English handbook . . . for the game of your life

 So you’ve finally mastered the technical intricacies of connecting the VCR to the TV, but have you yet conquered the next level — DVD to VCR to TV hookup? For many people, that continually pulsing green neon “12:00”on the VCR just above the den TV serves as a defiant reminder that if you don’t both understand and follow the directions, even setting the time on the latest technological gadget can be a test of will and perseverance. If you’re like me, reading the manual for proper setup is done only as a final resort and after all else fails. While there’s a certain Rubik-cube-like challenge in tackling some tasks without aid, when it comes to grammar, this human philosophy of “Resistance to Assistance” is a recipe for failure.

In terms of philosophical approaches to good writing, the goal of winning the good grammar game shouldn’t really be to become a walking, talking English grammar book. Even the most careful grammarians need to check back and confirm a usage rule now and then. Instead, my proposal to you is for you to really make the most of your English grammar book. Go ahead and write notes in the margin, “dog ear” the troublesome pages, and highlight what you need to reread. It’s a reference book, not a book to memorize.

When in doubt about a grammar rule, take a guess, but then look it up. There’s a certain risk in playing the grammar game for too long without referring back to the manual. If you use grammar incorrectly often enough, you develop bad habits and may have to take a few steps backwards. “Unlearning” the wrong rules often proves harder than learning the rules correctly the first time. An interesting observation about the grammar game is that if you play it well, you’re more likely to win professionally, academically, and socially. In school, playing the grammar game well enough is similar to lettering in a sport: both may lead to scholarships and good jobs. On the other hand, if you don’t play the grammar game well by the standard rules, you are highly likely to suffer some setbacks. At work, for example, someone may likely be assigned your role, or you may be forced to “stay in your place” while others are promoted.

Whether we like it or not, we all have to play the grammar game, and I grant that the rules can get complicated. But we do have choices. If we choose not to play by the rules nothing good happens – we typically simply get to stay where we started. But if we choose to play well, we often can progress to new and exciting levels. The good news is we can bring our dog eared, highlighted grammar rule book with us whenever and wherever we want to play the game to win!

If you feel it’s time to recharge your “grammar batteries,” why not try this little grammar game? To play, just take a look at the selected terms below and then recall their rule. If you’re not sure about a rule, take a guess before checking the answer?


1. Your constant fighting begs the question as to why can’t you two get along?

2. Your continuous attention to detail deserves recognition.

3.  Surveying the field for prey, the rabbit was the wolf’s next target.

4. Every one of the members are my friends.

5. Please  lie the book on that table.

6. This movie is more funny than I remembered.

7. We can boldly go where others have feared to tread.

8. The following items should be packed for the trip; warm clothes, raingear, a compass, and a map.

9. That gift which is closest to you comes from me.

10. Whose your best friend?



1. The phrase begs the question is often misused to mean raises the question, as in this example. Begs the question “means to present as true a premise that requires proof.” (http://www.grammartips.homestead.com/begging.html). “The movie was boring because it was not interesting,” is an example of an argument that truly begs the question. The speaker is simply offering a synonym for something that is boring, as opposed to providing evidence to support a claim.

2. It is possible that this example is correct as written, but constant is probably a better choice than continuous.Continuous means without a break: Their continuous whispering was a real nuisance (they whispered the entire time). Constant means that something happens many times in the same way: She suffered from constant headaches while on vacation. Continual means that something occurs repeatedly: The movie was ruined by the continual whispering of the folks behind us. (They whispered often, but not all the time.)

3. This sentence illustrates the problem with dangling participles. A participle shares characteristics of both a verb and an adjective. (http://dictionary.reference.com) It is called “dangling” when the participle of a subordinate clause (ie. Surveying the field for prey) is placed closest to the wrong subject of the main clause (ie. rabbit). As an example, “Sprinting to the finish line, a dog crossed my path,” Sprinting is a present participle. It is dangling because it is incorrectly placed closest to dog. I was sprinting, not the dog. The sentence should be rewritten as, “As I was sprinting to the finish line, a dog crossed my path.”

4. Every: “Every” requires a singular verb (and singular pronoun if a pronoun is also included). It is correct to write, “Every one of the girls likes her gift,” not: “Every one of the girls like their gift.”

5. Lay versus Lie. In the present tense, lay is a transitive verb (it takes a direct object; i.e., you lay the book on that table). Lie does not take a direct object (i.e., the dog lies there). The past tense of these verbs is responsible for most of the confusion. The past tense of lay is laid, and the past tense of lie is lay.

6. For most multi-syllable adjectives that show comparison, add “more” before the adjective (i.e., fragrant becomes more fragrant). However, for two-syllable adjectives ending in y, (such as funny) change the y to i and add er (funnier).

7. This sentence is an example of a “split infinitive.” Standard English grammar says to avoid splitting this verb form. In fact, in most languages the infinitive form of verbs is a single word. In this example, the phrase, To boldly go, could be rewritten as, “To go boldly.” Having made that point, I need to add that the no-split-infinitive policy has to be one of today’s most controversial grammar rules. Many writers say that in some situations, using split infinitives creates clearer and more natural writing and understanding than does the alternative, and therefore these writers say the practice is acceptable. Nonetheless, popular usage notwithstanding, most of the grammar resources to which I referred stated that split infinitives are to be avoided in formal English writing.

8. Replace the semicolon with a colon. Colons are used to introduce lists. Semicolons may be used to separate items listed after a colon (i.e., Remember the following directions: turn left at the second light, near the church; go straight for three miles; stop at the fifth house on the left.) Semicolons may be used to separate two independent clauses (Jack fell down; Jill came tumbling after). Semicolons may also be used with a conjunctive adverb, such as however or therefore, to join two independent clauses (I fell asleep; therefore, I missed The Andy Griffith Show).

9. That/which That is restrictive; which is not. That is essential to the meaning of the sentence. Which is not. Phrases beginning with which are set off by commas. Phrases beginning with that do not involve commas. Therefore, the correct answer for this example is That gift that is closest to you comes from me.

10. Whose is a possessive pronoun (as in, Whose dog is that?) Who’s is a contraction meaning Who is (as in, Who’s your best friend?)


About robertstevenson

Dr. Robert Stevenson is an Associate Professor of Journalism and Director of Student Publications for the Department of Mass Communications and Theater at Lander University in Greenwood, SC. He received the Distinguished Faculty of the Year award for 2007-'08, and the Lander University Young Faculty Scholar Award in 2005-06. Stevenson also serves as chair of the Lander University American Democracy Project. First and Formost I am a dad of two wonderful boys.
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