5 Common Speaking Mistakes

There is nothing easier than going wrong with the Speaking section of your exam. There are many speaking mistakes that are too easy to make. Know these simple pitfalls to avoid them and ensure good score for your IELTS/TOEFL/CAE exam.

Answering the Wrong Question

It may sound silly, but this is a common mistake. Make sure you understand the question. Ask your examiner to repeat it if you are unsure what exactly you are supposed to say. It is not going to affect your score in any way. If you still fail to get the meaning, ask to rephrase. If your answer will have nothing to do with the question then it won’t be scored at all.

Memorising the Answer

OK, this isn’t new, we’ve all done that. This time it isn’t going to work because a memorised answer is easily spotted by a professional examiner. Instead of rote-learning the whole answer try to remember some basic phrases and constructions for each possible topic. An honest answer will be much better than a learned one.

Drinking for Confidence

This isn’t going to work. You will think slower, feel out of place. Not to mention you will smell of alcohol — your examiner won’t be too happy to have you. If you absolutely have to take the pressure off — have some green tea before the exam. Mint works good too. Don’t overdo it — you can get your thinking process slowed down by drinking too much.
Alternatively, try some of these techniques to get your cognitive abilities in shape.

Short Answer

The whole idea of Speaking part of exam is to showcase your language. Some tend to forget this, responding to every other questions with only a couple of words. Remember: your answer has to be detailed. As long as it is relevant to the topic — it’s good. If you start going over the time limit the examiner will let you know. If you are unsure what to say, then make something up. Your words don’t have to be one hundred percent truth.

Spontaneous Answer

Certain tasks give you preparation time (i.e. IELTS Speaking Task 2 — the card question). Some choose to keep all the bullet points of the answer in their head. While this is acceptable, it isn’t the optimal technique. You are much better to write the crucial information down: the beginnings of sentences, some words and phrases that you think you should use and so forth. Don’t be lazy – some writing can make your answer much more structured and cohesive.

Articles in English

Articles in English play a very important role. English articles hold text together — if we take articles out of a text it will fall apart. To know how to use articles in English is essential for both speaking and writing. This entry is an attempt to clarify the basic rules for definite and indefinite articles. Just like English prepositions, articles are essential for a good IELTS/CAE score.

When to use “a”

The main purpose of indefinite article “a” is for something mentioned for the first time:
I saw a girl on my way home.

Use “a” when it isn’t important which particular object you are talking about or when that object is unknown to you:
I need to buy a car. (Some kind of car, the make or model of the car doesn’t matter)
We decided to go to a party. (No particular party, just any party)
There is a man waiting for you outside (You don’t know that man)

A” is used for jobs and occupations:
I am a doctor. She is a lawyer. He is an electrician.
BUT
We are engineers (Don’t forget that you don’t use indefinite article with nouns in plural form)

When to use “the”

The primary function of definite article “the” is to refer to an object that has already been mentioned:
I saw a car driving past. The car was blue and looked brand-new.
The first sentence introduced that car for the first time. Second sentence used the word car with the definite article to refer to that particular car.

The” is used when talking about nations in plural:
The Americans, The Brazilians, The Saudi Arabians.

Same rule applies to other groups of people:
The Christians, the Republicans, the Beatles.
BUT
If we talk about individuals, then we have to use an indefinite article:
An Irishman, an American, a Russian, a Turk.

“The” is used with geographical locations and names:
Oceans, gulfs: The Mediterranean, The Atlantic, The Persian Gulf
Rivers: the Thames, the Mississippi (note that lakes take no article)
Groups of islands and mountains: The Bahamas, The Rocky Mountains
Countries that imply plurality: the UK, the USA, the Netherlands

You should use “the” with unique objects (both material and abstract), if there is no such other thing:
The Sun, the Moon, the Earth (These are the planets of our Solar System, called by their proper names (thus capitalized). There are other moons and suns out there in space, but when we say “the Sun” we mean that star in the centre of the Solar System).
The South Pole is a very cold place.
The Stone Age has ended long time ago.

“The” goes with superlative adjectives:
This is the best song in the world.
Michael Jordan is the most talented basketball player.

Ordinal numbers (first, second, 25th) are used with “the”:
On the first day of Christmas we went to visit our relatives.
The Independence Day is celebrated on the 4th of July.

