An idiom is a phrase created from a group of words that does not necessarily have any meaning related to the words themselves.
For example, ‘that rings a bell’ actually has nothing to do with ringing or bells – it simply means that something is ‘vaguely familiar’.
‘Have you ever met David Madison?’ ‘Hmmm… the name rings a bell but I’m not sure exactly.’
A phrasal verb is similar in that it can be a meaning created from a collection of words.
For example, ‘The plane took off ten minutes late’ – in this sentence, ‘take off’ means to leave or depart.
Common errors with idioms and phrasal verbs in IELTS
In the IELTS test, you need to be very careful with the use of both idioms and phrasal verbs because in the majority of cases they are considered informal (not academic) English.
Here are some errors we commonly hear or read when assessing students speaking or writing:
In a Task II essay: ‘It is a complicated issue as every coin has two sides‘, ‘Many people find it difficult to give up smoking’,
‘Criminals should not be allowed to get away with their crimes’
In Part Three of the speaking test: ‘It should be a piece of cake to reduce government spending in many areas’, ‘New technology often costs an arm and a leg when it is first introduced to the market, but becomes significantly cheaper after just a few months’, ‘Teachers should not put up with poor behaviour from students’.
In all of the examples above, the sentences could have been presented in a more formal manner, sometimes by changing the word or phrase and at other times by restructuring the sentence. For example:
‘It is a complicated issue as there are two points of view to consider‘,
‘Many people find it difficult to quit smoking’,
‘Criminals should be held accountable for their crimes’
‘It should be a relatively simple matter to reduce government spending in many areas’
‘New technology often has a considerably higher price when it is first introduced to the market, but becomes signficantly cheaper after just a few months’
‘Teachers should not tolerate poor behaviour from students’.
So when is it acceptable to use phrasal verbs and idioms?
There are really only two situations in the IELTS test when you can demonstrate your range of English by using suitable phrasal verbs and idioms:
Part one of the speaking test, where the interview is informal and the examiner is asking you questions about yourself.
Task I of the General Training writing test IF THE CONTEXT IS INFORMAL, such as writing a letter to a friend.
We hope that helps!