This lesson looks at the idea of range of grammar. If you are aiming for a high band score, it is not simply enough not to make mistakes, you also need to show that you can use a number of different grammatical constructions. First of all, I talk you through some principles and then I give you some practical suggestions on what sort of grammar can help and, just as importantly, how to use it.
Test yourself first
Before you read on. You might want to ask yourself these questions:
- Am I going to impress more with longer sentences?
- Do I have a strategy for when I use simpler grammar and more complex grammar?
- When and why do I use complex grammar like relative and conditional clauses?
Understanding range of grammar
1. An essay should combine simple with complex grammar
This is the starting point. A well-written essay should be relatively easy to read. This means that you need to combine the simple with the complex. Where you have straightforward to say, you should not try and show off your grammar by making it seem complex – indeed, that’s a very common mistake.
Typically, you should aim for:
- simple structures when you are making main points – often in the opening and/or closing sentences of your paragraphs
- more complex structures when you are explaining/developing those main points in the body of your paragraphs
- a movement from the more simple to the more complex
When you have something simple to say, say it simply. Only use complex structures for more complex thoughts.
This paragraph expresses some complex thoughts, but it starts off simply to make the main point.
The major argument against hosting international sporting events is financial.Typically, it can cost several million pounds to build the arenas and modernise the infrastructure so that it can cater for the athletes and the spectators. This money, it is argued, would be better spent on welfare and education programmes that provide direct support for the population.Indeed, some governments have incurred so much debt through hosting the Olympic Games that they have had to reduce spending on other social programmes.
The first sentence of this paragraph is simple. All I want to do is make clear that the main reason is financial. I use simple clear English so that reader gets the main point. The grammar is “It is financial”.
The next sentences are more complex and use complex structures to express more complex thoughts
so that because I am talking about results
would be better spent because I am talking conditionally
that provide direct support for the population because I am defying my terms
2. An essay should combine longer and shorter sentences
In many ways this is the same point. It is absolutely not the case of long sentences good, short sentences bad. There will be times when a short sentence is more effective than a long sentence. In general, though, you should avoid the extremes of very long and very short. Also, you need to ask yourself how complex your sentences are. Shorter sentences can work:
- if they are used in combination with longer sentences, or
- if they are relatively complex
- if they are used with shorter sentences, or
- if they are simpler in structure (using “and” and “but”)
None of the sentences in this paragraph are particularly long for short.
Another way in which free public transport could improve our quality of life relates to congestion. Currently, the trend is for increasing numbers of people to choose to drive to work. This means that in many cases the rush hour is several hours long and it is sometimes almost impossible to travel across a city.It is probable that this level of congestion would be reduced by making public transport free.
The first sentence is shorter because it is the opening sentence of the para and it also includes the complex “in which” construction.
The second sentence is shortish again because it is merely stating a fact – no need to make it more complex
The third sentence is a longer sentence, but it is simply linked using “and”
The final sentence is again relatively short/simple sentence but it does contain a conditional “would” and a “by” structure.
Examples of grammar that can work
This is not intended to be a list of advanced grammar points that will guarantee you a band score 8.0. Rather, the idea here is to show you grammar connects to meaning. You should never just use a structure because it is “good” grammar. Instead, you need to ask yourself what is the best way I can express this point.
The best writers use these structures when they need to, not because they think they have to
1. the passive
I start with the passive because it is so often misused. It is not the case that the passive is an academic structure that should be used in essays. We use it all the time in all sorts of contexts. Here, though, is one way you might find it helpful in writing: to avoid repeating words – especially nouns/pronouns. You may want to avoid using some words too much – especially words from the question. Here the passive can help you. In a question about government action, rather than writing:
The government should introduce measures to
you can try
Measures should be introduced
so that you don’t repeat the word “government”.
This is another piece of grammar you need to feel comfortable with and can help you. You should be careful, however, not to overuse relatives as they can make your writing both confusing and confused. One tip I would give you here is to try and restrict yourself to one relative per sentence and to try and avoid them in already complex sentences. Look at this example:
There is a real danger that allowing people to travel for free would deprive transport authorities funds which they need and lead to a lower standard of service.
The relative can be avoided by changing it into an adjective phrase:
There is a real danger that allowing people to travel for free would deprive transport authorities of much needed funds and lead to a lower standard of service.
When you do use relatives though is to define terms and add detail. Here is an example in action:
More than that, if the authorities plan carefully, they can use the occasion of the sporting event to help finance public works which benefit the whole population in the long term.
I want to say what sort of “public works” I am referring to so I define them in the relative which benefit the whole population in the long term.
Here is another piece of grammar that can help you out. Provided that is, you see how and when to use it. One of the best ways to use these conditionals to explain and give examples. This means they are likely to come in the body of your paragraphs and not the introduction/opening sentence. Try this example:
There is also, however, a strong argument not to implement this proposal. This argument is based on economic competitiveness. If a company was forced to employ more workers to produce the same amount of goods, then its wage bill would rise and its products might become more expensive and less competitive compared to companies with longer working weeks. In this case, it is possible that the company either might become insolvent or it would have to make some employees redundant. As a result, the intended benefit to the personnel would not happen.
This time around I have given you the whole para so that you can see the context. I use a conditional because I am explaining a point. You should also see that we use “might” and “would” in the following sentences even though there is no “if”.
Do you want to show off? Then you might consider using conditionals that do not use if. So you could use:
Were a company to be forced…
4. Parallel structures
There are a number of different parallel structures we have in English. They come in useful when we are combining, comparing or contrasting points – again something that you are likely to do in your essays. This is a useful piece of grammar to focus on, as when used well they make your writing more cohesive. For example
Not only would unemployment be reduced, but the working conditions of employees on very long shifts would also be significantly improved.
You may think “not only..but also” is too easy to impress. Don’t. Simple things done well impress too and this sentence is complex enough as it is.
5. Verb tenses (of course), impersonal structures and modals
The point to remember here is that it is not difficulty of grammar that is important, rather it is variety of grammar. This means that some bits of grammar that you think are rather simple (e.g. tenses) are still important. The point I want to make here is that the one tense you are going use most is the present simple. Checking my essays, I find that easily the most common tense I use is the present simple. That’s how it should be – it is easily the most common tense in English.
You do want some variety though, and here is how I get it. I use a lot of impersonal structures”
There are several reasons why
and I also use a large number of modal verbs:
It can also be argued that
The point here is that I use them to make impersonal points or sound academic. They too have their meanings and uses.
6. And and but
Never be afraid of keeping it simple. I do. My essays work. You will also find that I almost never use “moreover” and “furthermore”. More to the point, neither do band 8.0 candidates typically. When all you want to do is add a point say “and” and if you want to make a contrast, you are most likely to use “but” or “however,”.
Test your own writing
The best advice is of course always to find yourself a teacher, but if you are working by yourself, here is something you can do. Find an essay you have written and go through it:
- Do you use different grammatical structures? (You should have at least some of the ones I have mentioned)
- Can you see why you have used any of the more complex structures?
- How long is your average sentence? (around 15 words is about right I would suggest)
- Do your paragraphs combine longer and shorter sentences and simpler and more complex sentences?
- Do you use “and” and “but”?