Informal & Formal Vocabulary for IELTS

As an IELTS teacher, one of the most common questions I get asked is if a particular word is appropriate for IELTS. People seem to be obsessed with using formal vocabulary!

In a way, it’s not surprising since one of the things that dictionaries are not so good at is explaining register: that is, the appropriate situation in which to use a certain word.

My rule is very simple: make your language as formal and academic as possible in IELTS writing, but try to use natural-sounding language in IELTS speaking.

However, there are some words that you shouldn’t use in any section of the test. What are they? See my list below for all the answers.

Informal (Avoid) Neutral (Speaking) Formal (Writing)
Stuff Things Items, Possessions
Folks Family Relatives
Kids (younger) Babies, Children Infants, Offspring
Kids (older) Teenagers Adolescents, Youths
Guy Man Male
Old people Elderly people Senior citizens, Retirees
Boss, Manager Supervisor, Superior
Cops Police Law enforcement
Crooks Criminals Offenders, Lawbreakers
OK, Alright Fine Acceptable, Satisfactory
Great, Awesome Good Preferable, Desirable
Rubbish, Useless Bad, Poor Unsatisfactory, Unacceptable
Nice, Polite Considerate, Agreeable
Kind, Friendly Sociable, Neighbourly
Nasty, Cheeky (person) Rude, Impolite Abusive, Disagreeable
Stupid, Crazy, Dumb (idea) Misguided, Questionable
Stupid, Crazy, Dumb (person) Misguided, Mistaken
Happy (person) Satisfied, Delighted
Happy (situation) Satisfying, Delightful
Sad (person) Regretful, Distressed
Sad (situation) Regrettable, Distressing
Sick of, Fed up with Tired of Dissatisfied with
Poor (country) Developing, Poverty-stricken
Poor (person) In poverty, Underprivileged
Rich (country) Wealthy, Developed
Rich (person) Wealthy, Privileged

Bonus tip 1: Contractions such as don’t are fine in IELTS Speaking but it is better to use do not in the Academic Writing module. Avoid very casual contractions such as gonna and dunno completely.

Bonus tip 2: Don’t use too much formal vocabulary in IELTS Speaking or your answers will sound very stiff and unnatural. Just be yourself!
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