Common errors in the writing exam

When you finish the writing part of your English exam, take a moment to review what you’ve written.

The exam is quite stressful, and it’s easy for mistakes to creep in unnoticed. I’ve put together a list of common errors, which are made by students at all levels, which you can download here. It’s a short list, only 5 items, so I hope you can remember them in the exam.

Good luck!

Prepositions of Place and Time: at, in and on

The short version is in this post; a more detailed explanation which includes some exercises to practice can be downloaded here (prepositions-at-in-on.pdf). The answers to the exercises are available here.

Prepositions of place

In general we use:

  • at a POINT
  • on a SURFACE


  • Peter is waiting for you at the cinema
  • Do you live in Italy?
  • Someone has spilt wine on this menu

Prepositions of time

In general we use:

  • on a DATE or DAY


  • We usually eat lunch at 1 p.m.
  • Are you going on holiday in June?
  • Where will you be on your birthday?

Ellipsis, Ellipses and Elision

1. Ellipsis

Ellipsis is the omission of words from a sentence to simplify it without changing the meaning. Sometimes the position of the omitted words is indicated by ellipses (three dots: …), but often there is no need to include the ellipses. We often use ellipsis in spoken language and emails to make it sound less formal.


  • I took a photo of Peter and Peter took a photo of Sandra.
  • I took a photo of Peter, and Peter of Sandra.
  • It sounds like a good idea to me.
  • Sounds like a good idea.
  • Do you fancy a meal with us this weekend?
  • Fancy a meal with us this weekend?

2. Ellipses

Ellipses are the three dots (…) which are used to indicate that text has been omitted. They are also called ellipsis dots.
They are often used by journalists to shorten quotes. In reported speech and dialogs they can be used to indicate that the person speaking paused. They can also be used instead of “et cetera” (etc.) at the end of a list to show that the list is even longer and some items have been omitted.

We use ellipses less than the Spanish, and even native English speakers who use ellipsis in email often use it too often. If in doubt, don’t use ellipses!

In the case of journalistic quotes, it is considered essential that the meaning of the quotation should not be changed when text is omitted.

In emails and informal writing ellipses can be used to indicate the trailing off of a thought.


To rescue from oblivion even a fragment of a language which men have used and which is in danger of being lost –that is to say, one of the elements, whether good or bad, which have shaped and complicated civilization –is to extend the scope of social observation and to serve civilization. ~ Victor Hugo (Full quotation)

To rescue from oblivion even a fragment of a language … is to extend the scope of social observation and to serve civilization. ~ Victor Hugo (Shortened quotation)


Informal trailing off:
If only she had . . . Oh, it doesn’t matter now.

A list which is incomplete:
We have to buy to buy carrots, eggs, peas, …

A pause in spoken dialog:
“I don’t know … maybe we should call him.”

3. Elision

Elision is the omission of one or more sounds in a word or phrase. Sounds are often elided to make them easier to pronounce. Sometimes a sound is changed when a word is elided (e.g. going to > gonna).

Common examples are: “cam-ra” instead of “camera”, “rest-rant” instead of “restaurant” or “lie-bree” instead of “library”.

Elision also occurs sometimes in Spanish (e.g. para trabajar > pa trabajar; cansado > cansao), but it is much less common.

When do you use “especially”, and when “specially”?

In many cases, there isn’t much difference between using “especially” or “specially”. Roget’s Thesaurus gives each word as a synonym of the other, and suggests “in particular” or “specifically” as further synonyms.

There is a small difference – when you use “especially”, you are usually singling out one particular person that you have done something for, or a particular reason that you had for doing something. In general, we use “especially” much more frequently than “specially”.

You can find a good explanation in the Oxford Dictionaries website.

Hypothetical situations and desires

We use the past tenses to talk about hypothetical situations (situations which are not true). When we talk about our wishes or desires, we use the present tense.

1. Hypothetical Situation in the present or the future
- Supposing
- I wish (Note: wish + could = a desired ability)
- What if
- If only (Note: If only is stronger than I wish)
- Would rather (Expresses a preference in the future)

+ past simple

Supposing a cat and a dog fell in love
I wish he used less after-shave / I wish I could swim
What if we went on holiday to Italy this year?
If only we hadn’t eaten so much
He would rather he worked from home
2. Hypothetical Situation in the past
- Supposing
- I wish
- What if
- If only
- Would rather

+ past perfect

Supposing we had won the lottery
I wish I had accepted that job offer
What if your car had been stolen?
If only we had parked nearer to the station
Mary would rather she had chosen a different position
3. Preferences in the present or future
- I would rather
+ verb base (= the infinitive minus “to”)He would rather his employees work less overtime
4. Irritating habits of others
- I wish
+ would + verb baseI wish he would clean up in the kitchen after he’s eaten
5. Something which should have already happened
- It’s about time
- It’s high time
- It’s time

+ past simple

It’s about time we changed to a different phone company
It’s high time we painted the house
It’s time we went to see your grandmother

Note that with …would rather…, the word which is stressed can be used to show what our preference is:

– I’d rather you went. (instead of me)
– I’d rather you went. (instead of staying)
– I’d rather you did the housework. (instead of the cooking)

When do we double the final consonant in a word?

1. Only some letters are doubled: b, d, g, l, m, n, p, r, t.

2. We double the final consonant of a word before we add

-ed,     -er,       -est,      -ing,       -able       and       -y

to show that the vowel has a short sound.

