“… A number of …” and ” … THE number of …”

These terms are used in Task 1 and Task 2 writing so understanding the correct grammar can be quite useful.

“a number of” is plural.AS in, for example:

“A number of people are coming to the party tonight.” (plural)

more than one will come, ‘a number’ will come. So “a number of” goes with a plural verb.

However, “THE number of …” is singular:

“The number of people dying from smoking related diseases is still far too high.”

we are talking here about “THE number”, estimated to be 500,000 in the USA, it is a LOT of people BUT it is only ONE number.

Also this:

THE number of people who came to my party last night WAS surprising.” (singular).

Knowing whether it is singular or plural can be a headache, but it is critically important for writing in the IELTS exam and many people get this wrong.

(Thanks to Artima for this question.)

The Problem with Grammar

The IELTS exam does not test candidate grammar separately in a multiple choice type test. However, it tests grammar in every module of the test. In reading and listening it gets tested in gap fill or sentence completion type questions where the answer must fit grammatically into the gap.

It gets tested more directly in speaking and writing where the examiner is looking specifically at the kinds of sentence structure the candidate is using and scores the candidate on their ability to use grammar well.

One of the most frequent errors produced by even band 7 candidates is the incorrect use of verbs in a sentence. As you all know a simple sentence in English MUST contain a subject and a verb (well … ok … imperative sentences (instructions: e.g. Close the door!) don’t require a subject because it is understood who the subject is in these sentences, but you won’t get the opportunity to use this type of sentence in the IELTS exam).

To repeat, each simple sentence requires 1 subject and 1 verb. The place where many candidates go wrong is to have more than 1 verb in the sentence. This might sound like a silly mistake but it isn’t because sentences can get quite complicated very easily. It is sometimes quite difficult to know when a word is a verb or acting as a noun (or adjective or even adverb).

So here is an example sentence and 3 questions to answer:
“Over the same period, the percentage of commuters traveled by bus was approximately 18% at the beginning and then it rose considerably reached its peak at 26 % in 1980 before falling back to the former level in 2000.”

Look carefully at this sentence and see if you can answer these three questions:

  1. How many verbs are there in this sentence?
  2. How many verbs are required?
  3. What can you do about the extra verbs to make the sentence correct?

Scroll down lower for the answer.
















The verbs are:

  • traveled
  • was
  • rose
  • reached

Note that “falling” could have been an error as it is the present participle form of the verb “to fall” but the grammar is entirely correct in this part of the sentence and we therefore do not consider it to be a verb in its use here. However, the 4 verbs listed above are all verb forms in areas of the sentence which are grammatically incorrect so we need to look carefully to see what is wrong.

This sentence is a COMPOUND sentence – there is an “AND” in the middle of it. Compound sentences link simple sentences and so we expect there are two simple sentences joined int his long sentence. Each simple sentence needs its own verb so we expect to find 2 MAIN VERBS in the whole sentence.

So what do we do with the 2 extra verbs?

1. not all commuters traveled by bus so this is an indicator that we can describe this better; for example, we could write ” … commuters who traveled by bus ….”, using a defining relative clause, in this case we keep traveled as a verb but put it inside the relative clause and since relative clauses MUST HAVE their own verbs it is now a necessary part of the sentence. I could have also changed “traveled” to the participle “traveling” and this would have also removed this extra verb from the original sentence.

2. ” … and then it rose considerably … ” is fine the problem is with ‘reached’; we have to remove it as a verb and we have a few choices. We could use the ‘to infinitive’ “to reach” and this would solve the problem or we could use the -ing form which will also kill the verb – ” … reaching its peak …”.

We could even leave it as a verb and use another “and” to allow for another simple sentence to be added to the two we already have. In this case the sentence would read:

“… at the beginning and then it rose considerably and reached its peak at 26 % in 1980 before falling back to its former level in 2000.”

So there are three ways we could have removed the problem, in two we changed the verb into a noun form and in this last case we left it as the main verb in a new simple sentence attached to the original compound sentence with “and”.

The critical part for the writer is to realize when they have too many verbs in the sentence because this will make the entire sentence wrong and lead to a lower mark for grammar accuracy.

This is a complex issue and if anyone is confused please post a question.


IELTS Task 1 Writing : Bar Chart

Here is the full Task 1 question for a Bar Chart.

Sample Answer

The graph shows the number of students applying to four different faculty areas at 3 universities in the USA between 1990 and 2010.

In brief, the bar chart reveals that while student interest in Biology and Engineering fell dramatically over the two decades, applications for Business and Social Work grew substantially over this same period.

In detail, student participation in Biology and Engineering declined precipitously (very sharply) after 1990, when 3000 students were applied in Biology and 4000 in Engineering. By 2000 this participation had halved in Biology to 1500 and dropped by around 30% to 2500 for Engineering. After 2000, this dramatic fall-off continued, finally reaching about 900 students for Biology and 600 in Engineering, which was the lowest of all faculties for the entire period ending (which ended) in 2010.

In contrast, although student interest in Business and Social Work was at its lowest level in 1990, when 2000 students applied for Business and 1000 for Social Work, these faculty areas grew substantially to roughly double in popularity by 2010, when Business had 4000 student applications, which was the highest of all faculties, and Social Work had around 1800.

(187 words)

How Important is Task 1?

I have received this question from a candidate who does not want to be identified.

“A teacher (actually he is a friend) told me to forget about Task 1 and spend my time on Task 2 because it is worth double Task 1. He said just do a little of Task 1 and I will still get to Band 5.5.”

This candidate only needs to get to 5.5 in order to satisfy her Thai university for graduation.

This is extremely bad advice. Some years ago I also heard a ‘teacher’ give this same advice.

It is true that Task 2 is worth double the marks of Task 1 – that’s why they recommend spending double the time. If we do the mathematics we will see the problem.

Suppose a candidate does a quite poor response to Task 1 in order to spend most of the time on Task 2 and they score:
Task 1: Band 4
Task 2: Band 5.5

The mark is calculated this way:

(task 1 + 2 x Task2)/3

and the result is rounded to the nearest half mark, but rounded down if it is exactly halfway i.e. 5.25 is recorded as 5 NOT 5.5. So our candidate would get:

(4 + 2 x 5.5)/3 = 15/3 = 5 and is recorded as 5 overall for writing.

In fact, this candidate would need to score 6 on the Task 2 to reach an overall score of 5.5 in writing! (A Band 5 on the task 1 would have achieved overall 5.5 also – this is easier to do than getting Band 6 on the Task 2 essay.

So the advice to spend most of the time on Task 2 because it is the most important essay is actually WRONG. Candidates MUST balance their time between the two essays in order to do well.

This is an excellent question, thank you for asking. I hope this helps.