Is Your Grammar Better Than a Middle Schooler’s?


By: Elisabeth Henderson

7 Min Quiz

Image: Zave Smith / Corbis / Getty Images

About This Quiz

Ahhhhh, yes. There’s Ms. Wilson, standing at the front of the classroom with the overhead projector, crossing out yet another grammatical error and shaking the marker at your class to drill in the grammar rule ... what was it again? Many of us can clearly remember the experience of middle school—the braces, the sports failures, the romantic failures, the fashion!—but the actual lessons taught in actual school have likely gone by the wayside. Even if we speak correctly, our knowledge of grammatical terms and formal rules is likely scant. 

One of the complaints most often heard on college campuses—if you lean in close to a professor’s door while they’re grading—is that kids these days don’t know proper grammar. College essays are riddled with errors that students should have learned in middle school. “What’s this, another dangling modifier?! Ugh, improper usage of a transitional phrase! Really, another comma splice! Time for another cup of coffee.” 

Really, when it comes to adults, there are two camps: those who know middle-school grammar, and those who do not. Which are you? 

What is the appositive in the following sentence? The popular '90s grunge singer Kurt Cobain apparently had more marketing savvy than people gave him credit for.

The appositve in this sentence is the grunge rock icon Kurt Cobain. An appositive is a noun or pronoun that is located beside another noun to clarify it or give more information about it. When the appositive is “essential to the meaning of the sentence” (Purdue OWL), as above, it does not require punctuation to set it apart.


Which preposition correctly fills in the blank? I poured my soda ____ my cup.

While “on” and “in” are similar in meaning, they do have a crucial difference. “On” refers to the surface of an object, and “in” directs attention inside the object. Pouring your drink onto your cup could result in one of those terrible middle school spills that could ruin your outfit and your day.


Where should a comma go in the following sentence? From then on Mildred decided she would never hold hands with Betty again.

You often, but not always, need a comma at the end of an introductory phrase. In this case, the introductory phrase indicates a pause before the next segment of the sentence, and the comma helps to make that pause clear for readers. Introductory clauses, on the other hand, always are set apart with a comma. What’s an introductory clause, you ask? Read on, friends.


What is the difference between a phrase and a clause?

A phrase is a group of words that go together as a concept but do not contain a subject and verb, while a clause does have a subject and verb. For example, “the girl with braces” is a phrase, and “the boy who doesn’t use deodorant” is a clause.


What is a comma splice?

‘Comma splice’ is one of those phrases that gets thrown around a lot by grammar nerds, but it’s often used incorrectly. You may hear someone use the term for any old misplaced comma. If you do, you should definitely have this knowledge weapon ready to throw down: it only applies to a comma used between independent clauses, without the required conjunction.


Can you fix the following sentence? I’ll ask my mom to drop us off at the mall so we can sneak into a movie.

The above sentence is a run-on because it combines two independent clauses without punctuation. Adding the comma before so, which functions here as a coordinating conjunction (like and, but, or), fixes the issue. Why is the mall so cool in middle school, anyways?


What is an independent clause?

An independent clause contains a subject and verb and forms a complete thought. It’s what we think of as a sentence. While the idea of a “complete thought” may seem hard to quantify, that’s the language all the grammar sites use to describe what makes a clause independent. Another way to think of it is a clause that doesn’t leave you asking, “huh?” Or “and?”


What is the direct object in the following sentence? Billy meant to throw the pencil in the trash can, not at Mr. Wilson’s head!

The direct object follows a transitive verb— a verb that does something to something else. To find what it is, ask ‘what?’ after the verb. In this case, Billy throws what? He throws a pencil. Why did he throw a pencil? I don’t know. This kind of thing just happens in middle school.


Which punctuation can correctly be used in this sentence without changing anything else? I’m so bored with life ___ there’s nothing on TV.

This sentence is composed of two independent clauses, so it needs punctuation in order not to be a run-on. Since there is no conjunction, a semi-colon is the only option here. At what point does boredom become uncool again? College?


How do you emphasize the title of a poem?

Quotation marks set apart the title of a poem. That’s definitely something you learned in middle school. And perhaps something you used in college a few times. But how often do you use this rule in real life? If you’re quoting poetry in your love emails, you’re more cultured than most.


What is wrong with this sentence, grammatically? They went to run laps after they have three scoops of ice cream.

This is a classic verb-tense agreement question. Since the earlier part of the sentence is in the past tense “they went,” the next part needs to agree with that, thus changing have to had. It does sound like a bad idea, by the way, but in middle school it may have seemed like a good one.


Which punctuation is most appropriate here? For camp you should pack the following__ clothes for one week, your toothbrush, bug spray, and a notebook.

The colon is used after a complete sentence to show that what comes after is going to clarify what came before. You often find it, as here, introducing a list. Ahh, summer camp. Don’t forget the contraband items.


When do you use an apostrophe with ‘it’?

This is one of the most commonly seen errors. Somehow it’s just so darn easy to mess up. The thing is that its problem is that it’s confusing. Other things use an apostrophe to show possesssion. Why can’t it? As far as I know, though, it’s never really plural.


Fill in the blank with the appropriate transition. I thought I was passing math, ______ I found out that I’m failing miserably.

However is used to show that the line of thought is moving in a direction that contrasts what came before. Transitional words are used to connect ideas and to guide readers by showing them how the ideas go together. However, they can be overused.


Which is the main clause of the following sentence? Then she realized that it just wasn’t cool to play with dolls, which was her favorite occupation.

