Chain conformations, counter-ion structure, intermolecular hydrogen bonding structure and dynamics of atactic polyethacrylic acid (PEA) in salt-free aqueous dilute solution at 25°C are studied via molecular dynamics (MD) simulations with explicit-solvent and explicit-ion description for the first time. The intermolecular structure was analysed by the radial distribution functions (RDF) for specific atom types between PEA chain, water molecules and Na+ counter-ions, as well as by the hydration near the PEA chain in the solvated system. An increase in f provides an increase in 〈Rg〉 of the chain, consistent with the existence of the compact form of PEA. The simulations show expansion for radius-of-gyration with increase in f, as expected for flexible polyelectrolytes under salt-free condition. The extent of intermolecular hydrogen bonds (H-bonds) between PEA and water is enhanced by increase in f. Chains having a higher counter-ion density show higher values of 〈Rg〉, influenced by intermolecular interactions between PEA and water. The coordination of Na+ counter ions and water molecules to carboxyl oxygens of polyacrylic acid (PAA) increases with charge density of the chain. A comparison of the structure aspects is made with PAA and PMA polyelectrolytes in dilute solution, which brings out the hydrophobic effect of the ethyl side-groups in PEA on conformational properties and counter-ion condensation structure. © 2013 Taylor & Francis.