• Trishna Chakraborty— IELTS Grader

3 Key Areas to Improve Your Punctuation in IELTS Writing Task 2

Updated: Aug 30, 2020

Punctuation controls the pace of your essay and can help set the right tone.

You’ve finished writing your essay and you feel great! The content is impeccable. The spelling is flawless. The grammar is pristine. Finally, your score comes in and—it’s lower than you expected. What could the issue be?

Sometimes, it’s the small things that can hurt your score. A small but important element in IELTS Writing Task 2 is punctuation. The reality is that punctuation plays a key part in your essay. It controls the pace of your essay and can help set the right tone.

Punctuation is a vast topic, so in this post, I will focus on commas, semicolons, and hyphens and dashes.


Let’s eat grandma!

Does that sentence sound a bit odd? What that sentence is saying is that we should eat the speaker’s grandma, and it is grammatically correct (though a bit crazy).

Here is the right way to write the sentence:

Let’s eat, grandma!

Do you see how a simple comma can change the whole meaning of the sentence?

Introductory Commas

An introductory comma separates introductory elementswords that prepare the reader for the main part of the sentencefrom the rest of the sentence. An introductory comma can be placed after:

  • An introductory word.

  • An introductory phrase.

Here are some examples:

First, read the following text.

Yes, we can go to a movie tonight.

Well, what do you think about her behavior?

Of course, you should consult your lawyer before answering the questions.


Things get a bit trickier when it comes to conjunctions:

I have completed the presentation, but I would still like you to go through it.

The key thing is that you do not need to put commas before every conjunction. For example, if the conjunction is not combining complete clauses, then don’t put a comma:

I can’t decide whether to have pizza or a cheeseburger.

There is always a long line at the restaurant, whether it’s a weekend or not.

Separating Essential and Non-Essential Information

The next tip is that the comma separates the essential and non-essential information from a sentence (non-essential information can be excluded without altering the intention of the sentence).

Mrs. Williams, who is dressed in yellow, is my friend’s aunt.

When it comes to commas, the most common mistake we make is the comma splice. The comma splice occurs when two complete sentences are joined with a comma. Both pieces of information are essential, so they should be joined appropriately (with a coordinating conjunction or semicolon in place of the comma).

The new semester was already two weeks underway, I had not yet gone to class.


Semicolons hold two related independent clauses together. For example:

The doctor will call you in three days; she’ll tell you the results of your blood test.

This can be written as two complete sentences.

The doctor will call you in three days. She’ll tell you the results of your blood test.

Another common place to see semicolons is before words such as “therefore,” “however” and “moreover” in the middle of a sentence. These words are also called cohesive words. Is this confusing? If so, let’s look at a few examples:

I exercise daily; therefore, I am strong.

When it is broken down into parts, two complete sentences are formed.

I exercise daily. Therefore, I am strong.

So, using a semicolon before ‘‘therefore’’ is correct.

Hyphens and Dashes

There are several horizontal lines used in English writing: hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes. How do you tell the difference between all these little lines?


Hyphens can be used when two words are brought together as one concept or a compound word.

That newspaper article was a real eye-opener.

My self-esteem is pretty high, because I’m happy with my life.

It also helps to join two adjectives serving as one adjective describing a noun. For example:

Elon Musk is a well-known entrepreneur.

Present-day society is very different than it was 100 years ago.

Keep in mind there are exceptions. The adjectives should be followed by a noun to be joined by a hyphen. Take a look at these counterexamples to understand it better.

Elon Musk, an entrepreneur, is well known.

Society in the present day is very different than it was 100 years ago.

En Dashes

En dashes are slightly longer than hyphens. One of their uses is in ranges. For example:

There is between 72–167 dollars in my bank account.

They can also be used to connect two things of equal importance:

A high-inflation–low-risk venture.

Using an en dash here shows that ‘venture’ is equality associated with the hyphenated adjectives ‘high-inflation’ and ‘low-risk.’

Em Dashes

Em dashes are used with sudden changes in thought or to indicate emphasis and explanation. For example:

I feel like going to—oh, never mind.

We have only two hours—what time is it, again?

My neighbors don’t just have a few pets—they have eight cats, two dogs, and a parakeet.

I hope this post has shown you the importance of using the right punctuation in your sentence. Something as small as a comma, semicolon, or hyphen can change the meaning of your sentence, and, used correctly, can also be the difference between a good score and a great score.

Do you have any questions? Or would like to share your own punctuation tips? If so, please comment below!

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