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Articles in IELTS – a two step method to making fewer mistakes

Why articles in IELTS matter

“The” is the most common word in English, “a” is the fifth most common, and statistically this means these are the words that you are most likely to make mistakes with: simply because they are the words you use most. Indeed in my experience in IELTS, and elsewhere, it is not the big words that cause the most problems, but the little ones.

Are you Indian? Do you speak Spanish, Mandarin, German, Russian, Arabic………?

It doesn’t really matter what language you speak, as the other major problem is that different languages use articles in different ways. For instance, certain Asian languages do not use articles and Indian language speakers, for example, often do not use articles at all in English. Again, certain European languages use articles differently: the word for “information” in French is “l’information” and French speakers will use articles in English when they shouldn’t.

A two step solution

My personal solution is to show you the general principles of how articles work in English. It isn’t going to be a complete solution. Rather, this is a solution designed to enable you to get articles right 7/8 times out of 10 and it is practical in that you can use it for yourself in the exam without a reference book beside you. The idea is that you ask yourself two questions:

  • step 1 ask if is it general or particular
  • step 2 ask if is it a countable or uncountable noun

Some basic concepts first

Before I show you the solution, I first need to check some basic concepts.

Concept 1 – general and particular

To see this idea, ask yourself what the difference is between “pollution” and “the pollution”? Pollution is general, while “the pollution is much more specific – an a particular instance of something. Look at these two examples:

Pollution is one of the major issues facing mankind in the 21st century.

Here “Pollution” is general

Perhaps the first step is to combat the air pollution in the cities caused by factories.

Here by contrast “The pollution” – is particular and refers to an instance of pollution.

Concept 2 – countable and uncountable

To understand the second idea you first need to see that some words in English are countable and others uncountable. And, just to confuse you,there are a surprising number that are both!

Countable nouns are words we can put in the plural or use with “a”.  Often they are “thing” type words such as newspaper e.g.

newspapers and a newspaper

Uncountable nouns are those words we cannot put in the plural or use “a” with. Often they are idea/abstract/concept words such as information e.g.

informations is wrong, so is an information, we need to say information or the information

Flexible nouns are words which are sometimes countable and sometimes uncountable. These are often the ones that may catch you out. You really want to decide if you are talking about the thing or the idea. Look at the word university  e.g.

He is going to university next year (uncountable)

He wants to go to a university close to his family. (countable)

Test yourself on countable and uncountable nouns

Countable and uncountable

Congratulations - you have completed Countable and uncountable. You scored %%SCORE%% out of %%TOTAL%%. Your performance has been rated as %%RATING%%
Your answers are highlighted below.
Shaded items are complete.

Putting it into practice – the “rules”

I think the best way to show you my solution is to look at this table. It really does show you the key ideas you need to correct your most of your mistakes. I like it because it is so simple. It is something  you can carry around inside your head.



  1. Countable nouns must have an article or something like an article such as some, many etc, or be put into the plural.
  2. The only time you can’t have an article with a noun is when it is an uncountable noun used in the general meaning.
  3. We always need the when we are talking about something in particular.
  4. Don’t forget that some words like university are flexible and can sometimes be countable and sometimes uncountable

Is this enough?

No. It isn’t the whole story. There is more to articles than this, but as I said above it is surprising how far it can take you. I have cheated slightly where I say that a chair is an example of general meaning. But I find that in practice this explanation does work for most learners.

I’d add that some words have their own grammar and you may need to learn them one by one. Geographical terms are a problem where there is little logic. So these you just have to learn:


Another unusual case is where we sometimes use “the” when we are talking generally about a category of things. So we can say:

the bicycle is a very common form of transport in Cambridge

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5 Responses to Articles in IELTS – a two step method to making fewer mistakes

  1. Name August 12, 2010 at 6:34 am #

    Hi there!
    the wbsite is realy helpfull and i would like to ad that its much benificial than the expensive books. Last time i got 7.5 band in speaking ,however my performance upsets me hen i came to know about 4’5 in reading.
    Is there way to improve reading and listening sills on short term plan.

    • Dominic Cole November 14, 2010 at 4:24 pm #

      There are few short term fixes unless you have the right language skills. Looking at your speaking score though it does seem you are underperforming in reading – there shouldn’t really be a gap like that.

      Reading is perhaps the most technical skill. Here are a few quick tips:
      think about timing – don’t spend too long on any one question

      you don’t have to read the whole passage – just find the answers – so look at which parts of the passage contain answers

      focus on the exact wording of the question

      consider spending more time on parts 1 and 2 to maximise your score (part 3 is harder)

  2. Mega December 7, 2012 at 10:29 am #

    It is a very good website for improving my techniques in IELTS exam.It has proved to improve my reading and writing. My grammar is very weak and especially articles which i miss out all the time in my essays and to correct myself i should know how it is used. This proved to be an excellent exercise…Thank you Dominic Cole for your online exercises which is very simple,concise and easy to understand.

  3. Phúc Hảo Lê Thị March 28, 2014 at 6:07 pm #

    Dear Mr Docminic Cole !

    Your grammar is very wonderful and interestng.It’s very important for improving my writing skills. In addition, you deeply understand grammar and good structures, so you may understand they to speak and writing what.If you learn excellent grammar, you will study other good skills.

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