Common Canadian Sayings and Do They Have A Place In IELTS?

March 23, 2016 by Gwen Zeldenrust

When you go to Timmy's a Double Double costs less than a toonie.  For sure you've heard that before, eh.  In Canada we develop Molson muscles after drinking a two-four and eating Kraft dinner.  You don't really have to worry about this too much, especially if you are taking the IELTS test. Learning slang is fun but not absolutely necessary.  When you take the IELTS test, you want to showcase a range of vocabulary, but you shouldn't use slang. (The words in bold are slang).  Vocabulary that you would use in a formal situation is more sophisticated and considered to be of a higher level.

Formal vs Informal

If you are talking to your friends or family you are more likely to use informal language. It's usually simpler and more direct.  Formal language, however, uses more complex structures and often many more words.  Look at the following example:

Informal: I haven't done that before.
Formal: Actually, I haven't ever experienced that situation.

These sentences have the same meaning, but the formal one uses more sophisticated vocabulary and is more indirect than the informal one.  Both sentences have a place in your English vocabulary, but you need to know when it is appropriate to use them.  If in doubt, it's better to be more formal.  On the IELTS exam, you can demonstrate higher levels of language proficiency by using formal vocabulary. Formal language is typically more precise and allows you to discuss topics at length, not to mention that it is more grammatically complex and lets you progress beyond basic sentence forms. Examiners are specifically looking for precision and complexity in the higher level bands. 

Click here to see the Band Descriptors

Idioms and Idiomatic Language: Is there a difference?

You might wonder if idioms are considered formal.  Idioms, like any other kind of vocabulary, can be formal or informal.  The IELTS band descriptors refer to idiomatic language and you'll note that for the higher level bands, the examiners are looking for idiomatic language, which can include idioms, but also includes expressions, metaphors, and similes. They all denote a higher understanding of the nuance in meaning.  However, some idioms are considered slang, but some can also be used in formal situations. 

Type of Idiomatic LanguageExample

Informal or slang idiom     

I live out in the sticks.

Formal idiom                     

He passed the citizenship test with flying colours.


When I started my new job, I was lost in a sea of unfamiliar faces.


Reading is to my brain as food is to my body.

The most important thing to remember when using idiomatic language is if you are not sure of the meaning then don't use it during the test!  Click this link for more useful tips on taking the test

Characteristics of Canadian English

What exactly is formal language?  Think about it in terms of how you would speak if you were at a job interview.  This formal style is a good approach to taking the IELTS exam.  The expectation of what formal language is varies from culture to culture.  There are some particular characteristics of speech that Canadians value, which can help you on the IELTS test.

  • Indirectness
  • Positivity

How can you make your speech indirect?  You can use conditional words.  For example instead of saying:  "I can give you an example from my previous job", you could say: "Perhaps I could give you an example from my previous job."  The conditional words 'perhaps' and 'could' give the language a level of indirectness which makes it more formal and demonstrates a higher level of competence.
Positivity is another common characteristic of Canadian English.  We often use not + a positive adjective rather than a negative adjective.  For instance, a Canadian is more likely to say not possible rather than saying the word impossible, or not true rather than saying the word false.  

Using the Appropriate Vocabulary

If you are taking the IELTS exam in Canada, it's likely that your examiner will be Canadian.  So it's good to know their perspective on what is considered formal and informal.  However, the IELTS exam is an international standardized test.  Therefore, the language you use must be appropriate.  Formal English used by Canadians is acceptable worldwide.  Canadian slang (or informal language) is unique and it's best not to use it on the IELTS exam.

I'm Gwen Zeldenrust, teacher, writer, and IELTS professional. I've been teaching for more than 15 years, domestically and internationally. I've been involved in various teaching projects, including making a video. Sharing information that helps people succeed is what I do.

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