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Grammar Quiz With No Answers Raises Number of Questions

March 10, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

I knew it would happen. I even predicted it when I included a grammar quiz in this space a few weeks ago. I said I was running an enormous risk of raising the ire of every grammarian--amateur or professional--who might see the column. Well, I did.

The critics came down in three places: they couldn't find nine errors and were irritated because I didn't provide answers to the quiz; they took issue with some of my syntax; and they accused me of making a serious grammatical error in my own copy.

In the original grammar quiz column, I wrote: "From Vietnam radicals to Reagan reactionaries, virtually none of them have known. . . . "

Reader Jack Wagner wrote: "Have the rules changed regarding the word 'none' requiring a singular verb?"

Pamela Golodner asked the same question, then ended with a rhetorical question: "As asked in the heading of your article, 'What happened to grammar?' "

Merrilyn Clarke scolded me: "Before you criticize the grammar of your students, perhaps you should check on your own. . . . Although I am not an English teacher, I love the language and know at least the fundamental rules of grammar which surely a person in your position should know and employ at all times rather than blame the students whose teachers may be the ones at fault instead."

My desk-top "Elements of Style" supports the critics, saying: "With 'none,' use the singular verb when the word means 'no one' or 'not one.' " But most other current standard grammars do not take this position. The Times stylebook says that if the object of the preposition following "none" is plural, it takes a plural verb. The Times resident grammarian, Fred Holley, supports this usage with a broad range of authority including "The Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage," "The Careful Writer," H.W. Fowler's "Modern English Usage," and "American Usage, the Consensus," which says, "It is superstition to suppose that none must take a singular verb." So while there is some dispute on the point, current expertise appears to favor my usage.

There were some other criticisms of my syntax that I reject. Starting a sentence with "and" and using sentence fragments deliberately are matters of style, not grammar. One of the reasons we learn the rules of grammar is so we can break them judiciously--and anyone who has ever looked at a student paper is quite sure when a student is breaking a grammatical rule out of knowledge rather than ignorance.

There were also some responses that didn't take me to task. A delightful letter from B. McArthur (no gender indicated) returned the quiz--scoring eight out of nine in six minutes--with the tag line: "Hey, man, that was like fun to read." And damned if the quiz didn't turn up Mary Lagerquist of Costa Mesa, who not only graduated several years after me from South Side High School in Ft. Wayne, Ind., but also was taught English by Mr. Makey, whom she recalls as "quite ruthless and completely unsympathetic."

I deliberately avoided including the answers to the quiz because I knew that would be certain to flag the critics who would find all sorts of other things wrong. That was both discreet and cowardly, but enough people have written or phoned to complain that they can't find nine mistakes (or have found more than nine) that I guess I will have to run that risk. So here are the original sentences, with errors noted:

1. Driving into town, the billboards distracted her attention. (A dangling participle; clearly the billboards are not driving into town; should read: "As she was driving into town.")

2. If the family wants to stay, they can go to a hotel. ("Family," a collective noun, here takes a singular verb; therefore the pronoun should agree: change the "they" to "it.")

3. Riding a bike and the joy of a book are my favorite leisure time pleasures. (Need parallel construction; make it, "reading a book.")

4. His early morning rising at 6:30 a.m. cleared his head for the day. ("His early morning . . . at 6:30 a.m." is redundant.)

5-7. He seemed totally indestructible after surviving the fatal accident where two of his friends were killed. ("Indestructible" is already a superlative, eliminate "totally"; "fatal" is redundant; "where" is used improperly, should be, "in which.")

8. Once he began to fear his opponent, it was very inevitable that he would lose. ("Very" is redundant and is almost always a useless appendage.)

The ninth mistake is the use of the word inevitable, which means, according to Webster: "Incapable of being avoided." About the only thing in this life that is inevitable is an avalanche of criticism when you set yourself up as an expert in anything. Especially grammar. So in this sentence, "inevitable" is misused. More appropriate words would be "likely" or "probable."

That's it. Be kind. Don't nit-pick.

And I just hope to hell I don't have no grammatical errors in this column.

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