Today’s Guardian has a language quiz, which it entitles
Grammar and punctuation test: take our quiz
In June, year 6 pupils will sit a National Test in spelling, grammar and punctuation. But how good is your knowledge of technical English? Take our quiz for students, teachers and grammar fans
The implication is that this is typical of the tests that are taken by children aged 10 at the beginning of the school year. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear! Where shall we start? Perhaps with the punctuation point that there should be a full stop after fans in the sentence quoted above.
Below an image that will be an abstract design to an average 11-year-old, but that I recognise as a typewriter ribbon, we find question 1.
Which word is the antonym of hygienic? Disinfected, Polluted or Sanitised
The what of hygienic? I am not sure how many children of that age should know what a synonym is; to expect them to know its opposite (antonym in the technical jargon) is absurd. As a mere linguist I suggest that the opposite (or antonym) of hygienic is unhygienic. The answer that they require (polluted) simply is not valid. An online site suggests the indirect antonyms: unsanitary, insanitary, unhealthful.
We are asked to match these sentences
1 Dig a tunnel through the rock
2 A tunnel was dug through the rock
3 He thought he might be able to dig a tunnel through the rock
with the verb forms conditional, passive and command. Leaving aside the feasibility of actually digging in rock, 1 and 2 are clearly command and passive respectively but what about 3? It is a sentence in which the sequence of tenses demands might rather than may (though that distinction is rapidly disappearing) through backshifting analogous to indirect speech. It is not conditional. This is a conditional sentence with might:
4 If I had a bigger shovel I might (=would possibly) be able to dig this tunnel faster.
Again, the original sentences as displayed have no full stops.
Which of the following sentences uses a subordinate clause at the beginning?
1 Male penguins keep warm by huddling together
2 In order to stay alive, male penguins keep warm by huddling together
3 Huddling together helps male penguins to stay alive and keep warm
The correct answer is of course: None of them. That is not an option, however. As we are looking at punctuation as well as grammar I find the comma in 2 unnecessary and the lack of full stops strikingly bad.
Identify which of the following nouns are abstract and/or collective: Team, truth, pride. They are respectively collective, abstract, and abstract and collective if one assumes that pride is a collective noun in a pride of lions. But that is not a collective noun as these things are usually defined; it is a proper term. Group nouns such as team, committee, school, government, army etc. are general in meaning whereas proper terms are restricted in how they collocate; we do not speak of a pride of elephants for example.
Hyphenation is a notorious minefield. Of these sentences
1 Mother to-be polar bear
2 Mother-to-be polar bear
3 Mother to be polar-bear
the second is correct by traditional rules. However, such phrases are now often written without hyphens:
4 Mother to be polar bear
so I assume that the hyphen has been inserted in 3 to ensure that this example is unacceptable beyond doubt. Some pedants might argue that it implies that a mother is to be a polar bear but such a fragment has no context. If we read
4a A mother to be polar bear was rescued yesterday.
there is no doubt, nor is there when the words are spoken with a natural intonation.
The polar bear theme (or should that be polar-bear theme as we now have a compound adjective?) continues with the question: Which is grammatically correct?
Although polar bears look after there cubs, their not animals that like living in groups out there in the Arctic.
Although polar bears look after their cubs, there not animals that like living in groups out there in the Arctic.
Although polar bears look after their cubs, they’re not animals that like living in groups out there in the Arctic.
For the sake of convenience I have emboldened the homophones that are presumably being tested. By doing so I highlight just how odd this question is. Why are the differing forms not mixed more? Why are homophones presented as a grammar question? Certainly the words have different syntactical functions but the confusion is phonetic or visual, not syntactical.
Identify the main clause in the following sentence:
The rescuers, who were drafted in by the officials, were stunned by the destruction.
1 The rescuers
2 The rescuers were stunned
3 Who were drafted in by the officials
1 is not a clause and 3 is a subordinate clause so the answer must be 2, even though this leaves the phrase by the destruction orphaned with no clause to call its own. The correct answer is
4 The rescuers were stunned by the destruction.
We are asked to identify the prepositional phrase in the following sentence:
There was still no response so he tiptoed to the foot of the stairs.
1 There was still no response
2 So he tiptoed
3 To the foot of the stairs
Clearly, 3 is correct. It is after all the only phrase (as opposed to a clause) on offer.
And finally, does an English gerund always end in -ing, -end, or -tion? It’s certainly not -end (those are German participles). The answer is -ing but there is more to it. While gerund is a convenient term for most purposes, it is not truly precise in contradistinction to the present participle, which also ends in -ing. The name -ing form is used to cover the two. The gradation of one into the other with no absolute distinction is shown excellently in A Student’s Grammar of the English Language 17.23n (Sidney Greenbaum and Randolph Quirk) with a gradation of sentences from Some paintings of Brown’s to Brown is painting his daughter. (Although this book is essentially a distillation of the longer Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, this list does not appear in the latter work.)
What to make of this farrago of nonsense? It seems, fortunately, from the Guardian’s introduction that this is not an actual paper to be given to 11-year-olds but is something that has been concocted by its own Professional Development Teacher Network. That is hair-raising in itself for what it says about the Guardian’s own intellectual standards but if, as is implied, these questions are typical of the questions that will actually be asked to children, words fail me. I am of a generation that studied formal grammar at school, but as I remember it we did our analytical work on sentence structure of clauses in secondary school, with English and German clause structure accompanying and complementing each other in my case. It is many years ago but I am sure that I answered questions like these in my O-level English, not at 11-plus, and I am absolutely certain that I had not met the word antonym in my junior school. Even more, there is the question of why such grammar is needed at all – to the extent that these questions do cover grammar understood as syntax. I do not believe that grammar should be ignored; I began my EFL career in the late 1970s, when functional and notional teaching was coming in with a series of books called Strategies and I saw the huge improvement that could be made by focusing on communication with grammar in the background rather than the foreground but most definitely present. Some knowledge of grammar, the basic terminology at the very least, is absolutely necessary if a language is to be taught and used correctly and efficiently but identification of grammatical terminology as an end in itself is far too abstruse.
Finally, however, the main point to mention is that a supposedly intelligent, educated and cultured British national newspaper, one that is especially popular among teachers, has published an English language test* with three questions out of fourteen that are totally invalid. They are 1 (the antonym of hygienic), 4 (identification of a non-existent conditional sentence) and 5 (identification of a non-existent subordinate clause). I can say no more.
*or English-language test, or English language-test or English-language-test. Take your pick.
Note: With 35 years’ experience teaching EFL in four countries and over 20 years as a Speaking Examiner for Cambridge Proficiency, and with two books published, I can claim a good understanding of what constitutes good teaching and good examining.
The Guardian is not the only culprit. Five years ago the Times did something similar.