A grammar quiz not for sissies

In a fulmination this week at Lingua Franca, “The Decline of Grammar Education,” Geoffrey Pullum points out, quite rightly, that the grammar quizzes posted on the Internet are almost always junk: “The web’s grammar quizzes deal in minor pieces of puristic flotsam with roots in dimly understood 18th-century grammatical analysis.”

So I offer you, if you are man or woman enough to attempt it, a genuine quiz on grammar and usage. Those of you who prefer to cheat will find the answers at the bottom.

(1) Spot the error: "I think it's just plain wrong when you've got a county that's managing its finances well and you get flack because the county executive won't come down and ask for a tax increase," she said.


(2) Miss Mann is one of the few students who live within walking distance of the school. Would you change live to lives to agree with one?

(3) The talks stalled until a mediator could work out differences between the three parties. Would you change between to among?

(4) Known among followers simply as “the Rebbe,” Rabbi Schneerson took over the reigns of the Lubavitcher movement from his father. Do you object to reigns?

(5) The eight suspects participating in the reconstruction include two of the alleged key planners, whom police believe bought the minivan and bomb-making materials used in the attack. Would you write whom police believe or who police believe?

(6) Another kudo for Douglas Would you OK this headline for publication?


(7) Among the wealthy, foreign brands have great cache. Would you let cache pass in this sentence?


(8) They stood in the snow without a clear idea of what they were waiting for. Would you rewrite this sentence as "They stood in the snow without a clear idea of that for which they were waiting"?


(9) The guards have always been scrupulous about checking the prisoners for contraband. Would you rewrite the sentence to read always have been scrupulous?


(10) The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light. Would you rewrite the prophet Isaiah to read the people who?


(11) The class was unable to translate the motto since no one had studied Latin. Would you replace since with because?


(12) Spot the error: Joseph Fewsmith, an expert on the Chinese leadership at Boston University, said, only half jokingly, that Jiang seems stronger today than he was yesterday.

(13) Hopefully, the rain will let up in time to allow residents to return to their homes. Would you rewrite this sentence to read It is hoped that the rain will let up …?  

(14)  Either way, it is murky enough to keep everyone on their toes about the importance of fairness. Pick your preferred method of dealing with everyone ... their:

a. everyone ... his

b.     everyone ... his or her

c.     people ... their

d.     Stet

e.     Any of the above


(15) None of the payments appears in documents presented to or prepared by the Tyco board's compensation committee. Would you change appears to appear?

(16) Muhammad's prosecutors portrayed him as a manipulator who molded his 17-year-old cohort into a killer. Would you object to this use of cohort?


(17) Medve heads the planning commission that proposed the growth-control measures. Would you change that to which, and if so, would you insert a comma after commission?


(1) Change flack to flak. A flack is a press agent or spokesman; the term is pejorative, like mouthpiece or stooge, and probably should be avoided in any case. In this case, it is a misuse for flak. Flak, from the German Fliegerabwehrkanonen, means antiaircraft fire. It has taken on the metaphoric sense of strenuous criticism.

While the most responsible editors refuse to "clean up," or reword, quotations, it is acceptable to do so when the writer, in transcribing spoken language, has mistakenly used a homonym.

(2) I wouldn't. The antecedent of who is students, so the plural verb is appropriate. On this both Garner's Modern American Usage and Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage are in agreement, so you are covered on both presciptivist and descriptivist bases.

(3) Not so fast. Don’t be too quick to insist that between can refer only to two things and among to more than two. That is a simplistic distinction.  In cases such as this, between can suggest bargaining between individuals severally as well as among the group collectively. Consider the context carefully.

(4) You ought to. Not enough people are familiar with horses anymore to recognize the buried metaphor in the expressions take the reins or give free rein. The reins are used to control the horse, so to take them means to take control and to give free rein means to surrender control. The homonym reigns, referring to the rule of a monarch, is a mistake rising from ignorance.

(5) Who is the subject of the subordinate clause who bought the minivan and bomb-making materials. Because the pronoun is the subject of a clause, it must be who.

(6) The word kudos, from the Greek, is a singular meaning praise. A kudo is an error in  standard written English, even in journalism, and the word is unlikely to crop up in conversation. 

