Correct Punctuation in the IELTS writing test

Punctuation is important if you are aiming for ‪‎IELTS‬ Band 7 or above. It can be very confusing to study punctuation because there are a lot of quite complex rules and some uses are changing.
However, there are some key points that I think are the minimum you need to learn and master. Here they are:

1) Punctuation includes using a full stop at the end of a sentence and beginning a new sentence with a capital letter. You would be surprised how many people don’t do this, even when they are writing at a high level. Go back over any previous writing you have done to check if this applies to you.

2) You need to use commas accurately, especially:
After adverbs showing your position e.g. Unfortunately, Actually, Personally, Interestingly, Surprisingly, etc.

After: However, and between 2 clauses when you begin a sentence with the conjunctions although, though etc. (e.g. Although it was raining, we decided to go out.)
Before ‘which’, when it is used as a non defining relative pronoun (e.g. Some people believe that money buys happiness, which I find surprising.)
Between words in a list: More money should be spent on essentials such as schools, hospitals and public transport.

The Oxford comma is a comma added before ‘and’ when you are writing a list. In the above example, I wrote:
‘More money should be spent on essentials such as schools, hospitals and public transport.’

So, I didn’t use the Oxford comma.
With the Oxford comma it would be:
‘More money should be spent on essentials such as schools, hospitals, and public transport.’

The need for this comma is debated among native speakers and so it is not an issue for the IELTS test – both are correct. I will try to explain why people debate this and why they think it makes a difference. In my example above, the last 2 items in my list: hospitals and public transport, are completely different, no one would assume that I meant to link them together. Sometimes, though, the items in the list are similar and then, some people argue, the Oxford comma does matter.

A health care professional wrote this on a discussion forum about the Oxford comma:
‘For lack of an Oxford comma, speech therapy and physical therapy must share their number of visits for Medicare patients while occupational therapy gets the same number of visits all to themselves. The bill was written “(X number of visits) for occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech therapy.” Oxford commas can make a huge difference. If there had been an Oxford comma, each discipline would have received the same number of visits instead of making PT and speech share. All for the lack of a comma.’

Medicare is healthcare funded by the government. So this document (the bill she refers to) was listing the ways in which the money for types of therapy could be allocated. It effectively says : patients can receive money for 10 visits for occupational therapy, speech therapy and physical therapy.’ The writer claims that this has been interpreted as occupational therapy = 10 visits but speech therapy and physical therapy are linked together and so they must receive a total of 10 visits between them. She would like the bill to say: “(X number of visits) for occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech therapy.” in which case each type of therapy would qualify for 10 visits each.

For myself, I believe the people who interpret it the first way are reading it incorrectly. To me the wording of the bill says that each therapy should be allocated 10 visits. What do you think?

Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 7.42.27 pmDon’t forget to check out my new Vocabulary learning app!  It’s aimed at people stuck at Band 6 or 6.5 who are aiming for a Band 7. 

2 thoughts on “Correct Punctuation in the IELTS writing test

  1. Eiman

    Thank you for the professional advice youare giving us.
    I have one question regarding punctuation:
    Should we use commas before so, because and such as?

    1. Pauline Post author

      It really depends on the individual sentence. For example, when you use ‘because’ in a shorter sentence, there is usually no comma.


Hello! All feedback and any IELTS questions are welcome.