Improve your Grammar for the CAE Exam

The first thing you need to know is that the Cambridge Certificate in Advanced English (CAE) exam isn't an exam which is focused on testing your grammar. Although you still need to have a good knowledge and use of grammatical structures to do well in it, it is more an exam which is testing your knowledge and use of vocabulary and your range of it (i.e. you can understand and use vocabulary on a wide range of topics).

In my experience, it is the Cambridge First Certificate in English (FCE) exam which is the one which is evaluating you more on your grammar skills. Although they do use new types of grammatical structures in the CAE exam (e.g. inversions), if you have studied for or done the FCE exam you'll already know most which are used. There is a simple reason for this, and that is there are only so many grammatical structures in English.

However, that doesn't mean that if you have studied for or done the FCE exam, you shouldn't try to improve your grammar for the CAE exam, because you still need to.

More advanced forms of common grammatical structures needed

Along with using relatively simple forms of grammatical structures in the exam (like the second conditional, reported speech sentences, using can to talk about ability etc...), you'll also find used more complex and advanced forms of these structures being used in this exam than in the FCE exam (for example, you'll find mixed conditional sentences, reported speech sentences used in the passive voice and can being used to express probability).

In addition to this, you will find used and be expected to use varied vocabulary for grammatical structures in the CAE exam (e.g. 'nevertheless' or 'yet' instead of 'but') and understand how the location of words or phrases in sentences can change their meaning and to what (e.g. 'as', 'though' 'such' etc...).

The level of grammar needed for the exam

Grammatical structures that you would expect to be used in reading and listening material used by native 17 and 18 year olds planning to go to university. This is in my experience the same as you would find in books and courses aimed at students with an upper-intermediate (B2) and advanced (C1) level of English.

Difference between knowledge and use

Before I tell you how to know which grammatical structures to improve on for the exam, there is something important you need to know first. To do well in the CAE exam, your knowledge and understanding of English grammatical structures is expected to be higher than your actual use.

The examiners don't expect you to be able to speak or write in English at the same level as the things you will read and hear in the Reading/UOE and Listening parts of the exam. If you are able to use a mixture of both basic and more complex grammatical structures well and use a variety of different words and phrases when using some of these structures (e.g. 'for instance' instead of 'for example', or 'owing to the fact that' instead of 'because') then you should do well in these parts.

Choosing which grammatical structures to improve

First of all, there are going to be some grammatical structures that you probably don't need to study. If you have studied or done the FCE exam, then you should already know them well enough.

For improving your grammar and making the best use of your time (because you need to spend more time on both improving and broadening your knowledge and use of vocabulary), you need to focus on studying those grammatical structures which you will find used in the exam that you are either not really sure about how to use or have more complex and varied forms that you will find used in the exam.

There are two ways that you can know what these are. The first is when you are reading in English (which you should be doing frequently and things which are at the level of what you'll find in the exam) and when you find a grammatical structure used that doesn't make sense or is confusing in the context it is in, then study what it's used for and when.

The second way (and this is a better way in my opinion), is to go through a list of grammatical structures commonly used in the CAE exam and study those you don't know or are not clear about how and when they are used.

A list of grammatical structures used in the FCE exam

To help you do this, I have created the below list of grammatical structures that are commonly used in the CAE exam.

In this list, for some of the structures I explain which specific things you should learn if you feel you need to study them.

In addition, where you find this chili symbol Important grammar topic next to the grammatical structure in the below list, it is something which I personally recommend you study. This is because either I find my students struggle with understanding and using it or that in the CAE you will find more complex and varied forms of the structure being used than you may already know.

So, I recommend that you read through the list and study those which you have doubts how to use correctly or you are not sure if you know enough about them.

Grammatical structures used in the CAE exam

Verb tenses

Although you should already know how to use most of these (apart from 'the subjunctive tense'), you need to make sure that you understand all the different uses they can have (this is particularly important for the 'present perfect') and how and when they can be used together (e.g. using the 'past perfect' with the 'past simple').

  • Present simple
  • Present continuous
  • Present perfect continuous
  • Present perfectImportant grammar topic
  • Past simple
  • Past perfect
  • Past continuous
  • Past perfect continuous
  • Future simple
  • Future continuous
  • Future perfect
  • The subjunctive tense (present and past)Important grammar topic
  • To be going to

Passives

You should know why passive verbs are used and how you make sentences using them.

  • All passive present tenses
  • All passive past tenses
  • All passive future tenses
  • Passive modal verbs

Reported/indirect speech

You should know the rules for creating sentences in reported speech for different verb tenses and when and when not some words (e.g. tonight) change when using them.

  • Declarative sentences (both positive and negative sentences)
  • Questions
  • Passive sentences
  • Reporting verbsImportant grammar topic
  • Requests and orders

Linkers

You should already know words and phrases (often called 'linkers') which are used to join two parts of a sentence (or two sentences) together to show a relationship between the two (e.g. show a contrast, give a reason etc...), where they are used and whether they are prepositions (followed by a noun or noun phrase) or conjunctions (followed by a clause (which has a verb in it)). For the CAE exam you need to learn as many of these linkers as possible.

