Another Stupid Grammar Quiz

The office supplies company Staples has now entered the grammar market with a quiz that, like all the others in the same style, is ill-informed and promotes false ideas about grammar. Most of the questions are not about grammar at all, but about spelling, punctuation and vocabulary. Those that are about grammar trot out the same old phoney advice. Here are three examples.

Question 5 asks us to choose the right pronoun in the sentences The car beeped at Jon and I / me and  Karen and I / me went on holiday. Well, of course, they want us to choose me in the first and I in the second. The explanation given for the first is the same old unthinking one about what you would say if you removed Jon and. Well, yes, you’d say me, but, as the authors of ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’ write, ‘why should we simply assume that the grammatical rules for case assignment cannot differentiate between a coordinated and a non-coordinated pronoun?’ Elsewhere they write that the construction with and I is ‘used by many highly educated people with social prestige in the community; it should therefore be regarded as a variant Standard English form.’ The second sentence that the quizzers want us to produce is Karen and I went on holiday, disregarding the fact that for many speakers of Standard English the informal construction will be Me and Karen went on holiday.

Question 7 wants us to write Phones that have cameras are generally more expensive rather than Phones which have cameras are generally more expensive, giving the inadequate and misleading explanation ‘You can remove the clause containing which from a sentence without changing the meaning. That, however, is necessary’. What’s behind this is the shibboleth that a defining relative clause must begin with that, not which. This is simply untrue.

Question 14 invites us to agree that saying Whom did you see in the bar last night? is normal English. It isn’t. Whom is reserved for formal contexts, and to use it in informal contexts such as this is to be insensitive to the way in which language adapts itself to the social situations in which we use it.

You can read about most of the points raised in the quiz, and more, in my series of posts about the Negative Canon. Better still, consult  a proper grammar book.

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10 Comments

Filed under English Language, Language

10 responses to “Another Stupid Grammar Quiz

  1. Perhaps we should set up a charitable fund so that every time newspaper, magazine, TV show or whatever comes up with one of these quizzes we can send them a free copy of a good modern grammar guide.
    And we can give page references for them to find the right answers to their questions.

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  2. Nice thought, Bob, but there’s no guarantee that anyone would read it. Doing quizzes is easy. Understanding grammar is hard. For anyone interested, two or three of the resources I linked to are free.

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  3. Shibboleth has got to be the most awesome word!! I love it.

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  4. Totally agree with you about ‘Whom did you see at the bar last night?’ That’s guaranteed to get you funny looks.

    They missed a trick with Q5 though. ‘Me’ as subject is used much more often before the co-ordinated subject than after – ‘Me and Karen went’ gets 51 (real verifiable) hits on Google, while ‘Karen and me went’ gets 15 (and 6 of those involve multiple subjects, for example – ‘Hunter, Uncle Jason, Great Aunt Karen, and me went to Uncle John’s house for our turkey dinner’. If they had put ‘Me and Karen / Karen and I went on holiday’, I wonder if the figures for ‘me’ (8%) would have been higher.

    What interests me is that several questions are about the difference between ‘your’ and ‘your’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’ etc and the spelling of homophones, for example ‘weather’ and ‘whether’, ‘hear’ and ‘here’. These often seem to appear in these ‘grammar quizzes’. I’ve just done the test (3/11) and to date nobody has got any of these wrong. Which makes me wonder: is this as a big problem as it’s often made out to be. It can’t be because it’s only language freaks taking the test, as so many people got e.g. and i.e wrong (38% and 35%) , and should/could of (14% and 24%).

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  5. The homophone questions seem to have become a kind of meme.

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  6. So, it should be “Bob got here before I”?

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