Do grammar quizzes matter?

Posted by on June 03, 2013

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The argument about teaching and testing grammar in schools seems to have mutated into an increasingly political media squabble about ‘correct grammar’.

Michael’s critique of self-styled ‘crusading grammarian’ Mr Gwynne took me reluctantly to the ‘good grammar test’ featured in The Telegraph. (I scored less than full marks, I’m happy to say.) In the newspaper’s follow-up discussions, it was dubbed ‘Nevile Gwynne’s brilliant new grammar test’, and praised as ‘fiendishly tricky’.

Look up fiendish, and you’ll see that it means ‘clever but cruel’, ‘difficult to solve’, or ‘very evil’. Question 12 is none of these. Here it is:

Which of these names is in fact the nominative feminine singular of the gerundive mood imported direct from Latin? (Amanda, Miranda, Both, Neither)

This is simply irrelevant to English grammar.

Having passed A-level Latin, I vaguely remember the ‘nominative feminine singular’, not to mention the accusative masculine plural, but I wouldn’t dream of introducing these terms to anyone who is learning not Latin, but English. Nor is there any place for the ‘gerundive mood’ in a description of how English works. But being a glutton for punishment, I dipped into Gwynne’s Grammar, courtesy of Google, and read:

The gerundive, a verbal adjective, is a verb-form and usage which, to the best of my knowledge, has never occurred in any book of English grammar before.

Well, let’s hope it never occurs again, since it cannot be of any possible use.

Of course it is interesting to recognise that addenda and memorandum are ‘imported direct from the Latin’, but thousands of our words come from other languages without being forced into categories like ‘gerundive case’. Harry Mount argues, in support of Gwynne, that ‘if you learn the brain-crunching rules of Latin grammar, then the different constituent parts of English fall naturally into place’. How so? The grammatical categories of Latin and English are very different, and learning Latin seems a curiously roundabout way of mastering English.

Question 11 elicited the gender of ‘Evelyn’, based on the invented sentence ‘I should like to introduce you to my sister Amanda, who lives in New York, to my brother Mark who doesn’t, and to my only other sibling, Evelyn.’ Gwynne has since accepted the impossibility of this, and has replaced it with something equally confusing; see here.

Questions 2, 4, 7, and 8 ask you to identify the ‘parts of speech’ of the word near in four different contexts. Near is revealed as an adjective, an adverb, a preposition, and another adverb, respectively. For example, Gwynne rules that in ‘That was nowhere near good enough’ (Q.4), near is ‘an adverb qualifying an adjective-phrase’.

This is characteristic of the lack of clarity that bedevils Gwynne’s grammatical oeuvre. He uses the term qualify here, whereas his Grammar informs us that ‘an adverb is a word that modifies a verb, an adjective or another adverb’. Moreover, near in Question 4 neither qualifies nor modifies the ‘adjective-phrase’, because it is part of the adjective phrase.

If you’re becoming a bit hazy about adverbs and their behaviour, read on:

Adverbs are often the equivalent for verbs, adjectives and adverbs that adjectives are for nouns and pronouns.

Not exactly crystal clear, either.

On the back of this ill-conceived quiz, The Telegraph conducted a poll, asking its readers:

Does grammar matter? YES, or NO?

We don’t know what they meant by ‘grammar’, nor how it was interpreted. But apparently 93 percent of the approximately 4,000 respondents answered YES. One can only hope that this won’t be interpreted as a big welcome to any approach to language that offers a dull, numbing collection of do’s and don’ts, an ill-fitting hand-me-down Latin-based terminology, and an array of immutably ‘correct’ answers to every question.

Because if this is what grammar is, then the answer is NO, grammar doesn’t matter.

Fortunately, it is far more than this. Grammar not only describes how all language works; it is the stuff of language itself, with its incredible flexibility and dynamism, its creativity, its inherent ambiguities and humour, its effortless responsiveness to change. No one should ever reduce it to a set of choices between the ‘correct’ and the ‘abominable’.

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Comments (6)
  • Great stuff, Gill. To run a YES/NO poll asking “Does grammar matter?” is completely fatuous. Of course it matters – but first you have to be clear what you mean by “grammar”, In Gwynne’s book, it appears to include spelling , word meanings, and pronunciation, and to be based on the failed effort (in the 18th century, i believe) to try to map the grammar of English on to that of Latin. As for “the gerundive mood”: in Latin (it doesn’t exist in English) the gerundive is quite common, but it is definitely not a “mood”.

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 4th June, 2013
  • If the person , or the world understands each other perfectly then there is no need of grammar and even language. But there no understanding between people so if there is no grammar than there will be misunderstanding.

    Posted by tendi on 4th June, 2013
  • Michael: I quite agree. There have been lots of questions in the press and elsewhere: Does grammar matter? Does good grammar matter? Is correct grammar still important? and so on. Of course the unasked question is What is grammar? Certainly not what Gwynne thinks it is – a collection of rules. For me it is both the structure of the language and the description of it, but this needs a whole blog post.

    Posted by Gill on 4th June, 2013
  • Michael: About the ‘gerundive mood’. As you say the gerundive is not a mood, even in Latin. But
    I must quote this. After the bit about the gerundive never having occurred in any book of English grammar before (see above), Gwynne continues:

    “Without doubt the gerundive is a useful concept, so much so that English speakers have long felt the need for it.But how could they set about introducing into our language a verb-form that does not exist and has no obviously practical way of being created? Our resourceful ancestors found an admirable solution. They simply imported it straight from Latin … Thus very much part of our everyday language are ‘memorandum’, often shortened to ‘memo’, meaning ‘what must be remembered, and the plural ‘memoranda’, when there are several things to be remembered”…

    The idea of ‘our resourceful ancestors’ going off to look for a verb-form to apply to a bunch of nouns because they’ve got a useful concept is ludicrous, and reveals a peculiar view of language and its history.

    Posted by Gill on 4th June, 2013
  • Have been enjoying these posts and the comments. On a side note, our resourceful greatest playwright used his knowledge of Latin to create the names of two of his heroines: Perdita in The Winter’s Tale, she who was lost; and Miranda in The Tempest, she who is to be wondered at or admired. Miranda is of course a gerundive. Old Will didn’t have much time for pedants, did he? not if we go by the mockery of Holofernes and Sir Nathaniel in Love’s Labour’s Lost.

    Posted by Liz on 5th June, 2013
  • Liz: I agree that you can appreciate Shakespeare better if you’re across all the classical references and the etymology of names like Miranda. But these words are frozen in a Latin form, and there’s no room for the gerundive in any practical modern description of English grammar. I’m sure you’re not suggesting otherwise. And of course Gwynne’s grammar-quiz gaffe was to mention the non-existent ‘gerundive mood’ – worthy of the scorn of the dreadful Holofernes, who like Gwynne believed that his gift came from the gods.

    Posted by Gill on 6th June, 2013
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