Should you use short forms in IELTS speaking? Is it better to say cannot or can’t? Will not or won’t? The quick answer is yes but not necessarily all the time.
Use natural spoken English
The first step is to attempt to use your best natural spoken English. Don’t think you have to use “formal” English just because this is a test. Your examiner will be judging you on how you speak in a normal conversation.
What happens if you come from a more formal culture? You’ll still want to use them. Even in more formal cultures these short forms – or contractions – are still used in most speech and especially in conversation.
25% of your score in the test is pronunciation. The use of short forms are quite a significant part of this. Why? Effectively all examiners will regard short forms as a sign of better pronunciation. More than that they are something that all examiners – few of whom are pronunciation experts – will be able to hear immediately. Make their job easy for them!
A related point is that pronunciation can be very hard to improve. This is one thing though that you can work on by yourself quite easily. Doing it also can help other aspects of your pronunciation.
These are sounds that we barely pronounce in English. We don’t say every word in this sentence with equal weight. For a very quick explanation of this try
“Don’t” is actually just a weak form. One of the easiest to learn. Once you have learnt to use that, then there’s a good chance you’ll start to use other more advanced ones too.
This is a connected idea and a really important part of pronunciation. In English we only stress one or two words in a sentence. We do not say them all with equal weight. This is in fact part of the reason why we prefer to speak short forms. And using more short forms may help you with this aspect of pronunciation too. An example? In this sentence:
I don’t very often read books
We may just properly sound/stress only the words “books” and “don’t”. The other words get swallowed.
I don‘t very often read books.
You really only hear “don” and “books”. The word “not” is lost – you may not even hear the “t”. We really never do the following
I – do – not – very – often – read – books
Think about meaning too
Should you only use short forms? No, not really. There are times we do naturally say “do not” and not “don’t”. We do this when we want to be more emphatic – add stress to what we are saying. These two sentences can mean something quite different. In the first one you may be quite neutral. In the second, however, you are saying you strongly dislike playing games.
I don’t like playing games on my phone.
I do NOT like playing games on my phone.
Here’s the problem though. If you don’t use the weak short form “don’t”, you cannot add meaning by using the strong full form “do not” – you’re always being emphatic.
Try this video lesson from Oxford Online English to see how you can stress different words in a sentence and change meaning.
Want something more technical with a handy list?
This is much more technical and also gives a very complete list of the most common contractions (what I call short forms here):
Or a teacher video?
A super good teacher video on sentence stress from Youtube – it’s made for teachers!
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