Top Tips for IELTS

Punctuation – full stops and sentences

Does punctuation matter in IELTS? Yes. You bet it does. It can make all the difference to your writing. Indeed, if you learn some basic punctuation, you may find your score shooting up from 5 to 7 almost overnight. So boring as it is, it does deserve some attention.

Start with an exercise

Try to see if you can recreate my sample IELTS essay on Books and Newspapers. You will find that I have divided it up sentence by sentence. You should be able to put it back together again. As you do so, think how each sentence is a complete thought that links to the sentence before and after it. The aim is to show you how the sentence is the basic building block of an essay and that to write an essay you need to learn first to write sentences which means using punctuation.

Sentences and punctuation exercise

The problem – punctuation is not international

The problem with punctuation is that different languages and cultures use punctuation differently. In some languages sentences can go on for lines and lines and there is no very big difference between a sentence and a paragraph. In English, we normally choose to keep our sentences fairly short – even in serious academic writing. It is not necessarily a sign of good English to write very long and complex sentences. The aim is clarity.

Some very simple guidelines on punctuation and sentences

Here are some simple guidelines to how the English tend to use punctuation. There is of course much more detail you may need, but if you follow these guidelines you will at least write in sentences. I should also emphasise that these are not rules, they are just ideas to help you think about punctuation and sentences.

  1. The full stop is the most important piece of punctuation
  2. Don’t forget to use capital letters to start sentences
  3. Aim for sentences that are around 15-20 words long
  4. If you find yourself on the 3rd line without having used a full stop, something may be wrong
  5. If your sentences are usually less than one line long, something is probably wrong
  6. If you use too may connectors (and/but/because/which etc) in one sentence, something is probably wrong
  7. Good writers tend to vary the length and type of their sentences

Test yourself

The first step is as always to know the problem. Take a look at these two paragraphs and ask yourself which one you prefer:

The principal reason why some people believe that newspapers and books are outdated is because newspapers are much less up-to-date than modern technology such as the internet or even the television which are able to show events as they are happening and people prefer them because by using Google or some other search engine on the internet or even by turning on the television where you can see instantly what is happening in the world by watching the latest news bulletin which is almost certainly more current than the news that you can read on the front page of a newspaper which was published the previous day and which only contains what happened the day before.

and

The principal reason why some people take this view is fairly clear in the case of newspapers.  It is generally much easier and quicker to discover what is happening in the world from the internet or the television than from a newspaper. If you use Google or another search engine or simply switch on the television, you can instantly get the latest news bulletin. A newspaper, by contrast, is out of date the moment it is published because it contains yesterday’s news.

I’m hoping you chose the second one. While they both contain the same information and the first one has the better words, the second is far more coherent and is better English. The first one is in fact so bad that it may only get a 5 for lack of coherence.

Take some video lessons

These two video tutorials do not explain anything too technical about punctuation. Rather they concentrate on how and why punctuation can help you to write sentences. This should help make your writing more coherent and like the good example.

Video 1 – Why punctuation matters

Before you watch, here are some questions for you to consider. If you listen and watch, I hope the answers are obvious.

  1. Who does punctuation help?
  2. When do you know when you need to use some punctuation?


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Non-Youtube version

Punctuation tutorial 1 from Dominic Cole on Vimeo.

Video 2 – how punctuation helps you write better paragraphs

This video concentrates on full stops, sentences and paragraphs:

  1. What is the connection between full stops, sentences and paragraphs?
  2. What is a complete sentence?
  3. When should you start writing a sentence?

Do you really want more punctuation?

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6 Responses to Punctuation – full stops and sentences

  1. Dominic Cole December 12, 2010 at 6:43 pm #

    To answer my own questions.

    Punctuation helps the reader and in IELTS that means the examiner! You want to give him/her all the help you can.

    A practical way of deciding whether you need punctuation is decide whether you would pause when you read it. A big pause means a full stop and a little one a comma.

    You need sentences for paragraphs and sentences need full stops. That’s a big connection.

    A sentence is a thought. It can be a general thought/explanation thought/ example thought. (A paragraph is an idea – that means a collection of thoughts put together coherently)

    Don’t start writing until you know how the sentence finishes. This will make your writing more coherent almost automatically. It will also stop you writing very long sentences. The only danger is that your sentences become too short.

  2. Elena December 13, 2010 at 7:16 am #

    Hi, Dominic, thanks for the article.
    But I still confused, what sentence structure is better?

    I came home late in the evening. Then I had a dinner with friends.

    OR

    After I came home late in the evening, I had dinner with friends.

    I mean is it always better to combine two or three ideas together in one sentence? Or for coherent paragraph it is more important to compose several structures – one short, another two complex and another compound.

    Thank you.

  3. Dominic Cole December 13, 2010 at 8:05 am #

    Hi

    Sorry this post doesn’t really answer your question. I just wanted to try and make the initial point that it’s writing and thinking in sentences that matters. This is where a lot of candidates go wrong.

    Your question is a much more sophisticated one. Honestly, if you are asking about simple and compound sentences that tells me you are well ahead of the game already. I generally believe in keeping things as simple as possible in exam circumstances and so personally I wouldn’t bother worrying about what is a simple sentence and what is a compound sentence too much. Rather I would ask myself whether I needed to make a general point, explain something or give an example. What should happen next is that you automatically begin to use the right sort of sentence structure. Put another way, my belief is that coherence comes from the function of the sentence rather than from the type of sentence structure.

    To answer your direct question, I would say this. I prefer to start my paras with a simple sentence to show clearly what I am talking about. Then when I come to explain the point and give examples, I would typically use one or more complex sentences. This is necessary as the explanation/example will normally be a complex idea – joining together 2/3 points – and useful structures for this are conditionals and relative clauses. Then, typically, I would try and finish with a shortish simple sentence to re-clarify the point.

    I would emphasise, however, that this is “typically”. Each case needs to be treated on its own merits. You worry me slightly when you say “always”, as I’m not sure language works to “always” and I am very suspicious of any teacher/learner trying to set rules like that – particularly in the case of English which is a language very much directed by usage as opposed to a set of prescriptive rules.

    Broadly speaking though I am agreeing with you that a mixture of structures is what you should end up with. The examiners look for “range” of grammatical structures and there is a problem if you only use simple structures. Likewise, if you only use more complex structures, your writing is likely to become difficult to decipher.

    Hope that helps. Let me know of you want further clarification and I’ll try and sort out an article on this sooner rather than later.

    Dominic

  4. Elena December 13, 2010 at 10:17 am #

    Thanks a lot, Dominic, for an idea.

    Yeah, at this stage it helps a lot.

  5. alia January 3, 2012 at 1:34 pm #

    Hello Cole,

    HAPPY NEW YEAR.

    Thank you Sir, we appreciate all of your efforts.

    All are of great, helpful value.

    Many thanks

  6. alia January 3, 2012 at 1:50 pm #

    Hi Cole,

    HAPPY NEW YEAR,

    We appreciate all of your efforts, all are of great helpful values

    Many thanks

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