I teach English grammar to undergraduate and graduate students. I focus on the descriptive rules of English, such as discussing the differences in behavior between particles and prepositions. However, I also discuss prescriptive grammar rules, such as when to use who or whom, especially in my undergraduate classes.
One challenge I encounter in my grammar classes is that students do not have a good idea of what types of things we will talk about. In my undergraduate class, I conducted an anonymous survey in which I asked students what they thought they would learn in the grammar course. Students entering my class think they will learn: etymology, spelling, how to use commas, and parts of speech labeling. Rarely do students think they will learn how constituents come together to make bigger constituents. Rarely do students think they will learn to talk about how time, tense, and aspect are related but separate ideas. Rarely do students think they will learn about dependent and independent clauses.
It’s not my students’ fault that they cannot fathom what they will learn in a college-level grammar class. People often confuse grammar with spelling and word meanings. I saw evidence of this just the other day from a grammar quiz that was making the rounds on Facebook. But the quiz was more about spelling than grammar – 8 of the 12 questions were about spelling. Granted, some were about spellings that change depending on the part of speech you wish to use, such as their vs. there, which have different positions in a sentence. But, it is spelling nonetheless. Other questions were about the rule “i before e except after c” and how to spell “a lot.” Surprisingly, one of the questions asked for a definition of a word. I didn’t expect to have a vocabulary question on the grammar quiz. There were about two grammar questions (depending on how you define grammar). One was a question about who vs. whom and the other was a question on subject verb agreement. However, these were written to be fairly easy considering that the changing descriptive rules were highlighted in these questions.
In the who vs. whom question, the test taker is asked to fill in the blank in the following sentence: I consulted an attorney __ I met in New York. The correct answer is whom because the original structure of this clause is: I met ___ in New York, with the blank in the object (not the subject) position. Whom is the object choice, and it patterns with other objects like him and them by having an m at the end of it. The use of whom is dying out because English has a rigid word order, the object marking on the word is redundant. Interestingly, whom is still used when you want to sound smart, even if you don’t apply the rule correctly. That is, it typically sounds as intelligent to say I consulted an attorney whom I met in New York (prescriptively correct) as it is to say This is the man whom will give the plenary lecture (prescriptively incorrect). We see evidence of this claim in online dating profiles.
Subject verb agreement is interesting because there are two competing descriptive rules. One rule is that the verb must agree with the head noun in the subject. The other rule is that the verb must agree with the closest noun phrase. Therefore, we get two possible ways to produce the following:
- A group of people is coming later.
- A group of people are coming later.
In the first sentence, the verb is is singular to match the head singular noun in the subject noun phrase, group. In the second sentence, the verb are is plural to match the closest noun in the subject noun phrase, people. The first descriptive rule matches the prescriptive rule for English for subject verb agreement. Thus, we typically run into “problems” when the subject has two nouns – a head noun and an embedded noun – that do not match for number. However, the grammar quiz suggests that subject/verb agreement is less interesting because they ask you to choose the correct structure given these two sentences:
- The recipes is good for beginning chefs.
- The recipes are good for beginning chefs.
Since this construction only has one noun, both descriptive rules (head noun or closest noun) would produce a prescriptively correct answer.
If you want to take a real grammar quiz, consider this quiz created by MacMillan. It focuses on grammar rather than spelling and is descriptive in nature. Good luck.