Comma splices: the two main causes

Comma splices: the two main causes

Image by TypoArt BS, Shutterstock


I was looking back through my grammar posts the other day when I made a rather startling discovery: in all my years of writing this blog, I had somehow neglected to write a piece covering the two major causes of comma splices.

I suspect that because I’ve given this explanation in a total of five books now, I took it for granted that I had covered both issues  in a single post, back in… oh, I don’t know… 2012 maybe? But apparently not.

Since this is among the most frequently tested concepts on the SAT and the ACT, an occasional target of questions on the GMAT, and a HUGELY common error in IELTS essays, I would count this omission among the greatest oversights in Critical Reader history.

So here goes. (more…)

Informal words and phrases to avoid in IELTS Task 2 essays

Informal words and phrases to avoid in IELTS Task 2 essays

After reading a certain number of Band 6 #IELTS Task 2 essays, one (or rather I) can’t help but notice certain patterns. In particular, the persistent use of certain informal words, phrases, and abbreviations is quite striking.

I’m not the first person to point this out, or to post about it on the internet, but given sheer frequency with which they’re used, it’s clear that the message isn’t getting through.

So I decided to compile the greatest hits into one very short list. 



Bottom line: if you stop using the informal terms, you’re taking a real step towards Band 7; if you keep on including them, expect your score to stay where it is. These are very high-frequency words and constructions, and they are relevant to pretty much any question you might be asked.

In fact, I would actually wager that it’s possible to accurately gauge, in only a few seconds, whether an essay has any chance of earning a 7 simply by scanning it for the terms in the left-hand column, plus standard punctuation, capitalization, and spacing. 

Let’s look at a comparison:

Band 6-6.5 

Small businesses play an important function in keeping economy of local communities safe. In fact,local communities are vital because companies rely on them to sell their products, services etc. Thus without these small business, lots of factories will close which will cause workers to lose their jobs and be unable to pay for stuff e.g. rent and food. 

Band 7

Small businesses play an important function in keeping economy of local communities safe. In fact, local communities are vital because companies rely on them to sell their products and services. Thus without these small business, many factories will close which will cause workers to lose their jobs and be unable to pay for necessary items such as rent and food.

I strongly recommend keeping this list next to you when you write practice essays for as long as you need to. Underline the “formal” words as you write them to reiterate their importance and remind yourself to keep on using them.

There aren’t many quick fixes when it comes to IELTS Writing, but this comes pretty close. 

Parallel structure with verbs: keeping track of forms

Parallel structure with verbs: keeping track of forms

Image by Charlotte May from Pexels


In theory, parallel structure is a relatively easy concept to master: it simply refers to the fact that items in a list, as well as constructions on either side of a conjunction such as and or but, should be kept in the same format (all nouns or all verbs).

In very simple sentences, e.g., I went to bed late but woke up early, this rule is generally quite simple to apply.

When sentences are long and contain a lot of information, however, things get a bit trickier. Keeping forms parallel requires the writer to keep track of and understand how words and phrases in different parts of a sentence relate to one another.

One very common issue involves the use of main verbs after modal verbs such as canshould, or might. As anyone who speaks English at a reasonably high level knows, main verbs are never conjugated in this construction, e.g., one would say it might work, not it might works. But when the two verbs are separated, there’s a common tendency forget about the first one and to stick an -s on the second.

This is an issue that appears in the writing of both native and non-native English speakers, but it’s particularly rampant in IELTS essays. It may also be tested in GMAT Sentence Corrections. (more…)

Social media and the great global English-grammar misinformation machine

Social media and the great global English-grammar misinformation machine

Image from Andrea Piacquadio,


I have a somewhat ambivalent relationship with social media. Given what I do and the nature of my audience, it’s pretty much a necessary evil, albeit one I dip in and out of depending on the demands of my other projects. For the past month or so, I’ve had a bit more free time than I’ve had in a while, and it occurred to me that perhaps I should make an attempt to revive my long-neglected Instagram account (a decision of which the algorithm unfortunately does not seem to approve). Having recently taken some steps into the world of English-language proficiency exams, I got curious and decided to explore the social-media ESL world. If nothing else, it was certainly an eye-opening experience.

I don’t have a clear sense of what proportion of my readership is made up of students living outside the United States, although my sense is that most of them attend either international schools or English-immersion programs and speak the language at a very high level. Based on some of the messages I’ve received, however, I’m aware that this is not the case for everyone.

