Yesterday I did something I regret: I clicked on and took one of those stupid quizzes that go around Facebook. It’s called How good is your grammar? and I clicked on it not to find out how good my grammar is, but because I wanted to know what the test-maker thought good grammar was.
I started seeing problems with the test right away, including questions that had two or three right answers or no right answers, and no matter what I did, I couldn’t score higher than 13, a score which provided me this questionable feedback:
You’ve definitely got our respect! 13 out of 15 is a really, really impressive score. Your grammar skills are so good, you’re probably the person that picks your friends up on their mistakes, right? We’ll happily admit that this test was pretty hard and we’re pretty sure that you’re friends can’t do better – why not test them and find out?
“Picks your friends up on their mistakes”? I get what they mean, but I’ve never heard that expression before. And “We’ll happily admit that this test was pretty hard and we’re pretty sure that you’re friends can’t do better”? That compound sentence needs a comma before “and”, and more importantly, it should be “your friends”, not “you’re friends”.
The most frustrating part is that this quiz doesn’t provide a key or any question-specific feedback, so it’s impossible to tell what you’ve gotten wrong. I had to ask someone who managed to get 15 what his answers were, and the correct answers were pretty eyebrow-raising. To make matters worse, they seem to have changed since I took it yesterday. (Edited to add: As several people have pointed out, the answers seem to be right now, but some people are still reporting that they’re getting different scores every time even though they’re giving the same answers. Some are also reporting that they’re getting a score of 15 even when they deliberately answer ever question wrong, so it could be that the scoring is just random and the whole thing is a scam.) I’ll go through it question by question, highlighting the correct answer according to the quiz (at the time I took it) and explaining why it is or isn’t right.
- Let’s start quite easy: which of these sentences is grammatically correct?
- There are seven girls in her class.
- There’s seven girls in her class.
- They’re seven girls in her class.
This one is fairly straightforward. Though there’s with a plural subject is quite common and is found even in edited writing, strict grammatical agreement requires there are. However, they’re seven girls is grammatical too, though with a very different meaning. Imagine that you were talking about seven different girls, and someone asked you who they were. You might respond, “They’re seven girls in her class.” It’s an unlikely conversation, but in that sense it’s not ungrammatical.
- Which of these is right?
- The woman that works here
- The woman who works here
- The woman which works here
Many traditionalists insist that only who can be used to refer to people, but this isn’t true. That can also be used with people, as I’ve explained here and elsewhere. It has been in use since the days of Old English, over a thousand years ago, and great writers have been using it ever since. Even Bryan Garner, who is quite conservative in many regards, says it’s okay.
- What’s the subject in this sentence? ‘Today I went to the park’.
This is where things really start to get idiotic. The correct answer, according to the quiz, is park. In reality, the subject of the sentence is I. Park is the object of the preposition to.
- Should it be ‘there’, ‘they’re’ or ‘their’?
- The students thought there homework was hard
- The students thought their homework was hard
- The students thought they’re homework was hard
This one’s easy: the correct answer is actually what the quiz says. (Though when I first took it, the options all had a superfluous comma after students. They’ve since been removed.)
- What’s a pronoun?
- A word that stands in the place of a noun.
- A ‘being’ word.
- A particularly impressive noun.
It was at this point that I started wondering if the author of the quiz was just an idiot or if they were actually trolling everyone. A pronoun is not a particularly impressive noun; it’s a word that stands in the place of a noun or noun phrase.
- Which is right?
- She could have done that.
- She could of done that.
- She could off done that.
Again, this one’s easy, and the quiz actually gets it right. Could’ve sounds just like could of, so people often incorrectly write the latter. (But no one writes could off. I don’t know why that’s even an option.
- Now they get a little bit trickier: Which is right?
- If I was you, I would…
- If I am you, I would…
- If I were you, I would…
This is another oversimplification. Traditionally, were is used with counterfactual statements, but was has been used for centuries and appears in edited prose. (I once saw an example in Old English, which shows that this rule has been waning for over a millennium.)
- Which of these adjectives is a superlative?
This one is right. Happy is a positive adjective, and happier is a comparative adjective.
- What’s the object in this sentence? ‘Yesterday she hated me’
- There is no object in this sentence
Wrong, wrong, wrong. The object is me.
- Which is right?
- The boy to whom she gave the toy was called Matt.
- The boy, who she gave the toy to, was called Matt.
- The boy whom she gave the toy was called Matt.
Actually, all of them could be right depending on context and register. I don’t know why the second option has commas around the relative clause, but they’re not necessarily wrong. They could be correct if the clause is nonrestrictive, but it’s impossible to tell without more context.
The second option is informal, but it’s hard to call it wrong since that’s how pretty much every native English speaker would say it. Whom is on the decline, and there’s nothing wrong with preposition stranding, though it’s sometimes avoided in more formal speech and writing.
The other options are both correct. You can say either She gave him the toy or She gave the toy to him. The first has him as an indirect verbal object, while the second has it as an oblique (prepositional) object. You can make a relative clause out of either one, yielding either whom she gave the toy or to whom she gave the toy.
- And now for the really difficult ones: Which is grammatically correct?
- There were fewer people in the shop today.
- There were less people in the shop today.
- Both are right.
Many people frown on less with count nouns, but there’s nothing technically wrong with it. Like so many grammar rules, this is an eighteenth-century invention. Fewer is the safer choice in formal speech or writing, though.
- How are you supposed to use apostrophes correctly? Which is right?
- The ice-cream parlor was called Joes Ice’s
- The ice cream parlor was called Joe’s Ices
- The ice-cream parlor was called Joes Ices
Correct. Again, though, don’t ask me why two options have a hyphen while the other doesn’t.
- How about in this one?
- Its going to be cold tomorrow.
- It’s going to be cold tomorrow.
- It going to be cold tomorrow.
Correct. Many people confuse it’s and its, but in this case you want the contraction. (I don’t know if anyone would actually say or write it going to be cold tomorrow.)
- A comma, colon or semi-colon? Which is right?
- He wasn’t very hungry; he had already eaten earlier that day.
- He wasn’t very hungry, he had already eaten earlier that day.
- He wasn’t very hungry: he had already eaten earlier that day.
This one’s arguable. A semicolon might be preferred, but a colon wouldn’t technically be wrong since the second clause is elaborating on the first. The second option contains the error commonly known as a comma splice or run-on sentence.
- In the pluperfect tense, what is the second person form of the verb ‘to go’?
- You have gone
- You had gone
- You went
Wrong again. Have gone is the present perfect; had gone is the pluperfect, also known as the past perfect. Also, when I first took the quiz, it asked for the third-person form, but you is the second person. This has since been fixed.
The strange thing is that I can’t figure out the scoring of the quiz, especially since it gives no feedback. I answered all the questions correctly—according to what’s actually traditionally correct—and yet I scored 13, even though I should have scored 11 because four of the supposedly correct answers are wrong. Either something is buggy with the quiz, or the author has been revising the answers and sometimes introducing errors. Either way, the quiz is absolute garbage and shouldn’t be taken seriously.
Oh, and to cap things off, the author of the quiz obviously has no idea what linguists actually do. This is the feedback if you manage to score 15 out of 15:
Those weren’t even difficult for you, were they? Either you’re a professional linguistic researcher at the Institute for English Language or you had a little bit of luck with a couple of your answers… We congratulate you – when it comes to English grammar you really are the best!
Because linguistics is apparently about memorizing a bunch of normative, prescriptive rules about how to use language rather than actually, you know, researching how language works.