(7) Cachet, pronounced "ka-SHAY," means distinction or prestige. Cache, pronounced "kash," means to store things in a concealed place, or the things thus concealed. One surmises that the error rises in part from the existence of Caché, the affected name of a chain of stores selling overpriced, vulgar garments.

(8) Despite generations of misguided pedagogy, there is nothing inherently objectionable in English to ending a sentence with a preposition, and revisions to avoid stranded prepositions frequently look stilted and unnatural.  

(9) If you did, you must be a journalist. The belief that a compound verb cannot be split by an adverb is what Garner’s Modern American Usage calls a superstition. Though the “split verb” nonsense is enshrined in the Associated Press Stylebook, English has placed adverbs between the auxiliary verb and main verb since Chaucer was in grammar school.
(10) Keep your hands off Scripture. The belief that who may refer only to human beings and that only to animals or inanimate objects is an oversimplification. That can indicate an unknown person or a group of persons.
(11) You could, but you don’t have to. The belief that since should be used only in reference to time, not to causality, ignores the way the word has been used in English for centuries.
(12) My God, the Red Chinese have taken over BU. It’s a putsch!

Since English is relatively uninflected, word order takes on great importance, and prepositional phrases can easily become misplaced modifiers. Try Joseph Fewsmith, an expert at Boston University on the Chinese leadership. …

(13) I suppose the answer depends on whether you mind looking like a pompous prat. Since the 1970s and 1980s, hopefully has been a shibboleth for language purists who argue that an adverb of emotion cannot be used as a sentence modifier—the rain being incapable of hope. Sadly, that attitude is mistaken. Hopefully, in the sense it is to be hoped, has entered American English to stay. You might want to avoid it in the most formal writing, since it suggests a conversational tone.

(14) Any and all of the choices will do. The singular they, in use by reputable writers for centuries, survives despite the strictures of grammarians who thought that English is insufficiently like Latin, and it increasingly crops up in popular writing, which suggests potential for eventual acceptance in formal writing.

(15) Please do. Various authorities on usage back to H.W. Fowler express puzzlement that people assume that none can be used only as a singular. The late R.W. Burchfield, in his revision of Fowler, points out that none can mean no one but that its etymological roots include a plural sense as well: "At all times since the reign of King Alfred the choice of plural or singular in the accompanying verbs, etc., has been governed by the surrounding words or by the notional sense."

(16) Maybe. The traditional sense of the word is as a collective, typically for a group of warriors, as in Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib”: “The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold, / And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold. ...” And there is a specialized sense in population study: a birth cohort, or group of people born at the same time. The baby boomers can be considered as a cohort.

But in recent decades the traditional sense of cohort has steadily expanded to include companion, accomplice, colleague, etc. The conservative sense of cohort, like that of decimate, has probably been overwhelmed, but whether to accept the more recent sense remains a question of taste and judgment.  

(17) Yes to both, please.

One limitation of focusing on individual sentences is the loss of context. In the article from which this sentence was extracted, the subject was a town in which only one planning commission existed. The that clause, which is conventionally restrictive, suggests that Medve's planning commission was one among others. Changing the sentence to produce a nonrestrictive which clause makes it clear that the clause merely provides additional, nonessential information.


Much ink has been spilled over differentiation between which and that. Fowler's Modern English Usage suggests that it would be nice to maintain the distinction that that introduces restrictive, or essential clauses, and that which introduces nonrestrictive, or nonessential, clauses. However tidy that might be, it is not how speakers and writers of English use the language. Which is regularly used in either the restrictive or nonrestrictive sense, and the meaning is usually clear in context.


I note with irritation that the nonrestrictive that keeps cropping up in journalism, apparently by writers under the impression that which is tricky and best avoided.


You want a numerical score on this? What are you, a freshman? While there clearly are correct and incorrect answers to some of the questions, others require judgment, attention to register, attention to what is appropriate to the writer, the publication, the occasion, the audience.

There are no numeral scores in editing.


A number of readers have posted comments on Facebook that #17 assumes facts not entered into evidence. This is how I replied to one of them:

The expectation in a quiz is that each problem has a neat and straightforward solution, and editing is not like that. Often the editor lacks enough information or context to determine the writer's intended meaning. #17 should make the reader wonder whether the pronoun is restrictive or nonrestrictive. As with the lack scoring, #17 is a reminder that the craft is not a cut-and-dried business.

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