Only an English Major Can Pass This U.S. Grammar Test!


By: Torrance Grey

6 Min Quiz

Image: shutterstock

About This Quiz

Grammar: A word to strike fear into the heart of the average American. (Or joy, but those rare people are called English teachers or copy editors.) For good or ill, we all know we're judged on our grammar. People believe they can learn a lot about your background, your education and even your intellect by whether or not you have a good grasp of grammar.

Though some people use "good grammar" as a catchall term for "good English," there's more to it than that. In writing, your spelling, punctuation and correct capitalization all count. And whether you're speaking or writing, correct word usage counts too. The best example of this is the ongoing culture war over the word "literally," which has come to mean its opposite, "figuratively." For example, "My roommate literally went insane over the cap being left off the toothpaste." (We certainly hope not!) Some dictionaries have given up and accepted the use of "literally" as "figuratively." 

But today, our White Whale is grammar: the parts of speech, subject-verb agreement and verb tenses, voices and moods, and so on. (Words have moods? Who knew?) The questions will start fairly basic but get harder as you go on. So summon your inner Conan the Grammarian, and let's do this!

True or false: All plural nouns end in "s."

This is only the most common way to change a noun from singular to plural. But "child" becomes "children," "erratum" becomes "errata," and so on.


Fill in the blank: "There was tension _____ the director and the cast, because of his autocratic ways."

Need clarification? Usually, "between" is for two parties, and "among" for three or more parties. However, in the above case, the context clearly implies that the cast is a collective noun, serving as one party, so "between" is correct. If there were many small disagreements, then you'd use "tension among the cast."


What is a run-on sentence?

See what we did there? A run-on isn't always as clear as the example above. When you've written a long, complex sentence with several commas separating clauses, read it over carefully to make sure you haven't inadvertently created a run-on.


Fill in the blank: Both _____ will be at the party.

In the rare situation when you'd have to put something like this in writing, the rule is to respect the spelling of the proper noun, "Jeremy." Of course, this is growing more complicated as names get less conventional. "Dennys" looks like an alternate spelling of the singular "Dennis," and so on.


A verb in its unconjugated state ("to write") is called a/an ______.

One way to remember this is that when a verb is in this state, there are "infinite" things you can do with it. (Of course, that's not literally true. There are usually about a dozen ways it can change. But it's just a mnemonic).


A subject and verb must always _____.

Agreement means they have the same person and number (first-person plural or third-person singular, etc). This is why it's jarring to hear "I has a car." Unless you're online, and it's spelled "haz."


What is a serial comma?

Fans of the serial comma say that it prevents misunderstandings, like in the sentence, "We welcomed the strippers, Washington and Lincoln," which makes it look like the two ex-presidents *are* the strippers. Opponents of the serial comma say that never in the history of the English language has anyone had to write "We welcomed the strippers, Washington and Lincoln." (We've got to admit, they've got a point.)


When a noun is a name, it is a _____ noun.

Proper nouns are capitalized names, whether of a person, place or thing. The opposite is a "common noun," which is one of a general class of things (e.g., a pencil). Common nouns become proper nouns all the time: "We named our sailboat Destiny."


According to most grammar teachers, there are how many parts of speech?

According the the Chicago Manual of Style, not all grammar experts agree on this classic bit of elementary-school lore. But for our purposes, the parts of speech are nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, prepositions and interjections.


What is wrong with the clause "The cake's design was quite unique"?

"Unique" is one of a class of adjectives called "uncomparable" adjectives. Some grammarians get very bent out of shape about phrases like "very unique" or "somewhat unique." However, an adverb that is a simple amplifier may be acceptable: "Wow, that cake's design is truly unique."


Under what circumstances can a noun be used as a verb?

Language, including grammar, is a matter of cultural consensus. So "I phoned on Wednesday" is entirely common. But some people still prickle with irritation at "I office out of my home." Tread carefully here!


Which of these sentences contains a gerund?

In the first two examples, "sleeping" is a simple present participle. (In the second, it's implied; the note indicates "(I am) sleeping"). But in the third, a present-participle form is used as a noun: the definition of a gerund.


What does an adverb modify?

You probably learned first that adverbs modify verbs, while adjectives modify nouns. But your teacher should have gone on to explain that adverbs can be added to adjectives or even other adverbs. Example: "He said this almost hastily." The adverb "hastily" influences "said," but "almost," another adverb, influences "hastily."


What is the opposite of a count noun?

Both of these terms are acceptable. When "straw" refers to the stuff in barns, it's a mass noun. But an individual bale of straw is a count noun.


Does English have gender in nouns?