Because this part of the sentence can stand alone, the clause before the comma is the main clause. The clause following the comma does not make sense by itself, so it’s not the main clause; it’s subordinate. When did you stop playing with dolls?


Which part of the following sentence is an adverb clause? After she got her braces on, Roxanne made sure she smiled with her mouth closed.

This is one of those terms that you forget as soon as you walk out of the middle-school classroom. An adverb clause gives more information about the verb of a sentence, answering why, how, when, and where. Since it’s a clause, it has a subject and a verb. Adverb clauses can be identified by the subordinate conjunction that begins the clause.


Which part of the sentence is an adverb phrase? When Rocky ate corn, he was always afraid that he had kernels stuck in his braces.

If you had braces, you know this very real fear. Another fear, perhaps, is that of being quizzed on grammar terms and finding that you’ve forgotten the names of rules, even if you know how to use them. In this case, the adverb phrase, “in his braces,” gives more information about where Rocky was afraid the food may be lurking.


Which relative pronoun should fill in the blank? The history teacher ____ gave out candy every Friday was everyone’s favorite.

Yup, another one of those words that you may have forgotten. Relative pronouns introduce adjective phrases and clauses and tell us more about the noun just described. In this case, the best choice is “who,” since we’re referring to a person, and because that person is the subject and not the object of the action.


Which punctuation should fill in the blank? Devin tried out for the football team even though he didn’t like football__really, he wanted to be a cheerleader.

The good, old semicolon is overused by almost all students middle school and up. It’s proper use is to combine two complete sentences whose meaning is closely connected, without a coordinating conjunction.


Which relative pronoun is best used in this sentence? Marge, ___ he had asked to the dance, said she didn’t like dancing.

To whom it may concern, ‘whom’ is used to introduce information about a person that is the object of a verb. In this case, Marge was asked to the dance. She wasn’t dancing, but was the one being asked.


What is wrong with the following sentence? We went to the basketball game, where we ate popcorn, cheered for our friends, and were playing cards.

This sentence sounds funny because the listed items are not in the same form. All the verbs should be in the same tense—we ate popcorn, cheered for our friends, and played cards. While this rule may seem arbitrary, its purpose is to show that items in a list are of equal importance.


Which item does not need to be capitalized?

Rules for capitalization seem to stick a bit more easily than some of the more obscure middle-school grammar rules. In this case, the first word after a colon is the item mentioned that doesn’t get capitalized. What did they do to us to make us remember capitalization rules, while the others are so easily forgotten?


Which words should be hypenated in the following sentence? His seven year old little sister finally learned to ride her red bike.

Rules for hyphenation are back in the set of the easily-forgotten. The rule of thumb to remember is that you hyphenate words that come before the word they modify and that work together as a single concept. Here, for instance, the sister is not seven, year, and old. She’s a seven-year-old sister.


Which verb should fill in the blank? Katie’s books, in her backpack, ____ still in her locker.

Remember lockers? And combination locks? Ugh, such a hassle. And so stinky. Poor Katie left her books, which are the subject of the sentence, in her locker. Since the subject and verb must agree, the plural “books” needs the plural “were.” The prepositional phrase throws you off here, inserting “in her backpack,” with its singular object.


What words do you need to make the “perfect” form of a verb?

The perfect form shows that an action is completed, as in “I have finished all my homework,” or “I thought I had finished all my homework, until I opened my math folder.” Completed homework is the perfect homework.


What ending do you need to make a verb progressive?

Progressive had a different meaning back then. A progressive verb is a verb with continuing action, and this action is shown by add-ing the -ing to the ending of the verb.


Which transition word would make these sentences flow smoothly together? First, you must do your homework. ____ you can play video games.

It may seem to some middle schoolers (or high-school or college students) that they could successfully do homework while playing video games. However, it makes more sense to do the homework and then transition to playing games.


What punctuation does this sentence need at the blank? Since he had woken up so late __ Tim decided to just go for a walk instead of school.

This dependent phrase needs to be set apart by a comma, which shows that the sentence could stand alone without it. If you walked to school or took the bus, going to middle school was dependent on whether or not you felt like it.


If someone says, “I had been doing math homework all day,” what does it mean?

Yeah, this doesn’t sound too likely, does it? But, since this is a past-progressive verb construction, we can know for sure that the person means that they were doing homework, but now they have stopped.


Which word best fills in the blank? My mother accused me of lying, _____ I would never do.

Mothers and their intuition are the bane of many a middle schooler. “Which” is the appropriate relative pronoun to use here, because it shows that the clause is dependent and not essential to the meaning of the sentence.


What kind sentence is this? Mr. Logan assigned us homework.

Remember when homework was the most difficult thing about life? Seems like a simpler time. This sentence is simple because it has only one independent clause and no dependent clauses.


When is it appropriate to use an exclamation mark?

Contrary to common practice, the appropriate use of an exclaimation mark is to convey strong emotion or emphasis. It does work well, though, to communicate over text and social media that you are not secretly angry.


What makes a sentence compound?

A compound sentence has two or more independent clauses and no dependent clauses. Trying to understand why these terms are important only compounds the problem.


What is the best verb choice for this sentence? Margie and Kim wanted to go shopping, but I just _____ to go to the movies.

Sometimes it’s hard to agree with your friends. Especially if your friends are verbs, and your friends are in different tenses. Then they just don’t agree, and everything is wrong.


What makes a sentence complex?

A complex sentence is defined as such not by the ideas or words that compose it, but by the simple fact of having a dependent clause. The ideas in the sentence may be as inane as middle school itself, but if it has a dependent clause, they’ll call it complex.


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