The decline of grammar education



Mention an interest in grammar education to most people and they will assume you are concerned about incorrect use of English. What concerns me, by contrast, is the incompetence of those who pontificate about it and set quizzes on it. Google fetches more than 300,000 hits for the term \”grammar quiz\”; yet if quizzes on chemistry were as uninformed as those on grammar, they would ask silly questions on peripheral topics (“Who is the Bunsen burner named after?”), and would make no reference to the periodic table, or atoms or molecules. The web’s grammar quizzes deal in minor pieces of puristic flotsam with roots in dimly understood 18th-century grammatical analysis.

Collins Dictionaries (to its great shame) maintains a representative example. Four of the 12 questions aren’t about grammar at all, but punctuational nomenclature: (i) American ‘period’ corresponds to British ‘full stop’; (ii) the ‘¶’ mark (almost unknown today) is called a ‘pilcrow’; (iii) the only punctuation mark with the same name as a body part (!) is the colon; and (iv) the marks shaped ‘( )’ are called parentheses.

Setting these utterly pointless questions aside (dismissing a third of the quiz), we are left with eight grammar questions of the “Which is correct?” or “Which is incorrect?” type. They test knowledge of the following eight purported ‘facts’ (in some cases, as we’ll see, they are not facts).

1. The determinative less is standardly used with noncount nouns like rain, not with a count noun as in less books (purists prefer fewer books).

2. Which should not be used to introduce a restrictive relative clause modifying a nonhuman-denoting noun. (This is a time-wasting myth, widely believed in America but hardly at all in Britain, stemming from a quixotic century-old reform proposal; see “A Rule Which Will Live in Infamy.”)

3. Given a choice between these three sentences, only the first (so the quiz alleges) is correct:
(a) Do you see who I see?
(b) Do you see who I’m seeing?
(c) Do you see whom I see?
(This one baffles me. True, (a) is the most natural-sounding, but there is nothing ungrammatical about (b), and many purists would insist that (c) is correct. But the quiz-devisers nonetheless opt for (a). I have no idea what the point of this question is.)

4. She and her father is appropriate as a subject noun phrase; me and him is appropriate as an object. (This is the uncontroversial principle for Standard English, though there is much variation colloquially.)

5. Just one of these words can (so the quiz alleges) be a pronoun: (a) that, (b) England, (c) very. (The claim is false, so the question is impossible. All three words fail the tests for pronouns. For example, pronouns occur in interrogative tags, hence we get Dee’s smart, isn’t she? but not *Dee’s smart, isn’t Dee?. Demonstrative that does not behave like a pronoun: We get That’s smart, isn’t it?, not *That’s smart, isn’t that?. As argued in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Chapter 5, many determinatives can occur without a noun. Some, few, all this, and that are among them.)

6. After a conditional phrase like if she misses her train, a present-tense main clause like I take her by car is correct. (Again, I do not see the point at issue.)

7. If I were you is correct but if I was you is not. (This is inaccurate. Was in a counterfactual conditional is extremely common in conversation, and should be regarded as as grammatical, but informal. If this was Tuesday we wouldn’t care is clearly more informal than If this were Tuesday it would not concern us, but it contains no grammatical errors. Purists are often confused on this point.)

8. After a conditional phrase like if I had had one would expect a main clause with the verb would. (A third question about choosing tense and modality after an if clause, and again I do not see the point of it.)

And that’s all there is! Irrelevant, pointless, or misconceived questions on a minuscule range of topics, set by people who don’t know what they’re talking about. Not a single sensible question with a clearly correct answer on a noteworthy point of English grammar.

Such is the state of a subject that was once the indispensable foundation stone of the classical trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric). In the 19th century serious language critics debated points of Standard English grammar with sophisticated arguments. In the 21st, few educated people know anything about grammatical analysis, and quizzes like the one Collins has published reduce it to a short list of silly questions about fiddly details, gotcha points, and timeworn myths.