When no article is used

One major rule you should remember is not to use articles with proper names (John, Mary, New York, China)

Uncountable nouns are usually without any article (unless you mean to point out some exact object):
There is a lot of snow on the street.
The sugar that you ordered has arrived. (some specific sugar as it is pointed out in this sentence)

Extra tips:

  • Unsure which article you need? Use a possessive pronoun. My teacher, his friend. Sometimes this is a better choice because it makes clear what you mean.
  • Definite article usually implies a certain object. For instance, if you say “The car is parked just around the corner”, then a question arises “What car?”. If you are unable to answer this questions, then you probably don’t need a definite article.

Formal and Informal Vocabulary

This entry is about differences in vocabulary of formal and informal styles. For general differences, see this article.

Both formal and informal vocabulary can be found in all spheres of the language. As the language becomes more liberal, combining these two groups of words gets more common. Below is an example list of words and expressions in formal and informal registers.

What does ‘formal’ mean? Simply put, it means something or someone following established norms, traditions and habits. A formal letter should have certain structure and vocabulary, usually more official and strict. Think of formal as a rough synonym for ‘official’.

Vocabulary for letters

InformalFormal
To ask for helpTo request assistance
To tell, to let knowTo inform, to notify
ProblemIssue
Speak toAddress smb.
Talk aboutDiscuss, consider
Fix, take care of, put rightRectify, amend
I think that …I believe/hold it that …
I want to …I wish to …
I’m ready to …I am willing to …
I’m angry about …I am dissatisfied with …
Deal with, take care ofManage, resolve, settle
Put up withTolerate, bear, endure
Bring upMention
Take awayRemove
ThanksI am grateful/thankful for …
I’m sorry about …I regret about …
I’m writing aboutI am writing regarding
I’ll get in touch …I will contact …
If you have any questionsShould you have any questions

General formal and informal vocabulary

InformalFormal
AndAs well as …
ButWhereas/While
So, in this mannerThus
If …Should … /Whether …
If … or notWhether … or not
For sure/CertainlyDefinitely/Assuredly
ManyNumerous/Several
GetReceive
KeepRetain

It is recommended to stick to either formal or informal words whenever possible. In other words, don’t mix two registers. It is as important as consistency in using English and American spelling. However, using two registers in your speech is not a serious error. At least as least as far as your speech is concerned. You should nevertheless pay attention to your writing — if you can use a less colloquial expression in your formal letter then you should do so. Sometimes mixing can’t be helped — for example, using phrasal verbs in a text. Phrasal verbs give life to your writing, so you shouldn’t abstain from using them. But such things as contracted forms or slang words — they do not belong in a formal text. Some dictionaries have detailed entries on formal and informal register.

Which register should I use?

The degree of formality is usually decided by the following factors:

  • How well you know the person you’re writing to — the better you know the person, the less formal your writing will be (within reasonable limits)
  • The purpose of your letter — business correspondence tends to be more formal
  • The relative position of the person you’re writing to — a letter to your boss will be strictly formal. A letter to your subordinate is more likely to be semi-formal or fairly informal.

Use your judgement and common sense to decide on the register. For example, a letter to your boss who is much older than you, but whom you know very well is likely to be semi-formal, despite of his age and position. Conversely, if you are the head of department writing to a junior staff member whom you do not know, your letter should be on the formal side.

Conclusion

Bottom line is: if you are unsure whether to use formal or informal words, then stick to more respectable and tactful formal vocabulary. Nobody is going to hate you for being too formal. You will get a funny look or two if you overshoot with formality, but that is definitely not the end of the world!

On the other hand, opting for informal style and vocabulary in certain situations may be tactless and even rude. This in mind, use this simple rule:
When in doubt, keep it formal!

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Formal and Informal English

There are two registers in English — formal and informal. Formal language is more common for official speeches, writing, academic texts. Informal (also known as colloquial) finds its application in speech and writing that take place among friends or people that know each other well.

You are likely to encounter assignments with formal and informal styles in your IELTS Task 1 General, CAE Letter writing and TOEFL writing. Should you choose to enter a college or university, most of your academic papers will have to be in formal style. Your opinion articles however will remain to be informal.

