<< back to the archive list

September 27th, 2006

Quiz answers explained

by Barbara Wallraff

Three weeks ago I sprang a pop quiz on you that was also a contest. Now it’s time to go over the answers and award the prize -- an autographed copy of my “Word Court” book. I’ve chosen the winner at random from everyone who got all the answers right.

If you want to know whether you aced the test -- most of you did -- here are the answers: 1C, 2B, 3A, 4B, 5B, 6A, 7A, 8A, 9B, 10A. Let me explain:

In question 1, I asked you to choose between the verbs “orient” and “orientate,” and also decide whether people “brooch,” “breach” or “broach” a subject. “Orient” is the better verb; “orientate” is just a needlessly elaborate variant. And we “broach” subjects.

Question 2 tripped some readers up. It was “What’s wrong with the sentence ‘If you had drank a cup of coffee before you started this quiz, it might have helped you concentrate’?” I’ll bet you know perfectly well that “had drank” isn’t good English – the sentence should read “had drunk.” True, most of us don’t get “drunk” on coffee. Nonetheless, the past participle of the verb “drink” is “drunk”: “I drink,” “I drank,” “I have drunk” and “I had drunk.” Some readers chose the answer that the sentence “shouldn’t end with a question mark the way it does.” Ah, but the question mark is outside the close quotation mark (shown above as a single close quote mark, since now the quote appears inside another quote). The question mark signals the end of the whole sentence, which begins with the question “What’s wrong with …”

To get question 3 right, you had to know that if you start using “one” as a pronoun, you’re supposed to keep using it and not switch over to “he,” “she” or “he or she.” If one knows this, one will have chosen the correct answer.

Question 4 asked why it’s not right to say that “‘Word Court’ is very unique.” Would it be (A) because the column “isn’t especially unusual” or (B) because “unique” properly means “one of a kind,” so modifying it with “very” is nonsensical? Hardly anyone got this wrong. If you did choose A, you probably just don’t realize how vain a newspaper columnist can be. Of course “Word Court” is unusual – unique, even!

In question 5 you had to choose between “three-year anniversary” and “third anniversary,” and also between “its anniversary” and “it’s anniversary.” Nearly all of you knew that “year” is redundant with the “anni-” part of “anniversary” and that “its,” not “it’s,” is the proper possessive form.

Question 6 was a troublemaker. It turned on whether “a number of people wonder” or “a number of people wonders” is correct. C’mon, you know this: It’s “a number of people wonder.” The only reason this confuses anyone is that “number” is singular and “people” is plural – so should you use a singular or plural verb? Well, in the phrase in the question, the people are doing the wondering. “A number of” is just suggesting how many of them there are. So the plural “wonder” is right. But please note the singular verb “was” here: “The number of puzzled people was surprisingly large.” What’s large is the number, not the people. This time the singular verb is right.

Question 7 absolutely baffled a number of readers. Sorry! You were supposed to decide which was correct: “a CIA operative, a UN peacekeeper, but an FBI agent” or “a CIA operative, a FBI agent, but an UN peacekeeper.” I threw in a third possible answer, “What is this question doing here?” intending it to be an obviously wrong choice. I guess it wasn’t so obvious – lots of people chose it. I’d meant the question to be about how to use “a” and “an”: Use “a” before anything that starts with a consonant sound (such as “CIA” and “UN” – and never mind that “U” is a vowel, because here it’s pronounced like a consonantal “y”). Use “an” before anything that starts with a vowel sound (such as “FBI,” the first letter of which is pronounced “ef”).

Question 8 gave you a choice between “toe the line” and “tow the line.” As I explained in this column last May: “To ‘toe the line’ or ‘toe the mark’ literally means to keep your whole foot behind a line or mark.” “Toe” is the right spelling in this phrase.

Question 9 asked why we use singular verbs like “is” and “has” with “everybody.” The authoritative-sounding choices were that “everybody” is “plural, so this usage is disputed” or that it’s “technically singular.” Here too I threw in a third, meant-to-be-silly option: “Everybody knows the answer to this one!” Apparently not. Well, “everybody” is indeed technically – grammatically – singular, like “anybody,” “nobody” and “somebody.”

Question 10 included a bit of shameless self-promotion – and many thanks to the readers who took me at my word and said they’d tell their papers how much they enjoy Word Court. But it also asked whether “I hope you’ll write your newspaper and …” should be followed by “me,” “I,” “myself” or all of those words. It’s “me.” Now, please don’t write to tell me that “It’s me” is grammatically incorrect. In the sentence before last – for possibly the first time ever – it was correct grammatically as well as factually and idiomatically.

One of many readers who got all the answers right is Kay Doyle, of Shelby Township, Mich. What’s more, she won the contest. Congratulations, Kay -- the book is on its way to you right now. And congratulations to all the rest of you who earned a perfect score. Keep up the good work.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

<< back to the archive list