Category Archives: Quizzes

In the news … (June 20)

tiny grass

TGIF: That Gerund Is Funky. Words and language in the news this week include a schoolboy pointing out BMW’s bad grammar; a prime minister’s spelling error and a president’s incorrect pronunciation; the relationship between texting and bad (or good) spelling; and some real Nazis who are also grammar nazis. Continue reading

A-verbing we will go

franklin

Benjamin Franklin called it “awkward and abominable” in a letter to the lexicographer Noah Webster in 1789. He was talking about “verbing”: the hijacking of nouns for use as verbs — a practice that dates back many centuries. Even Shakespeare was doing it back in about 1595 when the Duke of York reacted angrily to his nephew Bolingbroke’s greeting: “Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle!” Continue reading

In the news … (Oct 11)

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Where language was in the news this week …

Grammar Girl (aka Mignon Fogerty) appeared on the Today Show on Wednesday. Take her quiz that contained all the discussion topics she suggested to the producers. (I couldn’t find a correct answer to Question No. 2; please comment below if you think one of the answers to that question was grammatically correct – and why…) Continue reading

Celebrating the most misbehaved punctuation mark on International Apostrophe Day

Today is International Apostrophe Day!

apostrophe

As Sam Tanner tweeted earlier this morning: “An apostrophe is the difference between a business that knows its shit and a business that knows it’s shit.”

Here’s a round-up of apostrophe news and celebrations on its auspicious day. (This particular awareness day was conceived last year by The Guardian‘s production editor, David Marsh.) Continue reading

BBC English: a flawed quiz – the questionable question

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I wrote in yesterday’s post about the BBC’s English quiz, which wasn’t up to scratch in my book. My score was docked because of my answer to question number 3, concerning a certain androgynous sibling called Hilary, which went as follows:

“Read this sentence carefully. “I’d like to introduce you to my sister Clara, who lives in Madrid, to Benedict, my brother who doesn’t, and to my only other sibling, Hilary.” Which of the following is correct?

1) Hilary is male

2) Hilary is female

3) It’s impossible to tell from the context”

Well, it’s not just impossible to tell from the context, but the sentence itself doesn’t make sense. Given the way it’s punctuated, it states pretty clearly that the speaker has more than one sister (“my sister Clara” means that there is another sister; “my sister, Clara” would have identified Clara as the only sister) and more than one brother (“Benedict, my brother who doesn’t” identifies Benedict as the only one of two or more brothers who doesn’t live in Madrid). So the speaker is kidding himself if he thinks he has only one other sibling: it just doesn’t follow logically. Either that, or he doesn’t understand how to punctuate.

And it seems that I’m not the only one who found fault with the quiz, which was doling out 9/10s by the dozen to undeserving souls. And it wasn’t just question 3 that raised eyebrows and tempers. The internet lit up with confusion and outrage; linguist Peter Harvey had a field-day with the quiz on his blog; and there was a lot of healthy discussion among Facebook fist-shakers who felt similarly wronged.

The moral of the story seems to be this: check your own proficiency before testing others’ …

BBC English: a flawed quiz?

10outof10

The BBC’s News Magazine posted a grammar quiz today – supposedly to test how much we know “about apostrophes, semi-colons and dangling participles”. At least one of the questions seems to contain a fatal flaw, as far as I can tell. (And I don’t think I’m just trying to find an excuse for scoring only 9 out of 10 on the quiz.) See if you can guess which one I’m talking about, and why.

Answer and explanation here at Glossophilia tomorrow.

 

A flock of nouns of multitude

The answer to my previous post, “A singular quiz”, is that they’re all collective nouns, or nouns of multitude, and specifically terms of venery.

We’re familiar with the phrases “a flock of sheep” and “a pride of lions”, and similar collective nouns specific to certain groups or types of people, such as a “company of actors”, a “troupe of dancers”, a “class of students”, a “platoon of soldiers”, an “orchestra of musicians”, and even a “bevy of beauties”. The terms of venery — such words that refer to animals — can be especially poetic and descriptive, and below is Wikipedia’s explanation for their fascinating collective history and etymology (along with a list of my personal and most poetic favorites, which is by no means exhaustive). Also below is a list of my favorite flavory collective nouns used to describe certain professions or subsets of society, two of which need to be singled out for special attention: a “conjunction of grammarians” and a “shrivel of critics”. Whoever dreamed up those particular terms of venery must be the very epitome of style and wit. As a matter of fact, we do know the author of at least one of them, as explained in the next paragraph. It’s noted in Wiki’s explanation that these terms, even when they were first coined, never really had any practical application: they were “intended as a mark of erudition of the gentlemen able to use them correctly rather than for practical communication.” How lucky for all writers and poets (and even for us readers) that they persist in our lexicon today — some of them surprisingly so. The fact that a “gaggle” is still used to describe not just a flock of geese but also a collection of women (usually of the giggling or talkative kind) is interesting in these days of post-feminism and political correctness; this term was one of the many deliberately humorous words listed in the Book of Saint Albans, published in 1486.

