Our survey says…

A YouGov poll showed 1000 Americans some sentences and asked them to pick which one of each pair or group was grammatically correct.

These were the results:

  1. My oak tree loses it’s leaves in autumn. – 31%
    My oak tree loses its leaves in autumn. – 67%
  2. The dogs are happily chewing on they’re bones. – 4%
    The dogs are happily chewing on their bones. – 89%
    The dogs are happily chewing on there bones. – 4%
  3. I think you’re very smart. – 91%
    I think your very smart. – 6%
  4. I consulted an attorney whom I met in New York. – 61%
    I consulted an attorney who I met in New York. – 32%
  5. I don’t trust fruits and vegetables which aren’t organic. – 24%
    I don’t trust fruits and vegetables that aren’t organic. – 68%
  6. The beneficial affects of exercise are well documented. – 17%
    The beneficial effects of exercise are well documented. – 77%

The results are noteworthy, but the poll has two weaknesses.

One would have been painfully easy to fix: adding a “both” option. While 1, 2, 3 and 6 are unarguably testing common mistakes (albeit of punctuation and spelling rather than grammar), 4 and 5 are contested usage issues. Forced to choose one or the other, some people will have leaned towards a vaguely remembered rule that they may not really care about. It would have been good to know how many people think either option is fine.

The second problem is deeper: if you set up a test like this, telling people that there’s only one right answer, their reactions will become unnatural. They will turn their prescriptivism up to maximum and worry about things they would normally happily ignore when reading or in their own usage.

A few remarks on these results:

Far more people got 1 wrong than the similar 2 and 3. This suggests that the lack of an apostrophe in possessive “its” is confusing – aren’t we supposed to use apostrophes to show possession? Pesky illogical English.

From 4, we can see that “whom” isn’t overwhelmingly regarded as necessary for an object. As for the third of people preferring “who” here – I wonder how many were answering as asked, about correctness, and how many were just picking the level of formality they preferred.

The answers to 5 show that the campaign to ban restrictive “which” has made an impression on people (at least in the US). But again I stress that we don’t know whether these answers reflect actual usage and firmly held opinions or just “oh yeah, I think I’ve heard that you should use ‘that’”.

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