A Word, Please: Trying her hand at a grammar quiz

I've seen a lot of online self-quizzes over the years. But I've never seen a grammar self-quiz that didn't have at least one whopper of a mistake in it — a question based on a misunderstanding that breeds more misunderstanding in the test-taker.

So I thought I'd take a stab at quiz writing. If you're game, see if you can spot grammar, spelling or punctuation errors in the following sentences. But be warned: Not every sentence contains an error.

1. The water skier water-skis on water skis.

2. The lengthy debate, which went on for hours, lead the council members to reject the measure.

3. Isabelle and Brie braided each others' hair.

4. Neither Joe nor his wife Christine are going to clean the garage.

5. I feel badly about the argument.

6. There have been reports of robbers in the area, so lets be more careful about locking the doors.

7. Spiffy's is a family-owned and operated carwash.

8. Jeremy wants to be a FBI agent.

Answers

1. No error. According to Webster's New World College Dictionary, the verb "water-ski" is hyphenated. But the two nouns — the human being and the piece of sports equipment — are not listed in the dictionary as hyphenated. Interestingly, Merriam-Webster's agrees that the gear is a "water ski" and that the verb is to "water-ski." But, unlike in Webster's New World, Merriam's says that the person who skis gets a hyphen: "water-skier."

2. "Lead" should be "led." This common error happens for good reason. The metal "lead" sounds like the past tense of the verb whose present tense is "lead," which rhymes with "weed," but whose past tense is "led."

3. Each others' should be each other's. Each other is always used in the singular and you add the S and apostrophe to make it possessive.

4. "Are" should be "is." Conjunctions are common culprits in subject-verb agreement errors. If the conjunction "and" were between those two people's names, it would make what's called a compound subject, which would take a plural verb: Joe and Christine are going to clean the garage. But "nor" and "or," which are also conjunctions, have the opposite effect, essentially keeping the subject singular: Joe or Christine is going to clean the garage. Neither Joe nor his wife Christine is going to clean the garage.

5. "Badly" should be "bad." Unless you're familiar with the term "linking verb" or "copular verb," you would assume that the verb "feel" should be modified by an adverb. For regular verbs, that would be true. But "feel" is sometimes a linking verb. It links the word after it to the word before it. The word before it, the subject of the sentence, is a noun. And nouns are modified by adjectives like "bad" and not adverbs like "badly." Think of it as a less-intuitive version of "This coffee tastes badly." Just as the adverb is wrong in that sentence, it would be wrong in our example. The best form is "I feel bad."

6. "Lets" should be "let's." Without an apostrophe, lets is a verb conjugated in the third person singular: He lets his hair down. She lets the cat out. When you're extending an invitation or suggestion, you're using a contraction of "let us." Contractions take apostrophes: Let's be more careful.

7. In well-edited writing, "family-owned and operated" would take another hyphen: "family-owned and -operated." This practice, called suspensive hyphenation, makes it clear that "family" connects to "operated" in the same way it connects to "owned."

8. "A FBI" should be "an FBI." The choice between "a" and "an" is all about pronunciation. If the agency were spelled out, it would be spoken starting with an F sound: Federal Bureau of Investigation. But the initials are pronounced "eff bee eye." That "eff" starts off with a vowel sound, and vowel sounds are preceded by "an," not "a."

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JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "The Best Punctuation Book, Period." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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