Formal style
  • Differences in vocabulary (Allow instead of let; beverages, not drinks; appropriate, not proper). See formal and informal vocabulary for more!
  • No contracted forms of words (He is, not he’s; We are not we’re; there are not there’re)
  • Use of passive constructions to make the statement sound less categorical. This includes distancing(also known as hedging) and passive voice:
    1.1
    Distancing/hedging is a way to make the saying more vague, to distance yourself from the opinion you express. It makes you sound like a messenger rather than the author of this opinion
    Examples: Some people think that alcohol should be made illegal
    1.2 Use it to make your expression more tactful and polite.
    Examples: It seems that you have forgotten to greet the guests; You might want to park your car on the other side of the street next time, it is forbidden to leave your vehicles here
    1.3 Hedging comes in handy to communicate information that is unconfirmed. This way the speaker will feel responsible should the information he gives turns out to be false.
    Examples: It is believed that the troops will leave the country in two weeks; They seem to be supportive of our ideas
    For more information on hedging constructions visit this page of uefap.com website — it has a comprehensive list of hedging/distancing devices
    2. Use of passive voice to move the focus of sentence to action rather than the thing or person.
    Examples: I was forced to go to that party; The food has been bought by my mother; The money had been paid in full
  • Multiple clauses within one sentence. (President Obama thought that this situation should be dealt with assertively and as soon as the conflict is over the country’s foreign policy has to be reconsidered)
    Such unnecessarily long sentences are typical for formal writing. I advice whenever possible to make your sentences more concise, easier to read.
  • Avoiding use of phrasal verbs when possible (To continue, not to go on; To concede, not to give up)
Informal (colloquial) style
  • Use of ellipsis. Ellipsis is leaving out words from sentence without making it more difficult to understand. Below are examples of elliptical sentences with full sentences in brackets
    Examples: Write to you soon (I will write to you soon); Got to go (I have got to go); See you later (I will see you later)
  • Informal punctuation. Exclamation marks(!) and ellipsis (aka triple dot (…) have their use in informal text, but  never in a formal one.
  • You are encouraged to use:
    1. Phrasal verbs. They make your text more cohesive, easier to read.
    2. One- or two-clause sentences. Shorter sentences generally help understanding the gist of your text or speech.
    3. Contracted forms (He’s, we’re).
    4. Slang and set expressions. See formal and informal vocabulary
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English Prepositions

Prepositions are one of the four cornerstone skills of natural English speech for non-natives. The main challenge when learning prepositions in English is that they can be very different from your mother tongue. It is better to learn prepositions by examples — this way you will establish a connection between form and meaning of preposition in your mind.
The prepositions below are divided into groups of application: prepositions of place and time. The second part of this entry contains a summary table for prepositions of time and place.

Prepositions of place: in, on, at

IN is used with big areas such as towns, cities, countries and continents:
She has been living in Europe for two years now.
Climate in the US is very diverse.
I stayed in London for two weeks
He is the best write in the world.

Same applies to enclosed spaces such as rooms/buildings. Think of it as shortened version of inside:
There is some milk in the bottle. The bottle is in the fridge.
George is in his room waiting for you.
She works in the supermarket (see comparison with at below)


ON is used when we talk about something located on a surface such as a table, a river, ground surface:
We were lying on the grass staring into the night sky.
I’ve put the morning newspaper on the kitchen table.

ON is used with names of streets and avenues:
I live on Baker Street. The museum is located on Brooks Avenue.
The house we are looking for is on Route 50.


However, if we talk about a more specific address then we use AT:
The school is at 109 Lincoln Street.
I will meet you at 65 Hancock Avenue.

We use at when talking about a point at some place instead of bigger area:
I met him at the restaurant (They met at a certain place in that restaurant, e.g. at the entrance.).
I’ll be waiting for you at the station.

Use at when talking about such places as school, shop, supermarket. At is also used when talking about companies and institutions:
He has been working at Apple for almost a decade.
I stopped at the local supermarket to do some shopping BUT: I decided to stay in the supermarket because it was raining outside (We used in because the fact of being inside the building was more important)

AT is used when talking about an event involving a group of people:
We met him at the party last night.

Prepositions of time: in, on, at

IN is used to show that something happened in unspecified point of time.
She woke up in the morning. I was born in 1971. They plan to move to New Jersey in August.

We use IN with longer periods of time (months, seasons, years, centuries):
The birds usually return here in late spring.
Harper Lee died in 2016.
Many great books were written in the 18th century.

Use IN when talking about a period of time until something happens:
I am going to leave the country in four days.
The exam results will be announced in two weeks. 

IN should be used with parts of day:
I usually wake up early in the morning
They promised to visit us in the afternoon BUT: at midday, at night, at midnight


ON is normally used with days and dates:
I’ll meet you on Monday.
She is due to arrive on the 31st of January.
These flowers always bloom on the first day of spring (Even though there is a season mentioned we still stick use ON because it refers to the day rather than the season)


AT is put before specific points at time (e.g. at 5 o’clock, at midnight, at midday, at 8:30 in the morning)
I usually get paid at the end of the month.
I hope to see you next weekend.