James Lipton, best known to us as the creator and host of the American TV show Inside the Actors Studio, is — among many other things — a great lover of words. (Indeed, one of his favorite moments of his show — and definitely one of mine — is when he asks his actor subjects for mostly single-word answers to his questionnaire: favorite curse word? favorite and least favorite sounds? etc.) Lipton has a special interest in collective nouns, and he has published a definitive, best-selling book on the subject: An Exaltation of Larks (1968). Lipton has even invented some of his own nouns of multitude, including a “score of bachelors”, an “unction of undertakers”, a “shrivel of critics” (it had to come from an actor or some kind of performing artist), and a “queue of actors”.

Let’s not bore ourselves here (except to single out the lovely expression “a singular of boars”) with the questions and complexities of which verb forms (singular or plural) should be used with these collective nouns. Suffice to say the Brits and the Yanks diverge in their usage: in British English, collective nouns can take either singular or plural verb forms, depending on the context and something called the “implied metonymic shift”. It is perfectly acceptable in England to say “the class have finished their homework” (especially if all the students in the class had the same homework). However, in American English, collective nouns take singular verb forms: “the class has finished its homework”. This matter was discussed in an earlier Glossophilia blog post: http://www.glossophilia.org/?p=156

Some of my favorite nouns of assembly (for professions or groups of people):

– A tabernacle of bakers
– A shuffle of bureaucrats
– A hastiness of cooks
– A shrivel of critics
– A decanter of deans
– An obstruction of dons
– A galaxy of governesses
– A conjunction of grammarians
– A melody of harpists
– An observance of hermits
– A neverthriving of jugglers
– A superfluity of nuns
– A scolding of seamstresses
– A disguising of tailors
– A prudence of vicars
– An ambush of widows

Some of my favorite terms of venery:

– A shrewdness of apes
– A pace of asses
– A cete of badgers
– A sloth or sleuth of bears
– A singular of boars
– An obstinacy of buffalo
– A clowder or pounce of cats
– An intrusion of cockroaches
– A rag of colts
– A murder of crows
– A cowardice of curs
– A pitying of doves
– A business of ferrets
– A charm of finches
– A leash or skulk of fox
– A tower of giraffes
– An implausibility of gnus
– A trip of goats
– A down or husk of hares
– A bloat of hippopotamuses
– A cry or mute of hounds
– A cackle of hyenas
– An intrigue of kittens
– A deceit of lapwings
– An exaltation of larks
– A leap of leopards
– A pride of lions
– A labor of moles
– A span or barren of mules
– A richness of martens
– A romp of otters
– A parliament of owls
– An aurora of polar bears
– A prickle of porcupines
– An unkindness of ravens
– A crash of rhinoceroses
– A shiver of sharks
– A scurry of squirrels
– An affliction of starlings
– A streak of tigers
– A knot of toads
– A gam of whales
– A business of weasels

 

Wikipedia on the history of nouns of assembly:

The tradition of using “terms of venery” or “nouns of assembly” — collective nouns that are specific to certain kinds of animals — stems from an English hunting tradition of the late Middle Ages. The fashion of a consciously developed hunting language came to England from France. It is marked by an extensive proliferation of specialist vocabulary, applying different names to the same feature in different animals. These elements can be shown to have already been part of French and English hunting terminology by the beginning of the 14th century. In the course of the 14th century, it became a courtly fashion to extend the vocabulary, and by the 15th century, this tendency had reached exaggerated proportions. The Venerie of Twiti (early 14th century) distinguished three types of droppings of animals, and three different terms for herds of animals. Gaston Phoebus (14th c.) had five terms for droppings of animals, which were extended to seven in the Master of the Game (early 15th century). The focus on collective terms for groups of animals emerges in the later 15th century. Thus, a list of collective nouns in Egerton MS 1995, dated to ca. 1452 under the heading of termis of venery &c. extends to 70 items, and the list in the Book of Saint Albans (1486) runs to 165 items, many of which, even though introduced by the compaynys of beestys and fowlys, do not relate to venery but to human groups and professions and are clearly humorous. (a Doctryne of doctoris, a Sentence of Juges, a Fightyng of beggers, an uncredibilite of Cocoldis, a Melody of harpers, a Gagle of women, a Disworship of Scottis etc.)

The Book of Saint Albans became very popular during the 16th century and was reprinted frequently. Gervase Markham edited and commented on the list in his The Gentleman’s Academic in 1595. The book’s popularity had the effect of perpetuating many of these terms as part of the Standard English lexicon, even though they have long ceased to have any practical application. Even in their original context of medieval venery, the terms were of the nature of kennings, intended as a mark of erudition of the gentlemen able to use them correctly rather than for practical communication.The popularity of these terms in the early modern and modern period has resulted in the addition of numerous light-hearted, humorous or “facetious” collective nouns.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collective_noun

Grammar Gaffes Invade the Office (WSJ)

Published today in the Wall Street Journal.

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303410404577466662919275448.html

This Embarrasses You and I*

“When Caren Berg told colleagues at a recent staff meeting, “There’s new people you should meet,” her boss Don Silver broke in, says Ms. Berg, a senior vice president at a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., marketing and crisis-communications company. “I cringe every time I hear” people misuse “is” for “are,” Mr. Silver says. The company’s chief operations officer, Mr. Silver also hammers interns to stop peppering sentences with “like.” For years, he imposed a 25-cent fine on new hires for each offense. “I am losing the battle,” he says.

“Employers say the grammar skills of people they hire are getting worse, a recent survey shows. But language is evolving so fast that old rules of usage are eroding. Sue Shellenbarger has details on Lunch Break.”

 

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