Using English Idioms In Writing Good Essays

Will I get a higher score using idioms or quotes in my IELTS essay?

The answer is clear – no. Idioms, such as “it cost an arm and a leg” are informal which means they are not suitable for IELTS writing task 2 academic or general training essays. However, idioms are only one type of idiomatic language. There are other forms more suitable to IELTS writing, for example “the key to this issue” means the solution not a key you can buy in a shop or use in a door. That is an acceptable type of idiomatic language for a high score in IELTS.

Regarding quotes, the examiner will give you a score based on your own level of English language, not the words you remember from another person. While quotes are suitable for academic essays at university, they will not help your band score for IELTS. Instead, use the idea from the quote and write it in your own words.

What about proverbs in writing?

I would also recommend avoiding proverbs as well. Most proverbs are not appropriate for academic writing. Here’s an example of an inappropriate proverb in writing “all that glitters is not gold”. While the meaning might be perfect for your essay, it would be better to write “people should not be deceived by appearances because they can be deceptive” The latter sentence has a much better variety of appropriate vocabulary for a high score.

Can I use quotes, idioms or proverbs in my IELTS speaking test?

Proverbs and quotes are not usually academic and for that reason are better suited to speaking. However, don’t lose your fluency score because you are trying to remember an idiom. You get a high score when you use appropriate, natural language in the right context. So, don’t try to fill your answers with idioms or proverbs. Using quotes is not really suitable for IELTS because they are not your own words.

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This lesson looks at 10 different ways to make your writing academic or more formal. I talk you through some of the more important dos and don’ts to help you write essays that use the right sort of language.

Academic/formal and IELTS

How important is it to be academic in IELTS? Well. You need to write an essay and the convention is that essays use “academic” language. So your goal should be to reasonably formal/academic. That said, conventions vary around the world and there is nothing specifically in the marking criteria about formality of language. What you really need to do is make sure you avoid being too informal/non-academic.

In practice, this means you need to follow most of the guidelines below, but you shouldn’t become obsessive about it. These are guidelines and not rules.

Test yourself first

This quiz gives you 8 sentences. 4 of them are more academic and 4 are less academic. Your job is simple – decide which is which. The goal is to get 8 out of 8.

Points to avoid in academic writing

This is a short form guide to some of the “don’ts” in academic writing.

1. Short forms of verbs

We don’t use short forms of verbs (don’t/can’t etc) when we write more academically. So this example doesn’t work:

I don’t think it’s very important for small kids to learn English.

2. Imprecise language

When we write academically, we tend to use more precise language. So these examples don’t work:

I don’t think it’s very important for small kids to learn English.

This is the best thing to do.

3. Use idiomatic language

This is not  a rule – there are sometimes when you will find idiomatic language in academic writing. However, there are idioms and idioms and idioms. The more “colourful” the idiom, the less likely you are to use it in academic writing. So, this idiom is inappropriate:

If we do that, then we might throw the baby out with the bathwater.

while this idiom is much weaker and acceptable

On balance, this would seem to be the most appropriate course of action.

4. Start sentences with “and” and “but”

A difficult one. If you read almost any language course book, you are almost certain to find sentences that begin with “and” and “but” in the reading texts. Language changes and it is becoming more and more acceptable to do this. However, in academic writing for second language speakers, this should be avoided. So this is unacceptable for most teachers:

 But the most important thing is that the government find outs what the real needs are.

And needs to be transformed into:

The immediate priority, however, is for the government to conduct a needs analysis.

5. Phrasal verbs (2/3 word verbs)

Phrasal verbs (a species of idiom) are an important part of the language, but we tend to avoid them where we can in academic writing and choose a different verb. So

But the most important thing is that the government find outswhat the real needs are.

needs to be transformed into

The immediate priority, however, is for the government to conducta needs analysis.

6. Personal pronouns

A big area. Academic writing tends to be relatively impersonal and so we try to avoid over-using personal pronouns. This does not mean that you can’t use them, you just need to be careful how you do it. If it is important to show that something is your personal opinion, then “I” or “my” can be acceptable. The one pronoun to avoid is the informal “you”.

I don’t think it’s very important for small kids to learn English.