Use AT with meals:
You weren’t very talkative at dinner yesterday.
I will see you all guys at lunch!


Prepositions of place, summary
INONATNo preposition
(the) morning
bed
shop
London
TV
bed
Baker St.
Earth
Microsoft
shop
22 Red Ave
home
in/outside
up/downstairs

 

Prepositions of time, summary
INONAT
2009
four days
the morning
a moment
Friday
1st day
4th of July
midnight
2 a.m.
dinner
5 o’clock

 

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English language collocations

Collocations are words that combine well together, making set phrases. “Do your homework”, “a brief period”, “a bunch of flowers” — all of these are collocations, accepted combinations of words. It is one of the fundamental aspects of natural English. Good knowledge of collocations makes your speech sound effortless and cohesive.

Why you should learn collocations

  • Proper use of collocations makes your speech and writing more natural. You say Do me a favour, not make me a favour
  • Gives you more freedom to paraphrase your ideas correctly. Examples: to get a job, to find a job, to look for a job
  • Collocations are tough to guess if you don’t know them. It takes a very developed “feel” of the language to guess them correctly

Types of collocations

  • Noun+noun. (a flock of birds, a giant of a man, file and rank)
  • Noun+adjective. (a major problem, a key point, a plausible outcome)
  • Noun+verb. (I like to watch TV; he shut the door)
  • Verb+adverb. (to step lightly; he easily defeated him; they barely moved)
  • Adverb+adjective (I was pleasantly surprised to learn that)

This is a list of basic collocation groups. There are some more, but for now we shall concentrate on those above.

There are two ways to learn new collocations. You can use specialized dictionaries and dedicated textbooks for that. Alternatively, you may want to note any collocations in text you read and write them down. Of course, you have to be experienced enough to be able to recognize them.

This article contains the most basic collocations. They are grouped by words rather than types. I believe such grouping makes more practical sense. To make sense is a collocation too by the way.
Some verbs have explanations (in brackets), mostly more complex ones. All of the verbs have illustrative examples.

Collocations with “do”

Do a favour Do me a favour, stop pestering me with your problems
Do one’s best (try very hard to achieve smth.) — I did my best and we won
Do the dishes/cleaning/laundryHave some tea, I have to do the dishes
Do one’s hair (to comb, wash, arrange hair) — I want my hair done
Do damage/harmLast night’s storm did much damage to the house
Do an experimentThey have done some experiments on animals

Collocations with “make”

Make a fuss (to cause argument, commotion) — She made a fuss over the fact that the waitress didn’t smile at her
Make noise — The noise her rusty old car was making could was terrible
Make a choice — The choice had to be made as soon as possible
Make a mistake — Making such mistakes is unacceptable
Make a phone call — She has to make a few calls before noon
Make a decision — Making this decision wasn’t easy for either of us
Make an effort (to attempt, to try to do something) — They made an effort to reach out to them

Collocations with “get”

Get upset He got upset because of your behaviour
Get better (to recover e.g. from illness) — Our dog is getting better
Get angry You shouldn’t get angry at him, he’s too young
Get married Nowadays people get married in their thirties
Get permission I got the permission to leave from my boss
Get drunk Last Friday we got so drunk I don’t remember anything
Get up (to wake up or to stand up) — Get up, it’s time to go
Get lost (to lose one’s way) — Once she got lost in the woods there
Get away (to run away or to remain unpunished) — I don’t understand how does he manage to get away with his behaviour

Collocations with “go”

Go hiking/jogging/sightseeing Would you like to go jogging with me early in the morning?
Go to bed After the army I go to bed at 10 pm sharp
Go missing (to get lost) — The lady went missing two days ago
Go abroad (go to another country) — We don’t go abroad very often
Go mad (become crazy) — There’s something wrong with Jack, I think he went completely mad
Go quiet (become silent) — Suddenly, the street went completely quiet

Collocations with “catch”

Catch a cold (get or suffer from cold) — He forgot his cap and caught terrible cold last night
Catch a taxi/bus/train Hurry up or we wont be there in time to catch out train!
Catch smb red-handed (catch committing crime) — The robbers were caught red-handed by the police
Catch sight of smb (notice someone) — I caught sight of your yesterday evening in the mall
Catch smb’s eye (to attract attention) — The girl by the arcade machine really caught my eye

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