For that reason, and because the internet has basically swallowed real life whole, I feel obligated to offer this warning: to anyone attempting to use social media to supplement their study for English proficiency exams (TOEFL or IELTS), please be extraordinary careful about whom you follow and take advice from. And if you are a tutor who works internationally, please make sure your students understand the difference between “Instagram English” and “school English.” To describe the linguistic misinformation out there as “mind-boggling” is an understatement. (more…)

“Can” vs. “could”:  simple present vs. conditional

“Can” vs. “could”: simple present vs. conditional

Over the past several months, I’ve read an enormous number of essays written by non-native English speakers, and in addition to the expected difficulties, I’ve noticed a handful of recurring issues that rarely get addressed — I suspect because most native English speakers don’t realize that the particular concepts in question can get confused in those particular ways.

One of the most common of these issues is the confusion between the simple present and the conditional, and more specifically between can and could.

Errors involving these forms are often fairly subtle; they’re not absolutely wrong in the same black-and-white way as errors involving, say, confusion between the present perfect and the simple past (e.g., I have graduated from university last year rather than I graduated from university last year), and I think that’s also why they tend to get missed. Using could correctly is often more about implication and context than adhering to a clear-cut rule, which is why even very advanced speakers may still struggle with it.

To be sure, there is a more formulaic usage: “if” clause is in the past, then the conditional must be used in the main clause (e.g., If I left home 15 minutes earlier, I could get to class on time). But when there isn’t an “if” clause to serve as a clear indicator that the conditional is required, things sometimes get a bit muddled.

I recently came across a perfect example of a not-quite-correctly-used could on an Internet forum, and I’m going to use it to illustrate my point. In a discussion about a restaurant, a person who generally has excellent English wrote a sentence similar to the following

Three-star restaurants don’t normally serve just pasta with sauce. La Pergola is a three-stars (sic) Michelin restaurant in Rome, and there you could eat dishes like battered squash blossoms over shellfish and saffron with caviar. 

The use of the conditional here isn’t a gross error, but it is “off”. The rest of the sentence is written with simple-present verbs (don’tserveis), and the shift to the conditional disrupts that consistency (parallel structure) unnecessarily.

Presumably, the writer assumed that the conditional was needed because she was describing something the reader was not actually doing, and the sentence contained an element of suggestion. The issue, however, is that a real situation is being described: the dish in question is actually on the restaurant’s menu, and it is possible for a diner to order it. As a result, the simple present is more appropriate, particularly in context of the surrounding verbs.

The conditional, on the other hand, is used only when there is a “but”, either stated or implied: it is used to an signal that an action/situation might not happen, or (very often) that it probably won’t happen. Either way, the emphasis is on the theoretical aspect.

I could buy a new iPhone phone now, but I’d really rather wait until the next version is released in a few months. (= I probably won’t buy the phone now) 

There are several major steps that local governments could take to reduce car usage among commuters. For example, they could encourage the establishment of new bus routes in poorly served areas; they could also fund the construction of additional subway lines.  (= This is theoretical discussion; the writer is clearly making suggestions) 

So, to sum up:

Can = real situation; something that currently exists or is doable 

Could = suggestion, theoretical situation (one that might not/probably won’t occur)

New! IELTS® grammar and vocabulary materials

New! IELTS® grammar and vocabulary materials

Attention international students: if you are planning to sit for the IELTS, I have created a new page covering 25 of the top grammar concepts necessary for success on the Writing portion of the exam. While you will not of course be directly tested on them, you will absolutely be expected to integrate many of them into your Task 1 and Task 2 essays. And if you want to have a shot at a Band 7 score or higher… you need to have a pretty solid grasp of them.

This material is also available as a free PDF download. If you’d like the super-condensed version, I’ve also posted a two-page “cheat sheet” (free as well).

Also: I am releasing an almost 150-page downloadable ebook covering this material, plus a lot more, in much greater detail. This is not a traditional grammar book but rather a practical guide designed to systematically target the areas of greatest difficulty for ESL students (based on an analysis of more than 100 sample essays by IELTS candidates).

At every point, the book emphasizes contemporary usage favored by native speakers and discusses nuances rarely addressed in traditional language classes.

Among other things, it covers:

  • Articles (it is almost impossible to overstate their importance)
  • Major tenses and how/how not to use them
  • Vocabulary for common IELTS Task 2 essay-topic categories
  • High-frequency preposition-based collocations
  • Use of transitional words and phrases (i.e., linking devices)

In addition, all example sentences are based on the types of statements typically used in the IELTS Writing and Speaking tests.

And please note: If you are applying to college in the United States and are planning to take the TOEFl, most of the material is applicable to that exam as well.

Read a preview.