More academic variations

1. Precise language

Typically, academic language is more precise. This means that we try to use language that is accurate as possible. Properly speaking, children are not small they are young

It is doubtful whether it is particularly important for young children to study English.

and the government is going to find out by conducting a needs analysis

The immediate priority, however, is for the government to conduct a needs analysis.

2. Impersonal language and passives

Typically, even many personal opinions are put in impersonal language and it is left to the reader to understand that what is being said is the author’s own view. Probably, the most common structure here is It is

It is doubtful whether it is particularly important for young children to study English.

The passive is not 100% academic and it is quite possible to use it in all forms of speaking and writing. However, one of its uses is in academic writing as it is one way of not using too many personal pronouns

We should let people do any sport they want to.

can be changed to

People should be allowed to participate in whatever sport they choose.

3. Cautious language

This is really to do with opinions. The more academic we become, the more we “hedge” or weaken opinions/statements that are strong. In practice, what this means is that we use a lot of possibility and probability type words when we write academically. For example:

This solution is perhaps too radical and may cause as many problems as it solves.

On balance, this would seem to be the most appropriate course of action.

4. General academic vocabulary

Finally, there are just some words we use more when we write academically. If you have a language background, English is essentially the marriage of two languages old German and Latin and for historical reasons we tend to use the words with a Latin origin when we write academically. Many of these words can be found in the academic word list:

People should be allowed to participate in whatever sport they choose.

This solution is perhaps too radical and may cause as many problems as it solves.

On balance, this would seem to be the most appropriate course of action.

It is doubtful whether it is particularly important for young children to study English.

I must add here that this absolutely does not mean long words good, short words bad.

A sample essay

To see how this works, try looking at this sample essay. You will find two parallel versions of it. One is more formal/academic and the other isn’t. I have highlighted the major differences between the two versions.

See the two versions

In the modern world, we frequently no longer rely on food that has been grown locally, but we have become accustomed to buying produce from all over the world. While this trend has some clear benefits to consumers, I would argue that overall transporting food over long distances is a negative.

In the modern world, we often don’t rely on food that has been grown locally, but we have got used  to buying food from all over the world. While this trend is good for consumers, I think that overall transporting food over long distances is not a good thing.

The strongest argument against importing food is environmental. Studies have shown that transport and the use of fossil fuels is one of the leading causes of global warming and climate change. This means that if we want to lead a greener lifestyle, we should be trying to minimise transport and this includes the unnecessary transport of foodstuffs.

The biggest argument against importing food is environmental. We know that transport and the use of fossil fuels is the biggest cause of global warming and climate change. This means that if we want to lead a greener lifestyle, we should try not to use transport so much and this includes transporting of foodstuffs when we don’t have to.

Another point that needs to be considered is the impact of transporting food on local farmers and traditional ways of life. Again, there is good research to show that farmers and smallholders are unable to compete in price with the supermarkets that import cheap, and often low-quality, produce from abroad. This is not just a problem for local farmers who are likely to go out of business, it also has an impact on weakening traditional communities that rely on those farms for employment and trade.

Another point is that transporting food is bad for local farmers and traditional ways of life. This is because farmers and smallholders cannot compete in price with the supermarkets that import cheap, and often low-quality, produce from abroad. This is not just a problem for local farmers who will go out of business, it also weakens traditional communities that  need those farms for employment and trade.

A further consideration is that food that has travelled across the world is considerably less healthy than locally grown, fresh produce. The  point is that the further food travels before it reaches the consumer, the less fresh it will be and any nutritionist will confirm that fresh food is fuller of vitamins. Therefore, it would be preferable if supermarkets and other stores did not transport food from other countries.

We should also think how food that has travelled across the world is not as good for you as locally grown, fresh produce. This is because if food travels a lot of miles before it reaches the consumer, it won’t be very fresh and experts say that fresh food is better for you. So, in my opinion, supermarkets and other stores shouldn’t transport food from other countries.

In conclusion, I believe that the trend for transporting food over long distances is undesirable because it is environmentally unfriendly, threatens local communities and results in less healthy options for the consumer.

In conclusion, I think that the trend for transporting food over long distances is wrong because it is not good for the environment, it is bad for local communities and means consumers eat less healthily.

Write the essay yourself

Now try this exercise where you read the non-academic version and need to complete the academic version with the correct words:

academic essay language exercise

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