2a. With a one-syllable word:

If the word ends with a Consonant + Vowel + Consonant, double the final consonant.

This called the C-V-C rule.


hat – hatter
big – biggest
mum – mummy
run – running, runny
gut – gutted

2b. With multi-syllable words:

Double the final letter when the final syllable is stressed in speech.


begin – beginning
prefer – preferring, preferred
transfer – transferred

In British English, cancel and travel are exceptions to this rule: (travelled, cancelled, cancelling are correct)

3. If the final syllable is not stressed, we do not double the final letter.


listen – listening, listened
happen – happening, happened

Vowels: a, e, i, o, u
Consonents: all other letters

Phrasal Verbs

Phrasal verbs are normally used more in spoken English than in formal writing. They consist of a verb and one or two additional words which are adverbs or prepositions. The majority of phrasal verbs consist of the verb and one more word (e.g. “put off”) but some consist of a verb and two words, such as “put up with”.

There are over 3400 phrasal verbs listed on the Use of English website. For a more manageable list of common phrasal verbs, a good website is If you want to print their list of verbs, click the link “Print Page” at the top left of their page.

The “Writing” part of the Cambridge Exam

In the B- and C-Level exams you have to write a short text as part of the exam. There are different types of text that can be asked for, which I will look at below and give tips on how to do them.

  • Informal Letter or Email
  • Semi-formal letter
  • Report
  • Article
  • Review
  • Essay

So what are the differences between these, and what do you need to think about for each type of document?

Informal Letter or Email

This is a letter or email to a friend or a member of your family. You don’t need to write the “to”, “from”, “date” or “subject” (if you do, don’t count the words you have used for these as part of the total number of words you have written).

Start with an informal greeting, such as “Dear Peter” or “Hi Mary”, and on the next line remember to start a new sentence with a capital letter. Make some comment about what what they wrote to you before answering their questions and giving your own news. Finish with an informal phrase such as “All the best”, “Cheers”, “See you soon”, “Love” or something similar.

Semi-formal letter

A semi-formal letter could be to a company, your local newspaper, or the local government, probably to tell them about a complaint or an opinion you have, or maybe to apply for a job. In the exam, you don’t need to write an address, the date, or the subject. If you want to include these, the number of words in these parts doesn’t count in the number of words you have to write.
In this case, you need to use more formal language, (for example using the passive voice, e.g. “it is said”, “the quality has become worse”, etc.) and will probably start with an expression like “Dear Sir/Madam”, “Dear Mr Jones”, “Dear Sirs” etc. The ending will also be fairly formal, for example: “Yours faithfully”.


A report is usually written for your boss, or for a customer. For example, you may be asked to suggest ways of improving how your company treats customers, or you may have to make suggestions to a client about their business. A report needs to start with a title, and to have several sections which each have a different main idea. The sections should each have a heading on a separate line. You will need at least 3 sections, normally you will need more than 3. The first section should be the Introduction, then you will need one or more sections to present your findings, and finally a section (usually called Summary or Conclusion or Recommendations, depending on the style of report you have written).


An article is something written to be published – in a blog, a newspaper, a magazine or something similar. It is written to interest the reader of the publication. Again, the style should be semi-formal, unless you are writing in a discussion forum. An article needs a title, like the report does, but doesn’t need headings for the sections. You’ll need to write an introduction in the first paragraph, and remember to summarise the main point(s) for the reader at the end of the article. The article needs to be structured, with each paragraph having a main idea.


A review is special type of article. It should start with a title for the review and be written in a semi-formal style. It’s written for a blog, newspaper or magazine, but it reports your opinion about something. It could be a review of a restaurant, a fashion show, a film, a book, etc. It’s very similar to an article, but here what counts is your opinion, which you should justify. For example, don’t just say that the service was bad or that the food was terrible, say that the food took over forty minutes to arrive at the table, and it was served luke-warm. Again, the review, like an article, should start with a short introduction and finish by summarising your opinion and the reason for having it.


An essay will usually ask you to discuss something. As in the other types of document that you can be asked to write, it should be structured with a main idea in each paragraph.
An essay doesn’t need a title or section headings, although I think it is a good idea to give a title to the essay. The number of words in the title doesn’t count towards the number of words you have written. It’s important in an essay to include views for and against the point you are being asked to write about. However, you should make your own views clear and give reasons why you think your views are correct. Don’t forget to finish with a conclusion or a summary of your views.

General things to remember in all the above document types

  • Make sure you answer all the points/questions that the exam paper asks for. If you are asked for 3 reasons for something, and only give two, you can not get full marks for your answer. This is the easiest way to collect marks – even if your English isn’t perfect you will get marks for answering all the parts of the question!
  • Remember that if you write too few words, you have probably not answered all the points you were asked to write about in the question; and if you write too much, you give yourself more possibilities of making mistakes, and if you write much to much, the examiner may stop reading altogether, and you may get marked down for an incomplete answer!
  • Remember that in English we don’t usually write “…” at the end of a list to show there are more possibilities which have not been listed. Instead, you can say “etc.” or “and so on”.
  • If you have time at the end of the exam, re-read what you have written, and check you haven’t made typical mistakes such as writing he when you are talking about something a woman did, check that each verb has a subject (which can often be it), check you haven’t written plural forms of adjectives. Adjectives don’t have a plural form in English – there are no blacks cats!

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