly uninhabited, although there were a few houses in the southern part.
- The people who live next door to our apartment are very noisy, which is extremely upsetting.
And now let’s see what we can learn from the above:
- The adverb ‘however’ usually starts a new sentence and has a comma after it. This word can never have a comma before it, but it can sometimes follow a semi-colon, like this: ‘…can be useful for many people; however,…’
‘…….. However, …..’
‘……..; however, …..’
‘in my opinion’ is an introductory phrase, which is separate from the rest of the sentence, so it should be separated by commas.
- The word ‘although’ never has a comma after it. But we do need a comma at the end of the clause, to separate it from the following (contrasting) clause.
It can sometimes have a comma before it, like this:
- ‘In conclusion’ is an introductory phrase, so we must separate it from the rest of the sentence with a comma.
‘In conclusion, …..’
We need a comma with an ‘if’ (conditional sentence) when the word ‘if’ is in the first clause
However, when ‘if’ is in the middle of the conditional sentence, a comma is not necessary
………. if ……….. (‘We will destroy the planet if we don’t do something soon’).
- ‘Overall’ is an introductory phrase (like ‘in my opinion’ and ‘in conclusion’ above). For this reason, it is followed by a comma. Other common introductory phrases in IELTS are ‘on the other hand’, ‘in summary’, ‘over the last 20 years’.
‘Overall, …..’ || ‘In summary, ….’ || ‘Over the last 20 years, ….’
‘while’ is a contrast word that links two (contrasting) clauses together. It cannot exist in a separate sentence. Also note that ‘while’ can start the contrasting pair of clauses, like this: ‘…while Maths was the most popular subject for men, for women it was French’.
‘…………….., while …………’
Names of school subjects always start with capital letters: ‘Maths’, ‘French’, ‘History’ etc.
- ‘In 2002’ is an introductory phrase, and needs a comma after it.
‘which measured 2 kilometres’ is a relative clause, and provides extra (non-essential) information about the preceding noun (in the case, the island). For this reason, it is separated from the main clause by commas.
We must have a comma before ‘although’ when it introduces the contrasting clause.
- ‘The people who live next door to our apartment..’: Here, there is no comma before ‘who’ because the phrase ‘who live next door to our apartment’ identifies which people. It is essential information and cannot be separated from the word ‘people’ by a comma. The phrase acts like an adjective, because it describes the people.
‘…, which is extremely upsetting’: Here, ‘which’ is separated from the rest of the sentence by a comma because it provides extra (non-essential) information. [For more information about when to use commas with ‘who’ and ‘which’, look up ‘defining and non-defining relative clauses’ on Google.]
You probably noticed that a lot of the mistakes with punctuation shown above are related to linking words (although, however, while). If you would like more help with correct punctuation for linking devices, click here: