Do consider yourself a grammar guru or a perpetually struggling student?

With all the rules and exceptions regarding proper grammar and syntax, the English language is tricky. Besides attempting to recall the fundamentals taught to us in school, we run into situations of common usage that make us wonder if some of the lessons our teachers drilled into our brains no longer apply.

Whether you’re an authority or one who grapples for answers, take my 10-Question Grammar Guru Challenge to affirm what you already know and/or use my explanations and tips to understand any mistakes and prevent future errors. Before you peek at the correct answers, however, take time to declare your confident response or your best guess!


Write Lady’s 10-Question Test Plus Tips for Tricky Grammar

1. Should you say than me or than I?
a. George can tell the story better than me.
b. George can tell the story better than I.

Answer: b

Explanation: Presenting a comparison, the word than implies a continuation of the sentence: than I can. You wouldn’t say than me can.

Tip: Take the sentence to its logical completion. Say the words aloud to hear why the dependent clause would begin with a subject pronoun (I, we, he, she, they) and not an object pronoun (me, us, him, her, them).

2. What goes with neither—nor vs. or?
a. Neither Mary or I can attend the reception.
b. Neither Mary nor I can attend the reception.

Answer: b

Explanation: Always pair neither with nor and either with or.

Tip: Since a neither-nor condition is negative, don’t pair it with a negative verb. The negatives would cancel out one another. Neither Mary nor I can’t attend the reception says that neither can’t so both can.

3. Which of the sentences are in better form than the others?
a. From hiking on the mountain to canoeing on the river, the activities were incredible.
b. From warm and sunny to cold and snowy, the weather each day surprised us.
c. Michael’s chef prepared everything from all-the-way omelets to gluten-free granola.
d. Over the years, Professor Williams has taught everything from English 101 to a Ph.D.-level linguistics course.

Answers: b, d

Explanation: The from-to structure is intended for a range. A true range expresses a progression: warm to cold; sunny to snowy; English 101 to Ph.D.-level linguistics. A false range connects items that have no sequential relevance to one another, such as hiking and canoeing, so fails the logic test.

Tip: If your items would not fall within a true range, either rephrase the sentence to incorporate a simple list or devise a different way to make your point.
- The varied activities, including hiking on the mountain and canoeing on the river, were incredible.  
- We started at the top with hiking on the mountain and ended at the bottom with canoeing on the river.
- From the mountaintop to the river valley, the location offered incredible activities, such as hiking and canoeing.
- Michael’s chef prepared an extensive breakfast buffet with options like all-the-way omelets and gluten-free granola.

4. Which sentences correctly use who and whom?
a. Tell me to who I should send the letter.
b. I’ll distribute the announcement as soon as I know to whom I should send it.
c. I forgot the name of the person who you should contact.
d. Is she the one who told you?

Answers: b, d

Explanation: Who (in the nominative case) is the subject of a verb; it performs the action. Whom (in the objective case) either directly or indirectly receives the action as the object of a verb or a preposition.

Tip: Inverting the sentence or isolating the part that puzzles you will help you determine who vs. whom more easily.
a. I should send the letter to whom. (Object of the preposition)
b. I’ll distribute the announcement to whom. (Object of the preposition)
c. You should contact whom. (Object of the verb)
d. Who told you? (Subject of the sentence)

5. Which of the neither-nor and either-or sentences use the correct verb form?
a. Neither Bob nor his sisters believe that Happy Acres is the right retirement community for their parents.
b. Let’s agree on a schedule that determines when either our cats or your dog need to be kept inside.
c. The delay means that neither Mary’s assistant nor the interns gets to leave early on Friday.
d. Either your brother or my two sisters are staying in the downstairs guestroom.

Answers: a, d

Explanation: When neither-nor and either-or constructions involve both plural and singular nouns or pronouns, choose the verb form to match the noun or pronoun closest to the verb.

Tip: To avoid making a mistake or communicating in a way that seems awkward to you, simply revise the sentence.
- Bob and his sisters agree that Happy Acres is the wrong retirement community for their parents.
- Let’s agree on a schedule that determines when to keep our cats or your dog inside.
- The delay means that Mary’s assistant and the interns must work a full day on Friday.
- The downstairs guest room will accommodate either your brother or my sisters.  

6. Should you use was or were in a conditional sentence?
a. If John was the last person on the planet, Mary wouldn’t date him.
b. If Bob were to tell me that he wanted the job, and that’s not something he’d say, I wouldn’t believe him.
c. If only our grandmother was alive to tell us, we’d know if Dad or Uncle Henry was the baby in the photo.
d. If I were to win the jackpot, I would not tell a soul.

