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The Queen's English
By Caroline Taggart,
Author of I Used to Know That: Stuff You Forgot From School

The older generation is always complaining that the young can't speak or write correct English. Mind you, the older generation has always complained that the young can't speak or write correct English. That's because language is constantly changing (that's part of the fun of it) and only the most ardent pedants waste their time trying to stop it. But there are times when correct English matters: when you're writing a school report, for instance, or going for a job interview.

Teaching grammar went out of fashion in the 1960s, so if you are any age from 15 to 50 you may be one of many people who missed out on being taught the rules of your own language. If you sometimes feel a bit at sea about apostrophes and adjectives, comparatives and conjunctions, here's a not-too-serious quiz to help you through some of the pitfalls.

1) Commonly misspelled words: Only one of these four words is spelled correctly. Can you identify it and correct the others?

cematery, definate, embarrass, priviledge

2) Prolix prepositions: Prepositions are little words like at, to, under, on, off, usually used to show where one thing is in relation to another. It's a common mistake to use too many of them. With this in mind, can you correct these two sentences?

I took a day off of work.

Put that book back down on the table.

3) Dangling participles: A clause introduced by a present participle -- that's a word like "walking," "talking", "seeing," "believing" -- should have the same subject as the main clause. So can you correct this sentence?

Walking through the store, the red shoes caught her eye.

4) Restrictions and non-restrictions: Commas may not seem important, but they can make a big difference. What's the difference in meaning between these two sentences?

The trees which had yellow leaves looked beautiful in the sunshine.

The trees, which had yellow leaves, looked beautiful in the sunshine.

5) Apostrophes: They can be used to show that a letter is missing, or to indicate possession. So where do they go in this sentence?

Theres often lots of confusion about an apostrophes position.

6) The media is the message: Some words in English have unusual plural forms, often because they derive from Greek or Latin. Two of these words are plural, the other is singular. Can you give the singular forms of the plurals and vice versa?

formula, criteria, data

7) Too much of a good thing: Tautology and pleonasm are fancy words for saying the same thing twice. What's wrong with these expressions?

"unconfirmed rumor," "free gift", "HIV virus"?

8) Subjects and objects: the subject of a sentence is the person or thing that performs the action; the object is the one that receives it. Pronouns (words like he, she, it which take the place of nouns) take different forms depending on whether they are the subject or the object. So which of these are correct?

My husband and I would like to wish you every happiness.

My husband and me would like to wish you every happiness.

Please accept this small gift from my husband and I.

Please accept this small gift from my husband and me.


1) Embarrass is correct. The others should be cemetery, definite, privilege.

2) I took a day off work and Put that book back on the table are neater and say exactly the same thing.

3) We all know what is meant by this sentence, but strictly speaking it says that the red shoes are doing the walking. As she was walking through the store, the red shoes caught her eye or Walking through the store, she noticed the red shoes are both grammatically correct.

4) The first version suggests that not all of the trees had yellow leaves (some were a different color) and only the yellow ones looked beautiful. In the second version all the trees have yellow leaves and all look beautiful.

5) There's often lots of confusion about an apostrophe's position. The first apostrophe indicates that "there's" is short for "there is", the second that the position "belongs" to the apostrophe.

6) Formula is a Latin singular, plural formulae. Criteria is from Greek and is the plural of criterion; data is Latin again and is a plural. Although rarely used nowadays, the singular is datum, meaning one piece of information.

7) They all contain an unnecessary word: a rumor is by definition unconfirmed -- once it's confirmed it becomes a story, or a fact, or a piece of news. And a gift is always free: if you have to pay for it, it isn't a gift. In the last example, it's "virus" that is unnecessary: what do you think the V stands for?

8) My husband and I would like to wish you every happiness and Please accept this small gift from my husband and me are correct. "I" is the subject of the verb, "me" is the object. To check this, try taking away "my husband and." You wouldn't say Me would like to wish you or Please accept this small gift from I, now would you?

©2009 Caroline Taggart, author of I Used to Know That: Stuff You Forgot From School

Author Bio

Caroline Taggart, author of I Used to Know That: Stuff You Forgot From School, has been an editor of non-fiction books for nearly 30 years and has covered nearly every subject from natural history and business to gardening and astronomy. She has written several books and was the editor of Writer's Market UK 2009.

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