The big grammar quiz of 2014

Is your unofficial role at work to know your indefinite article from your ellipsis? Andrew Ingram and Tom Freeman offer some advice.

by Tom Freeman, Andrew Ingram
Last Updated: 29 Dec 2014

Businesses know that documents with grammatical mistakes can make the wrong impression, so in most offices you’ll find an unofficial ‘Grammar Checker’. Most of these people won’t have a specialist qualification. Normally they studied English to A-level or higher, and they are often older people who were taught grammar more formally.

But the thing is the ‘rules’ they remember from school are not set in stone. Some are still in place, but others have changed over time as English has evolved. Many were never really rules at all – just preferences which were handed down.

And then there are everybody’s ‘grammar pet peeves’ – different people getting enraged by different grammatical usages in a highly emotional (and very British) way. This puts a lot of pressure on Grammar Checkers to know what the ‘rules’ really are today.

If that’s you, then what better way to brush up on your grammar than with a quiz?

1) ‘They decided to quickly recommend hiring her.'

’Would you move the word ‘quickly’ to somewhere else in the sentence?

2) ‘This was a collaboration between the London, Birmingham and Manchester offices.’

Would you change ‘between’ to ‘among’?

3) ‘None of the people in that meeting are your friends.’?

Would you change ‘are your friends’ to ‘is your friend’?

4) ‘You can leave your coats and bags in our cloakroom downstairs.’

Would you change ‘can’ to ‘may’?

5) ‘We have so much data that it will take a few weeks to analyse.’

Would you treat ‘data’ as a plural?

6) ‘Someone older than me would expect to have been promoted by now.’

Would you change ‘than me’ to ‘than I’?

7) ‘You’ll never guess who we’ve just recruited.’

Would you change ‘who’ to ‘whom’?

8) ‘Anna and Bill wondered which of them would get through all their emails first.’

Would you alter ‘their’ used this way?

9) ‘Drivers over 40 have less accidents.’

Would you replace ‘less’ with ‘fewer’?

Credit: IMLS Digital Collections & Content

How did you do?

1) This sentence contains a split infinitive (the ‘quickly’ going between ‘to’ and ‘recommend’). However, there actually is no rule against splitting infinitives. It appears to be a Victorian invention. Oxford Dictionaries says there is ‘no real grammatical justification’ for objecting to split infinitives, which is lucky, because where else could you put the ‘quickly’ in that sentence about hiring her?

Advice: Not a rule, but a superstition (and a rather unhelpful one).

2) Some people think that ‘between’ should be used only for two objects: three or more and you should use ‘among’, but this is reading too much into the word’s origin. The Old English word ‘betwéonum’ originally meant ‘by two each’, but for all of between’s history it has been used to cover any number of things.

Advice: Not a rule.

3) You may have heard that ‘none’ should be treated as a singular, not a plural, but this is a mistake – it can take either form, and has done for over a millennium. Using ‘is’ here also sounds more formal and old-fashioned.

Advice: ‘None’ can take singular or plural – you choose.

4) Teachers used to ram home that ‘can’ was about possibility while ‘may’ was about permission, to help us understand the difference (‘Can/May I leave the room?’ etc). The result is a lingering feeling in some people’s heads that ‘can’ is wrong here, but there is no risk of misunderstanding, and ‘may’ sounds quite formal – which is probably not the intention in this context.

Advice: Can be a useful distinction, but insisting on it risks over-formality.

5) ‘Data’ is the plural of ‘datum’, and was treated as a plural in the past. However, outside academic and technical contexts, it is now mostly treated as a singular. Many Latin plurals have followed this pattern: to English ears, words which don’t end with ‘s’ just don’t sound plural. ‘Agenda’ used to be a plural – yes, really. If you insist on using foreign plurals as plurals in English, you will risk having to say things like ‘the spaghetti are cold’.

Advice: Your choice – but what impression do you want to give?

6) As time goes by, it’s becoming very, VERY formal to use ‘I’ in this way – ‘Oh look, that is I in the photo’ – which means that if you insist on it, your writing will start to sound very stuffy. Also, in this sentence, changing it to ‘than I would expect’ would mean it was more likely to make people stumble.

Advice: Grammatically fine but sounds old-fashioned, pompous even.

7) Some writers insist on using ‘whom’ because it is grammatically correct. Well it often is, but in sentences like the example – which is work-related but informal – it sounds very odd, so it should be saved for formal contexts only. And don’t make the mistake of half-baking it in cases like ‘the accountants whom we discussed it with’ – if it’s formal, it should be ‘the accountants with whom we discussed it’.

Advice: Only for formal contexts; if it sounds odd, leave it out.

8) There is a long history of using ‘they’ (and ‘them’ and ‘their’) when referring to a single person of unspecified sex – and in spoken English this goes unnoticed. Unlike some languages, English doesn’t have a single word for ‘his or her’, and both readers and writers find the constant use of ‘him or her’, ‘his/hers’, ‘s/he’ laborious and distracting. So, the singular ‘they’ is probably going to become acceptable in standard English before we die; in the meantime use it, but with care. ‘Nobody is stopping you, are they?’

Advice: Not fully accepted; only use when it’s better than the alternatives.

9) It should indeed be ‘fewer accidents’ – but beware. The general rule is to use ‘fewer’ for things in the plural (dogs, brands, people) and ‘less’ for things that aren’t plural (coffee, education, rain). However, the problem is that there are so many exceptions to the rule, such as ‘one less thing to worry about’ and ‘she was less than five feet tall’. Oxford Dictionaries advises ‘less’ with time, measurements, and numbers when they are on their own (e.g. ‘less than a hundred’). These exceptions, and the fact that less/fewer rarely creates true confusion, suggest that this rule is in decline.

Advice: Rule generally holds, but beware exceptions.

And finally, 10 tips for guiding your colleagues through the grammar jungle

1) Always encourage them to start by thinking about the specific audience: different readers have different needs and expectations.

2) Often, ‘grammar issues’ are actually about context. How formal does the document need to be?

3) Always seek permission to offer writing advice. Lessons remembered from schooldays are deeply ingrained and criticism may be taken personally.

4) Look stuff up – the internet is the biggest reference library in the world (www.oxforddictionaries.com is good for grammar and usage).

5) Help people understand that there often isn’t a ‘right answer’ in grammar; it’s an untidy field that needs judgement.

6) Businesses that write a lot will need a house style to help make decisions. The online Guardian and Economist style guides are a good starting point.

7) If a senior person has a pet grammar peeve, first find out whether it’s justified – it could be. If it isn’t, try to help them over it (although you may end up having to lump it).

8) Blogs and social media are helpful for keeping up with grammar usage issues – Lingua Franca is a good place to start.

9) Some people think it’s okay to be a ‘grammar Nazi’ but, as the term suggests, it’s very unkind to the recipient. Be sympathetic.

10) Don’t forget, older people will always huff a bit about the literacy of the next generation. ‘There is not a single modern schoolboy who can compose verses or write a decent letter,’ William Langland once said - and he was born in 1332.

Andrew Ingram runs the training company Better Business Writing. Tom Freeman blogs on language at The Stroppy Editor.

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