Avoid these mistakes when using idioms in IELTS:
- Only use idioms when it is appropriate. Writing Task 1 Academic, Writing Task 2 and formal letters are not appropriate as they require a formal tone.
- Don’t overuse idioms in the Speaking test.
- Don’t use idioms you don’t understand.
- Don’t say idioms incorrectly.
- Don’t think about idioms too much. Only use them when it feels natural.
I probably get asked more questions about idioms than any other single thing. Every day I get questions like:
- Will using idioms increase my score?
- Which idioms should I use?
- How many idioms should I use in the speaking test?
- Should I use idioms in the writing test?
This is one of the most misunderstood areas of the test and making some of the mistakes below can really lower your score.
Below are 7 ways idioms can decrease your speaking and writing score.
Mistake # 1- Using Idioms in Writing Task 1 Academic
Task 1 on the Academic test requires you to describe data, a map or a process. This should never require you to use idioms because you are writing an academic report and the use of informal phrases is not appropriate.
Mistake # 2- Using Idioms in Formal Letters
Task 1 on the General Training paper asks you to write a letter, which can be either formal or informal.
It is fine to use idioms in an informal letter, as long as you use them correctly. However, using them in a formal letter is not appropriate and you will lose marks for using an informal tone.
Mistake # 3- Using Idioms in Writing Task 2
Writing Task 2 for both Academic and General Training requires you to write a short essay in an academic style. Just like formal letters or academic reports, it is not appropriate to use informal language, such as idioms, when writing this style of essay.
Mistake # 4- Overusing Idioms in the Speaking Test
Idioms can be used in the Speaking test and can help you get a higher score because you are using more idiomatic language, but this does not mean that you should use them in every single sentence.
There is no rule for how often you should use them, but you should listen to how native speakers use idioms. If you listen to native speakers, they do not use them as often as you think.
If you overuse idioms you are going to sound very unnatural, you will make more mistakes and you could also lose coherence because you are focusing more on idioms than actually answering the question. Finally, it could also lead to your fluency suffering because you are thinking too much about idioms and this will cause you to hesitate and pause while you search for the latest idiom.
Here is an example of one student I spoke to who overused idioms:
Me: Where are you from?
Student: You will be really over the moon when you visit my hometown, but it often rains cats and dogs. I only go there once in a blue moon. If you go, you will really hit the nail on the head.
This is an extreme example, but it would surprise you how often students try to insert idioms at this rate. Again, there is no fixed rule as to how often you should use them; listen to how native speakers talk and you will soon get an idea of how you should use them appropriately.
Mistake # 5- Using Idioms You Don’t Understand
One of the worst things you can do is learn lists of idioms and then expect to use them correctly in the test. You must understand the meaning and how they are used in context before attempting to use them in the test.
For example, a common idiom is ‘once in a blue moon’ to describe something you do rarely. In the test, when asking someone how often they do something, students say ‘once in a blue moon’ and then go on to describe how they do this activity regularly. It is then obvious to the examiner that they do not really know the meaning of the idiom they used and this will lower their score.
When learning idioms, you should learn how and when they should be used. A good way to do this is by listening to how native English speakers use them and you can note down any idioms and then practice using them correctly.
Mistake # 6- Saying Idioms Incorrectly
Some of the ‘idioms’ that students have used over the years include:
- ‘Raining dogs and cats’
- ‘Hit the nail with the hammer’
- ‘Overjoyed the moon’
- ‘Once per moon’
This happens when you try to use idioms too often or you learn lists of idioms and try to use them before knowing them 100%.
Follow the 100% rule- don’t use any words or phrases unless you know the meaning, context, use and pronunciation 100%.
Mistake # 7- Thinking About Idioms Too Much
If you are constantly thinking about idioms because you are trying to insert them into your answers as much as possible, your fluency is going to suffer.
You have enough to think about in the test (ideas, developing your answers, grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation etc.) and the more you think, the less fluent you become. Make your life easier by only using idioms when it is natural to do so.
Now that you know what NOT to do, check out my article on how to use idioms effectively.