  • Linkers of contrast (e.g. nonetheless)Important grammar topic
  • Linkers of addition (e.g. besides)Important grammar topic
  • Linkers of reason (e.g. due to)Important grammar topic
  • Linkers of purpose (e.g. to)Important grammar topic
  • Linkers of result (e.g. therefore)Important grammar topic
  • Linkers giving examples (e.g. such as)Important grammar topic

Modal Verbs

You should already know most modal verbs and what they are used for (e.g. show ability, give advice etc...). For the CAE exam, you need to make sure you know how to use them when talking about the present, future and past, learn the less commonly used ones (e.g. 'must' for recommendations) and when and when not modals can be used.

  • Modals of abilityImportant grammar topic
  • Modals of probabilityImportant grammar topic
  • Modals of obligationImportant grammar topic
  • Modals of prohibition
  • Modals of advice
  • Modals of request and permission
  • Verbs, adjectives and adverbs which aren't modals, but are used for expressing probability (e.g. had better, perhaps etc...)Important grammar topic

Relative clauses

You should already know how to create basic relative clauses in sentences to identify things and give essential information or to give extra information about them, and the common relative pronouns that are used to connect the clauses together. For the CAE exam, you know more advanced relative pronouns (e.g. in which, whoever etc...) and learn when and when not they are used.

  • Defining relative clauses
  • Non-defining relative clauses
  • Relative pronouns and useImportant grammar topic

Other grammatical structures

Below are some other grammatical structures you need to know:

  • Inversions (learn what these are used for, the common phrases that are used with them and how to construct sentences using them)Important grammar topic
  • Conditional sentences (creating all types of conditionals (zero, first, second, third and mixed) using modal verbs in them and the words/phrases that can replace 'if' in them (e.g. provided that etc...)) Important grammar topic
  • Comparative sentences (using both adjectives and adverbs)
  • Superlative sentences (using both adjectives and adverbs)
  • Reflexive pronouns (what the reflexive pronouns are and with which verbs they are used)
  • Sentences with wish (both for the present and past)
  • Countable and uncountables nouns
  • Prepositions (the prepositions used with specific nouns, verbs, adjectives and those used to talk about time, frequency and place)Important grammar topic
  • Gerunds and infinitives after verbs (whether a verb is followed by a gerund or an infinitive)
  • Gerunds as nouns(why they are used and where in a sentence they are used)Important grammar topic
  • Adverbs (improve your knowledge of adverbs used to start a sentence (e.g. eventually) or modify a verb or adjective)Important grammar topic
  • Would (the different uses of the verb 'would')Important grammar topic
  • Will (the different uses of the verb 'will')Important grammar topic
  • Do (using 'do', 'does', 'did' for emphasis in sentences)
  • Any, some, no and every (what they mean, when they are used and the words they are used to form (e.g. anyone))
  • Negative forms (learn the negatives forms (no, not, don't etc...) used with nouns, verbs and adjectives)Important grammar topic

Grammatical words/phrases

These are not structures, but are words/phrases which give grammatical meaning. They are frequently used in the CAE exam and most of them have different meanings. Study what these meanings are, when these are used and where they are used in sentences.

  • Rather
  • Though
  • As
  • For instance
  • So
  • Such
  • Even
  • Still
  • Ever
  • Do so
  • Still
  • Quite
  • Yet
  • While
  • Whereas
  • Like

How to study the grammatical structures

Get a book

The first thing you need to do before you start improving your grammar is to buy an English grammar reference book. A book which both explains how to use the different grammatical structures you'll find used in the exam and gives you exercises to do to make sure you've understood what you've learnt.

Unfortunately for the CAE exam (unlike for the FCE exam), there isn't one book that is perfect.

Cambridge do sell a grammar and vocabulary book specially for the CAE exam, but I don't particularly like it. They also have a grammar book for the CAE and Proficiency exams. Although it is useful and has exercises for you to do, it is also difficult and sometimes a bit confusing to understand. I would probably recommend you get this last book. But if you do, I would also recommend you also get another book which is at a slightly lower level, but good at explaining the grammar concepts. And that book is 'English Grammar in Use: Intermediate'. It explains grammatical concepts and has exercises on them. So when you are studying grammar structures, I would use both the books together and it will help you to understand them.

Use the grammatical structures

When you have studied a grammatical structure and done the exercises for it from the book, I recommend that you try to makes sentences in your own words with it. This will help you to remember how and when it is used.

Study only one or two grammatical structures a week

Study a grammatical structure once or twice a week and start doing this months before you plan to take the exam. If you try to study any more, you'll start to get bored and you won't really understand how and when they are used.

Read regularly in English

Reading in English is not only essential for improving your vocabulary, but it is also important for improving your grammar skills as well. The more times that you see grammatical structures you've learnt being used in articles or other pieces of writing, the more likely you are to understand how and when they are used and to remember them.

Make sure that you read articles that have been written for students doing the CAE exam or are for English learners who have a C1 (advanced) level of English.

To find recommendationa of where to find things to read for the CAE exam and advice on improving your vocabulary, read our article called 'How to Improve your English Vocabulary for the CAE Exam'.

Remember what you have studied

To stop you repeating studying grammar concepts that you have already done, I recommend that once you have studied something, make a note of it in an exercise book, a word document etc...