The Telegraph’s incompetent grammar test

The Telegraph has a grammar test compiled by Nevile Gwynne. Some of the questions are on the parts of speech, while others are really questions about usage. Gwynne takes a prescriptivist view that some might call traditional and others might call unencumbered by evidence and designed to produce language that’s too formal and stilted to be effective.

Tom Chivers criticises this aspect of the test; I agree.

But my beef is with question 11, which gives us a sentence and three possible conclusions to choose from:

“I should like to introduce you to my sister Amanda, who lives in New York, to my brother Mark who doesn’t, and to my only other sibling, Evelyn.”

  • Evelyn is male
  • Evelyn is female
  • Impossible to know from the wording of the sentence whether Evelyn is male or female.

According to Gwynne, the correct answer is male:

The absence of a comma before “who doesn’t” makes that clause part of the definition of Mark, implying that there are other brothers. Try reading the sentence with the word “Mark” omitted.

This analysis is wrong.

We are in the territory of restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. Restrictive clauses give defining pieces of information and are not set off with commas, while non-restrictive clauses give additional, inessential pieces of information and are set off by commas.

Compare “the man who is eating cheese is guilty” (singling out the cheese-eating man as the guilty one, implying that there are other men in the frame) and “the man, who is eating cheese, is guilty” (saying that the only man in the frame is guilty and adding as an aside that he’s eating cheese).

But Gwynne misidentifies his own clauses.

In “my sister Amanda, who lives in New York”, “Amanda” is restrictive, implying that there are other sisters; “who lives in New York” is non-restrictive, and could be omitted without changing the rest of the meaning.

In “my brother Mark who doesn’t [live in New York]”, “Mark” is restrictive, implying that there are other brothers; “who doesn’t” is also restrictive, implying that there are other brothers called Mark. I don’t know what the parents were thinking.

So Gwynne has misapplied the conventions governing restrictive clauses.

But, more importantly, this is the kind of absurdity that arises when you rely on subtleties of grammar and punctuation to convey important differences in meaning. People – including people who publish grammar books and tout their services as grammar teachers – are likely to get it wrong and misunderstand.

Anyone uttering a sentence like the above, with whatever punctuation and whatever meaning in mind, is being silly.

 

Update: There has been a “correction”. Gwynne accepts that the original sentence didn’t rule out other brothers called Mark. The new version reads:

I should like to introduce you to my sister Amanda, who lives in New York, to Mark, my brother who doesn’t, and to my only other sibling, Evelyn.

And the new justification for Evelyn’s being male is:

The absence of a comma before “who doesn’t” makes that clause part of the definition of “Mark, my brother”, implying that there are other brothers. A comma after the words “my brother” would mean that there was only one brother.

It’s still wrong.

I agree that “Mark, my brother who doesn’t” implies that he’s not the only brother. But, using the same approach to commas and restrictive clauses, “my sister Amanda” still implies that she’s not the only sister. So poor Evelyn’s sex is still unknowable.

Adding a comma after “sister” would fix the sentence:

I should like to introduce you to my sister, Amanda, who lives in New York, to Mark, my brother who doesn’t, and to my only other sibling, Evelyn.

Although it would still be too ponderous and intricately self-satisfied to count as an effective piece of communication.

 

Update 2: See also my unbelievably positive review of Gwynne’s book.

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Comments

  • Lev  On April 15, 2013 at 2:04 pm

    I can suggest another analysis:
    “my brother Mark who doesn’t” means that the speaker has more than one brother named Mark, only one of whom doesn’t live in New York!

    • Jonathon Owen  On April 23, 2013 at 6:44 pm

      Bingo. You’d think that someone who claims to be an expert on grammar would know that proper nouns can’t take restrictive relative clauses. (Unless you’ve got multiple brothers Mark, I suppose.)

  • Joe Green  On April 23, 2013 at 3:43 am

    Either you mis-read it or he’s gone back and corrected it, but it now reads:

    “I should like to introduce you to my sister Amanda, who lives in New York, to Mark, my brother who doesn’t, and to my only other sibling, Evelyn”

    which to my mind addresses many of the points raised.

    • Tom Freeman  On April 23, 2013 at 6:24 pm

      Thanks for the tip-off, Joe. He has corrected it. I’ll update the post.

  • Jonathon Owen  On April 23, 2013 at 7:39 pm

    I wonder if anyone got that question right other than by guessing. As you say, even with the correction it’s still wrong. Of course, the larger problem is that no one on earth talks that way. It might be mildly entertaining as a logic puzzle, but as an example of good grammar aiding communication, it fails miserably.

    • Tom Freeman  On April 23, 2013 at 8:52 pm

      You’re right, it has the feel of a logic puzzle, using rules that – as he has proved – are very hard to apply to actual language.
      On his website, http://www.nevilemartingwynne.com/gwynnesgrammar.htm, he says: “Grammar is the science of using words rightly, leading to thinking rightly, leading to deciding rightly, without which – as both common sense and experience show – happiness is impossible. Therefore: happiness depends at least partly on good grammar.”

  • Joe Green  On April 24, 2013 at 5:49 am

    Ugh. “Grammar is the science of using words rightly, leading to thinking rightly, leading to deciding rightly, without which – as both common sense and experience show – happiness is impossible. Therefore: happiness depends at least partly on good grammar.” That’s false logic. It’s like saying that all sheep are white therefore all white things are sheep. (Ok so not all sheep are white but you see what I mean.) In fact we can only deduce that grammar is one route to (an essential component of) happiness. Any other starting point which leads to correct decision-making would do just as well. I think that much of the animal kingdom manages to make correct decisions without the benefit of grammar.

  • Joe Green  On April 24, 2013 at 5:52 am

    As for the original conundrum, I propose that Evelyn is in fact intersex.

  • bratschegirl  On June 7, 2013 at 10:34 pm

    I like the intersex idea. My favorite possibility is that Evelyn is a transsexual, either in transition or post-op, and the speaker is utterly confused as to what Evelyn is.

  • EE  On June 10, 2013 at 8:49 am

    Intersex or agendered seems by far the most likely – we don’t derive meaning from grammar alone, and the words indicate as clearly as they possibly could that Evelyn is neither a brother or a sister. A childish approach to grammar.

  • Carol  On December 1, 2013 at 12:15 am

    You are all wrong. Leave the teaching of grammar to the people, such as Mr Gwynne or AA Gill, who actually know and stop being petulant and childish.

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