Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Delayed holiday fun(?)

You're probably fed up with party games and the like. But just in case you've got any appetite left, here's a little quiz which I designed some years ago for a quite different purpose. Think of it as a lighthearted test of your grasp of the English language.

Of course it is deeply insulting to suggest that any reader of this blog might have any shortcomings at all in terms of knowledge of grammar, spelling, syntax, and the like. So you'll probably get 100%. No problem. It won't take a minute. And it might even be fun. Or not. As the case may be.

The quiz has three parts. First, a test of your vocabulary; then a spelling test; and finally a sort of find the deliberate mistake thingy. Then you get the answers. And finally a few comments.


Do you know the difference between the following pairs of words? Can you explain the difference, in each case, in a couple of brief sentences? If you can’t, check the meanings in a dictionary.

aural and oral
appraise and apprise
canvas and canvass
complement and compliment
discreet and discrete
loath and loathe
interment and internment
prescribe and proscribe
principal and principle
stationary and stationery

Why am I bothering about these similar but different words? Because the spell checker on your word processor won’t help you if you write complimentary when you mean complementary; and you risk looking ignorant if you do.


Spelling is difficult to test in print, but set out below are twenty commonly misspelt words. Half of them are correctly spelt, and half are not. Can you identify the wrong 'uns? (Answers at the end of the post.)


Grammar and punctuation

Finally, if you’re not fed up with this game, here are a few sentences which contain some elementary errors of grammar or punctuation, or both. Can you see what is wrong? (Hint: there may be more than one thing wrong in each sentence. Answers are again at the end of this post.)

1 After inspecting a guard of honour, President Reagan’s motorcade moved into the centre of Moscow.

2 Its a long way from London to Wiltshire, the train toots it’s whistle with relief when it finally arrives.

3 She was the oldest of the two sisters.

4 Between you and I, he is quite wrong, and I would of told him so if he hadn’t been so big.

5 Through hard work the coach affected a considerable improvement in the teams performance.

Answers to the spelling test

The correct versions of ten of the words are set out below; the other ten are correct as printed (at least they are if you use English spelling as opposed to American; the Americans have their own rules.)

acquire, not aquire
aggressive, not agressive
benefited, not benefitted
consensus, not concensus
desperate, not desparate
detached, not detatched
memento, not momento
necessary, not neccessary
separate, not seperate
supersede, not supercede

Answers to the grammar and punctuation test

1 The first sentence provides an example of an unattached, or dangling, participle. The motorcade did not inspect the guard of honour; President Reagan did.

2 Here we have two sentences separated by a comma. Ideally there should be a semi-colon after Wiltshire, but a full stop would do. Also, the first its should be it’s and the second it’s should be its.

3 She was the older of the two sisters. If there had been three sisters, she might have been the oldest. In talking about persons who are closely related, elder and eldest are often used rather than older and oldest.

4 Between you and me, not I. This is a common error, but often debated; see the discussion in Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Also, I would have told him so; not would of.

5 The general sense of the sentence implies that the coach effected a considerable improvement. He might have affected a lack of dismay when the team lost. Teams requires an apostrophe before the s, unless he coached several teams successfully, in which case the apostrophe would go after the s.

Nobody is perfect

Let me make it plain at this point that there are definite limits to my own knowledge of grammar and spelling.

I will readily admit, if you put a gun to my head, that I would have to think hard before explaining the difference between a transitive and an intransitive verb; and ditransitive verbs, which have both a direct object and an indirect object, are really tricky.

I believe I understand what is meant by the active voice; and I could have a stab at explaining what a gerund is. But for all these explanations I would much prefer to consult one of the standard reference books before claiming even tentative authority on the subject.

As for spelling – well, some of the words listed in the spelling section above are those which had me fooled for years.

And it’s never too late to learn. When I was in my forties, a professor of mathematics pointed out to me that there is a difference between verbal and oral, and a professor of chemistry reminded me that data is a plural noun.

There now. Wasn't that fun?


Anonymous said...

With the greatest respect:
Oh Dear!
I did throw away my dictionary and thesaurus at about the time I got something published.
A vanity, I suppose, in my twenties.

Bernita said...

Like a Siamese cat?
Where's the other one, Captain Picard?
Eckually,I did very well on your quizz - don't ask me how.
Supersede/supercede did me in. Always think cedere/yield.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your festive test. I hope you don't mind but I've tweaked it around for use in English classes for Spanish doctors. I've credited you as the originator. I managed to answer all correctly. Nothing to brag about. As a writer,reader, editor and translator English Language is what I do. I feel an obligation to use English as correctly as possible and to keep on learning the language's nuances. Fowler's would be my choice of book for a desert island - if only to take issue with some of Gowers's more pernickety revisions. Thanks again for a very stimulating blog.

Anonymous said...

Court Reporter...and loved it and understood it. Thanks!