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The IELTS Writing test: telling the difference between formal and informal

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Many of you have asked me about the difference between the formal and informal writing in IELTS and this tells me that it’s a common problem. So here is what you need to know about the styles of writing in the IELTS test.

If you are preparing for the Academic IELTS module, both Task 1 and Task 2 in the Writing test are formal. For the General Training candidates, Task 2 in Writing is always formal, and Task 1 can be formal or informal.

As you know, Task 1 for the GT module is a letter, and if the topic asks you to write to someone you know, that is an informal letter – as opposed to writing to someone you don’t know, which should be formal.

The difference between formal and informal styles is mainly in the vocabulary. Informal words are the ones used in everyday conversations and formal are used in books, contracts, business letters and essays. If the task requires formal writing – avoid using informal vocabulary. If the task requires informal writing, such as a letter to a friend, avoid using formal ‘heavy’ words.


Apart from the vocabulary in formal writing it is best to avoid words like “I”, “you”, “we”, unless you are expressing an opinion. For example in an essay instead of writing “You would find it difficult to get a job without proper qualifications”, write something like “One would find it difficult to find a job without proper qualifications”, or you could write “Finding a job without proper qualifications would be rather difficult”.

For those of you who don’t live in an English speaking country and don’t speak English on daily basis it may be difficult to tell the difference between the formal and informal vocabulary, which is why I compiled this short list of words. You could memorize it and use in your writing while practicing – this way the chances you will use the correct word in the real exam increase.

Formal Informal
Inform me Let me know
Cancel Drop
Contact Get in touch
Obtain Get
Apologise Say sorry
Postpone Delay
Request Ask for
Compensate Make up
Establish Set up
Discover Find out
Handle Deal with
Investigate Check up on
Tolerate Put up
Increase Go up
Children Kids
Many / Much A lot of
Many / Much Heaps of

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