Over Christmas, the BBC published online a ‘tricky quiz which challenges your grammar skills and knowledge.’ It was presumably devised as a light-hearted item to pass an idle moment or two during the holiday, so we should not, perhaps, take it too seriously. The thing is, though, it is typical of the sort of thing frequently found on the web. Such questions and answers are damaging, because they perpetuate false ideas about what grammar is and cause unnecessary anxiety about the use of language. They assume there is only ever one form that is ‘correct’ and that there is some undefined authority that says so. They make no distinction between formal and informal styles, pay no attention to context, and neglect the existence of varieties other than Standard English.
This quiz is based on the BBC style guide, which tells their writers how the BBC wants them to write. It is not an authoritative grammar book. I give the questions below, with the BBC’s answers in red and my own comments in blue.
1. Which of these phrases uses a semi-colon correctly?
I got no presents; but I did have cake.
Santa has two issues; drinking, swearing.
Santa isn’t that fat; he only eats kale.
“Santa isn’t that fat; he only eats kale” is the right one. The semi-colon links two independent clauses and is not used before a conjunction or before a list, where a colon would be better.
Fair enough, although that ‘would be better’ sounds a little equivocal. But this is a question about punctuation, not grammar.
2. Can you spot the incorrect phrase here?
There was less hay in the reindeer’s trough.
I eat fewer than 30 tangerines in a sitting.
I consume less than 12 eggnogs frequently.
“I consume less than 12 eggnogs frequently” is grammatically incorrect.
Here we get into a question of style. The BBC gives the standard explanation: For “countable” things you use “fewer”. For things that are not “countable” . . . you use “less”. Well, up to a point. As Pam Peters writes in ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’, ‘. . . it was and is essentially a stylistic choice, between the more formal fewer and the more spontaneous less. Fewer draws attention to itself, whereas less shifts the focus on to its more significant neighbours.
3. Only one of these sentences is correct. But which one?
The brandy, which was on fire, burnt Rudolph.
The brandy that was on fire burnt Rudolph.
“The brandy butter, which was on fire, burnt Rudolph” is right! “That” defines something, whereas “which” adds new information.
That is so here, but it is an inadequate explanation. It is true that ‘that’ is rarely found introducing a nondefining relative clause, but the opposite is not necessarily the case.
4. What kind of glaring grammatical error are we witnessing here? “We drank our Christmas sherries we’d stolen quickly”?
It’s a misplaced modifier. The clause is placed awkwardly and creates ambiguity. A split infinitive is when an adverb is put between “to” and the infinitive of a verb.
This is true, but I doubt if the sentence is authentic. In many cases, the meaning of a misplaced modifier can be perfectly clear.
5. Can you spot the correct one here?
Pam and me were the first ones in the pub
Pam and I were the first ones in the pub.
“I” is correct in this instance, because the pronoun is the subject of a verb.
In coordination, the first person singular personal pronoun can certainly occur as in ‘Pam and I’. In informal speech, however, ‘I’ will often become ‘me’, when it is normally the first item in the pair: ‘Me and Pam’ rather than ‘Pam and me’. The notion that one is correct and the other isn’t ignores degrees of formality.
6. Do you know which one of these is right?
If I was Rudolph I’d have more than 8 friends.
If I were Rudolph I’d have more than 8 friends.
It’s “were”, not “was”. The clause is hypothetical, so calls for the subjunctive mood.
What makes the whole sentence hypothetical is not ‘were’, but the ‘if’ clause followed by ‘(wou)’ld’. This becomes readily apparent when the ‘if’ clause is in the plural. The choice between ‘was’ and ‘were’ is a matter of style, not grammar. There are, moreover, grounds for not regarding this use of ‘were’ as subjunctive at all.
7. Can you identify the grammatically correct one here?
Santa is farther away than we thought.
Santa is further away than we thought.
“Farther” refers to distance; “further” refers to degree.
A matter of spelling, not grammar. In any case, the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition 4a of the adverb ‘further’ is ‘At a greater distance in space’.
8. Who or whom?
Rudolph blanked Dasher, whom he disliked.
Rudolph blanked Dasher, who he disliked.
“Whom” is correct, because Dasher is the object of the verb.
Both are grammatical. ‘Who’ is frequent in all but the most formal contexts and following a preposition
9. Poor Billy is going to miss Christmas: which of these phrases is right?
Oh dear! Billy’s measles is getting worse.
Oh dear! Billy’s measles are getting worse.
It’s “is” rather than “are”. Some plural nouns are treated as singular including diseases such as measles.
Perhaps, but the proximity of the plural form might well prompt the plural verb. The Oxford English Dictionary says ‘Usually with singular concord’, not invariably.
10. Who’s baubles clogged Marjorie’s tree?
Whose baubles clogged Marjorie’s tree?
Whose baubles clogged Marjories tree?
Who’s baubles clogged Marjorie’s tree?
“Whose baubles clogged Marjorie’s tree?” is right. “Who’s” is short for “who is”, while “whose” is used to describe items that belong to someone. And Marjorie needs an apostrophe before the “s”.
This is a matter of spelling or punctuation, not grammar. In speech there is no doubt about what is meant, and there will be no doubt in a writer’s mind. I doubt if these are authentic examples and I wonder just how frequent these forms are in formal prose.
11. It looks like Santa isn’t coming, but can you identify the correct one here
Santa Claus may have come, but didn’t.
Santa Claus might have come, but didn’t.
You would use “might” rather than “may” in this instance, as the outcome is more hypothetical.
This is a distinction increasingly unobserved, with little loss. As ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’ tell us, ‘for many, “may” is the modal verb of choice in these contexts, and unremarkable.’
12. “Please read me that Christmas story.” How would you describe the mood of the verb on this occasion?
The imperative mood is the mood of a verb when making a command or a request.
Basically true, but commands and requests need not be made by the imperative form.