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Formal and Informal English on IELTS

U wanna 9 in IELTS?

You might think the above sentence will give you a low score on an IELTS test. However, you might be wrong. IELTS tests your English language skills. And yes, this includes both formal and informal English. Think about it. The top university professors in the world can be heard using informal English in their classes. On the other end, elementary school children sometimes have to memorize Shakespeare.

The point is this. Formal and informal English all depend on the tone you want to deliver. It depends on who you are communicating with. It depends on how you are communicating. It also depends on the message you want to deliver. IELTS is no exception. Below are some points you should keep in mind.

I speak too formally in IELTS?


According to Band 5 on the public IELTS Speaking Criteria Score Sheet, you can get a 5 if you “over-use certain connectives and discourse markers”. A discourse marker is any term that helps us organize our language. Students of English often overuse discourse markers to make themselves sound more formal. Overuse means that you use something too much. Some examples of discourse markers are even though, whereas, on the one hand, actually, and nevertheless. Using discourse markers is great to organize your language. However, don’t overuse them just to be more formal.

Is my writing is too formal?

I understand. Speaking informally could get a 9 on IELTS. What about writing? The writing exam is your chance to show your great grammar, spelling, and vocabulary skills. And if you do that, you will probably get a high mark. However, according to the IELTS Writing Criteria score sheet, “inadequate, inaccurate or over-use of cohesive devices” will result in a score of 5 for organization.

What does all this mean? Well, some students, when they prepare for IELTS, repeat the same group of connectors over and over again. This makes your writing seem robotic. Also, you might use connectors incorrectly. So, similar to the speaking, it's ok to use formal connectors such as therefore, first, second, and in conclusion, but don’t use them too much.

Task 1 Academic – Formal English

If you read the ideas above, you understand that sometimes formal language can be a bad thing. However, if any part of the IELTS test requires formal English, it is Task 1 of the academic writing test. This test is an academic summary of an image. You should not use slang. You should not use idioms. You should not show your opinion. That said, you should use a formal style. Task 1 of writing should be organized well with correctly used formal language and discourse markers. A suggestion for improving in this area is to highlight examples of this language in examples from sample tests.

I still don’t know what you mean by “formal English.”

Sometimes it's difficult to call something informal or formal. However, there are some basic guidelines you can follow. Here are just a few:

 Contractions: Formal English does not use contractions, while informal generally does.


Precise language: Formal uses more accurate and academic language, while informal is more relaxed with more paraphrasing.


Gender neutral: More accurate and more objective language catches both genders.

Let’s practice!

Try the exercises below. The answers are at the bottom of the article.


Click here for more practice!


By Tony Rusinak, IELTS Expert

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