Grammar: theory and practice

How good is your grammar? Find out with my simple test!

  1. Which British prime minister led both a majority Conservative government and a multi-party coalition, having previously served as a minister under two Conservative and two Liberal prime ministers?
    (a) Benjamin Disraeli (b) Winston Churchill (c) Harold Macmillan (d) Ted Heath (e) David Cameron
  2. How many times as large as the distance from the Earth to the moon is the distance between the innermost and the outermost of Saturn’s rings?
    (a) 0.2 (b) 0.5 (c) 0.8 (d) 1.1 (e) 1.8
  3. If you could see tourists posing to be photographed, leaning slightly to the side and theatrically straining to hold up thin air, what landmark would you see behind them?
    (a) Angkor Wat (b) The Taj Mahal (c) London Bridge (d) The Hoover Dam (e) The Leaning Tower of Pisa
  4. Of all the countries that border Russia but are not members of the European Union, which has the smallest population?
    (a) Norway (b) Azerbaijan (c) Georgia (d) Mongolia (e) Belarus

How did you do?

I don’t care whether you know the answers. But if you understand the questions, you have at least a pretty good practical grasp of English grammar (and vocabulary).

Most grammar tests aren’t like mine. They usually focus on the theory, or on the finer points of the test-setter’s preferred version of standard formal written English.

The theory is fine, but to obsess with it is to miss the wood for the trees. If you learned English as your first language, you absorbed almost all of its grammar with little explicit instruction. Immersed in the language, your insatiable infant brain figured out the functions of nouns, verbs, adjectives and so on without needing to have those terms defined. Indeed, you wouldn’t be able to understand definitions of them without already knowing the language well enough to know how they work.

Language is essentially a skill; to treat it as a body of facts is possible but secondary. You can know it without knowing about it.

But knowing about it is good too. The theory can be helpful for seeing how to finesse sentences that don’t feel quite right, for learning a second language (or appreciating different dialects of English), and for teaching language (or explaining edits).

Finding out about how grammar works can help to strengthen the grasp of language that you already implicitly have – as long as it’s taught well. If taught badly, it can undermine your faith in that mostly sound intuitive grasp.

(OK, the answers are b, a, e and d.)

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