English uses gendered nouns for animals (steer versus cow) and certain professions, like "actor" and "actress." Some of these are on the way out -- women who act are increasingly calling themselves "actors."


Active and passive are the two kinds of _____.

"Voice" tells you whether the subject of a clause was the actor or was acted upon. Put in other terms, passive voice is the one you slip into when you don't want to be blamed for something: "The window was broken with a baseball," not, "I broke the window with a baseball."


Which of these is NOT an example of a grammar error?

Misuse of a semicolon is a punctuation error, not a grammar error. Though many people use "grammar" as a catchall term, there are several ways to be incorrect in speech or writing: spelling (that one's just for writing); punctuation (see above); grammar (most everything else in this quiz) and usage (confusing "aspire" with "inspire.") We've included a few punctuation questions in this quiz when the punctuation has a close relationship to the grammar, as it often does.


Which of these sentences is correct?

The rule of thumb here: Only use a comma where you'd hear a pause in speech. The only one that fits, above, is the second example. You'll see some writers thrown in commas anytime there's an appositive noun (a noun that redefines a proper noun; here, "the poet") and would insist the first example needs a comma, but it really isn't necessary.


What kind of adjective or adverb is a step down from a superlative?

As the name suggests, a comparative makes a comparison. The slogan of the Olympics is made of three comparatives, "faster, higher, stronger," indicating that the important thing for athletes is to do better than they have before, not necessarily to be the best.


True or false: The subject of a sentence can never be its last word.

Of course it can! "At the end of the road was the mansion" is a perfectly understandable sentence. And that's our last word on the subject!


Is it ever acceptable to write, for example, a novel in the second person?

Technically, this isn't a grammar question - it's a point of literary style. And though you may find it hard to believe, entire novels have been written with "you" as the main character, even though the writer is obviously referring to an imagined character that is not a stand-in for the reader. The point of this is... well, we're still trying to figure that one out.


What part of speech shows position or relation of one thing to another?

Grammar teachers sometimes introduce this concept using "Preposition Mountain." Things can be "on" the mountain, "behind" the mountain, "over" the mountain, and so on. It's later on that students learn prepositions that are less "geographic," like "despite."


Which part of speech often stands alone?

"Hey!" and "Whoa!" can be sentences unto themselves. Sometimes adjectives work this way, too. "Cool!" stands in for "(That is) cool!"


What part of speech is "which"?

There are several different kinds of pronouns. "Which" is a relative pronoun, one that links a subordinate clause to the main one: "The book which I was reading is still on the plane."


What is the subject of the sentence "Go away!"

In the imperative mood, the subject is often implied. This sentence means "(You) get out!"


Which of these is an example of a superlative?

A superlative is an adjective or adverb that implies a top tier. It's the highest degree.


In the sentence "We will go to the beach tomorrow," what part of speech is "tomorrow"?

Not all adverbs have an "-ly" construction. "Tomorrow" influences "go," the verb, so it's an adverb.


Which of these phrases correctly uses the subjunctive mood?

The subjunctive mood conveys uncertainty or possibility, and requires "were," not "was," to bring across that uncertainty. (Sorry, Beyonce fans, but the song title "If I Was a Boy" is not, technically speaking, grammatically correct).


In the sentence "She told you she can fly a Cessna," what part of speech is "can"?

"Can" and "will" and similar words are "auxiliary verbs." They are also called "modal verbs" by the old-fashioned.


Which of these is a type of "mood"?

Sorry, but "both" is not always the right choice! "Future" and "past perfect" are tenses, not moods.


Which endings mark a verb as a participle?

"Walking" and "walked" are past and present participles. The first marks an action as in progress, the second as complete - and this holds true whether the action is in the past, in the future, or merely speculative. "If that were true, she would have been walking for three hours" indicates an action in progress, in the past, that might not have happened at all! When you think about it, it's amazing how easily we use and understand such constructions.


Which of these is a second-person pronoun?

"You," whether singular or plural, is the second person. "I" or "me" is the first person, and "he/she/they" the third.


Which of these is an example of suspensive hyphenation?

Suspensive hyphenation means a hyphen hangs off the end of an adjective when there's more than one hyphenated word in a list. Another example: "Semi-, quasi- and halfway-prepared applicants will be turned away."


In which mood is the following sentence: "Has the cat been fed?"

Though some of you might have guessed subjunctive, questions are indicative. It helps to think of it this way: The cat has either been fed or not; both of those are facts. The question seeks to ascertain that fact; therefore, indicative.


Things that are discrete and can be counted are _____ nouns.

What you see is what you get: they can be counted, therefore, "count nouns." A count noun can be singular or plural -- "straw" and "straws" are both count nouns, unless you're referring to the hay-like stuff in barns. Then, it's not.


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