Formal Vocabulary for the IELTS Exam: Achieving an Appropriate Tone 

 May 29, 2024

By  Jonathan

TThe IELTS exam assesses your English proficiency, including your knowledge of IELTS vocabulary, in a variety of contexts, many of which demand a formal style of language. Using overly casual vocabulary or slang can negatively impact your scores, making it crucial to understand the appropriate level of formality and develop strategies to avoid informal language.

Why Formal Vocabulary Matters on the IELTS

  • Academic and Professional Tone: Many IELTS tasks, particularly in writing and speaking, involve discussing complex issues, analyzing data, or expressing opinions in a reasoned manner. Informal language is unsuitable for these tasks.
  • Demonstrating Range: Showing command of formal vocabulary sets you apart as a proficient language user in the eyes of the IELTS examiners.
  • Clarity and Precision: Formal words often allow you to express your ideas with more accuracy and nuance than everyday conversational language.

How Formal Should You Be?

The ideal is to strike a balance between overly stiff, unnatural formality, and too-casual speech. Aim for these qualities:

  • Specific, Not Fancy: Don’t try to use the most obscure word possible. Focus on clear, precise words appropriate to academic or professional contexts.
  • Natural Fluency: If you hesitate or stumble using formal words, it’s better to use slightly simpler language with confidence.
  • Task Appropriate: Formal essays or giving a presentation (Speaking Part 2) warrant more formality than describing a photo (Speaking Part 1).

Identifying Informal Language

To avoid informal words, you must first recognize them. Watch out for:

  • Contractions: Use “cannot” instead of “can’t”, “I will” instead of “I’ll”.
  • Slang and Idioms: Avoid expressions like “get the hang of”, “kind of”, or “a piece of cake”. These sound out of place in formal IELTS contexts.
  • Phrasal Verbs: While many phrasal verbs are acceptable, some are too casual. Instead of “put up with”, consider “tolerate”.
  • Filler Words: Minimize phrases like “you know” or “like” which weaken your formality, especially in Speaking.

Tips for Using Formal Vocabulary

  • Thesaurus with Caution: Don’t just swap a simple word for its fancy synonym. Check that the connotation and usage are truly a perfect match.
  • Topic-Based Learning: Organize new vocabulary by IELTS themes (environment, education, etc.). This makes it easier to apply it to relevant tasks.
  • Analyze Formal Texts: Pay attention to word choices in editorials, research articles, or serious documentaries.
  • Practice, Don’t Just Memorize: Use recently learned formal words in practice essays or when discussing IELTS-related topics with a study partner.

Examples: Informal vs. Formal

InformalFormalWhen to Use the Formal Option
A lot ofA great deal ofWritten essays, discussing quantitative data
Big problemSignificant issueStating opinions, analyzing problems
Really goodAdvantageousExpressing positive aspects
Showed upAttendedDescribing events in formal settings
Get rid ofEliminateDescribing a process, proposing solutions

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Special Considerations for Speaking

It’s more challenging to monitor your vocabulary in real-time speaking tasks. Here’s what to focus on:

  • Preparation is Key: For Part 2 or Part 3 of the Speaking test, pre-plan some topic-specific formal vocabulary and phrases you can comfortably use.
  • Paraphrase to Upgrade: If the perfect word escapes you, rephrase the idea using slightly more formal language you do know.
  • Don’t Panic: A few informal words won’t ruin your Speaking score if the rest of your content is strong and delivered fluently.

Final Note

While formal vocabulary is crucial for IELTS success, don’t let it turn into an obsession. A response that demonstrates a grasp of core grammar, is well-organized, and communicates ideas effectively will always be favoured by examiners, even if it lacks some advanced vocabulary. Think of formality as one valuable tool within your overall English language toolkit.

By understanding the expectations of the IELTS exam and practicing conscious word choices, you’ll develop the ability to use formal language with confidence and accuracy – a skill that will benefit you far beyond your test day.

Jonathan has been teaching students to prepare for the IELTS and PTE Exams for more than 10+ years. He's taught English to students in various countries in the world including Singapore, China, Australia, Canada and Colombia.