Answers: b, d

Explanation: If the statement presents an improbable or impossible condition, then were is the correct verb. No one really expects John to be the last person on the planet (a), and grandmother cannot be here (c). If the condition is probable or certain, then was is correct. If the baby was ever running a fever, her flushed cheeks would always let us know.

Tip: Use were rather than was in wish statements. I wish I were a fish.

7. Which is correct, on to or onto?
a. Roger is on to/onto Robert’s scheme.
b. Mary turned on to/onto a dead-end road.
c. Let me know when you’ve logged on to/onto the system.
d. I’m thrilled to see how you’ve moved on to/onto a healthier lifestyle.

Answers: onto for a and b; on to for c and d
Explanation: For a, onto applies to having caught on or being aware of something. For b, onto applies to entering/being in a certain position, including on top of or upon. For c and d, on is more closely affiliated with the verb than with the preposition to.
- Tell me when you log on.
- I am thrilled to see how you’ve moved on.

Tip: Keep on to as two words when the meaning is towards or onwards.

8. Choose less or fewer for each sentence.
a. We have less/fewer people coming this year than last.
b. The new recipe is 45.5 percent less/fewer calories than the original.
c. Mary mixed her drink with soda water so that it would contain fifty less/fewer calories.
d. The client expressed less/fewer concerns with the proposal than we had imagined.

Answers: fewer for a, c and d; less for b  

Explanation: Use fewer if the items or units are countable and use less if not. Clearly, you can count a specific number of people, calories, or concerns. To note, the 45.5 percent represents a cumulative amount, not a countable number; therefore, even though you can count the calories, the percentage demands less, not fewer.

Tip 1: If singular, then use less.  If plural, use fewer.  

Tip 2: Exceptions exist when referring to time, money, distance, and weight. Those quantities, while countable, are often treated as singular units.
Minutes: Sue has less than fifteen minutes between acts to change into that elaborate gown.
Also, fifteen minutes is not much time for Sue to change into that elaborate gown.
Weight: Mary lost ten pounds less than she had hoped.
Also, ten pounds is not the amount that Mary had hoped to lose.
Money: John earned fifty dollars less in tips than Tom.
Also, fifty dollars is the difference between what John and Tom earned in tips.
Distance: Joe lives less than five miles from work.
Also, five miles is the maximum distance John travels to work.

9. Which form(s) of a pronoun correctly precede a gerund—a verb with an -ing ending that functions as a noun?
a. He authoring a book seems preposterous.
b. His authoring the book seems preposterous.
c. Him authoring the book seems preposterous.

Answers: b, c

Explanation: In the above examples, the gerund authoring is the subject of the sentence. In formal writing, a possessive pronoun (his, answer b) should precede the gerund. Style guides also allow the object form of the pronoun (him, answer c).
Formal: His authoring the book
Informal: Him authoring the book

Tip: The subject of a gerund is never in the nominative case, i.e., he. Your remembering that single rule about gerunds will make you right more often than wrong!  

10. Should you use the abbreviation e.g. or i.e.?
a. The chef procures fresh ingredients, x.x., vegetables from the Benson’s farm, butter and cheese from Caldwell’s Dairy, and fish from our local waters, so the menu is always different.
b. By this Thursday, please submit your idea for a noncontroversial topic, x.x., nothing of a religious or political nature, that you’ll present next week.
c. Emphasizing creative expression at this school, we require all students to enroll in an extracurricular activity, x.x., dance, theatre, chorus or orchestra.
d. The reason Grandpa gave for his longevity, x.x., eating only foods that came right off the farm, must have been accurate.

Answers: e.g. for a and c; i.e. for b and d

Explanation: Use e.g. in place of for example or example given (presenting some examples) and i.e. as a substitute for that is or in effect (restating or clarifying the point).

Tip 1: Always set off e.g. and i.e., as well as their accompanying examples and clarifications, with commas. 

Tip 2: Don’t use etc. at the end of your list with e.g.; by definition, example indicates that the list is partial.

How well did you do? 

You don’t have to tell, but if you’ve aced this one, you are a grammar guru with bragging rights! By giving your brain a workout, you’ve earned the right to challenge others and encourage them to communicate as clearly and effectively as possible.

My best to you,

Sallie W. Boyles, a.k.a. Write Lady

Thoughts or questions? Please contact Sallie Boyles, owner of Write Lady Inc., to exchange ideas about effective communications and gain from professional writing and editing services. Receive monthly tips and insights by subscribing at www.writelady.com.