Thursday, 27 March 2014

1912 grammar test

One of my former students tweeted this link at me this morning. It's a 1912 test for Kentucky 8th graders (13-14 years old) which includes a section on grammar. Oh dear. Well, I had to give it a go.

It's a good example of how a test can only test what's been taught: none of these are difficult, but some are impossible for me to answer, because I don't know what's required. It's not a matter of stating the facts (eg listing the parts of speech) because - of course - it's not that simple.

  1. There are some basic parts of speech, of course: noun, verb, adjective, preposition, adverb and so on. But there are others which aren't so easy to agree on. What about the German verbal particle doch? And the Mandarin aspect marker le? OK, this is an English grammar test (though it doesn't say that), so what about auxiliary verbs? Are they just verbs, or do they have their own part of speech category? Their definition will be very different from lexical verbs, after all. 
  2. OK, not so hard: a proper noun is a name. A noun, on the other hand, is harder: it's not just 'a naming word' or 'a thing'. Linguists define parts of speech in terms of how they behave in a sentence - so if it behaves like a noun, it's a noun. Therefore, defining a noun and listing its properties are the same thing. 
  3. Ditto. And as for declining 'I'... I'm stumped. I think the answer is just 'I, me' and perhaps 'mine' - but that seems too easy. Would 'my' be in there too? I suppose so, though it's actually a possessive determiner. What about 'we, us'? Still first person, just plural. Giving up on this one. 
  4. LOADS. What kind of properties might they be after? Well, they agree in person and number with the subject, to some extent, and in some languages with the object too. They are inflected for tense, aspect, mood and voice. They typically have a certain number of arguments, beginning with a subject and adding one or two objects depending on the verb (or the context). They are usually located adjacent to their complement, if they have one, though they might not be. Usually, the subject comes before the verb. 
  5. Easy. James was struck by William. Active to passive transformation. Next. 
  6. Three, I think? I'm not totally sure, but it's asking about the positive, comparative and superlative forms of adjectives. So good, better, best; wise, wiser, wisest; beautiful, more beautiful, most beautiful
  7. I can't do the diagram. We do draw tree diagrams of sentences, but they don't do that in schools, whereas in the US they at least used to do a different type of diagram, called the Reed-Kellogg system, and I don't know how to do that. Here's one (not very modern or accurate) way of doing it linguistics-style:
  8. And finally, I don't know how to parse. As I use and understand the term, it's what people do when they hear a string of sound and they interpret it as a sentence with structure. So I suppose you have to identify a main verb (ranlove), which has a DP subject (John, Helen's parents) and a complement, if there is one (over the bridge, her). If we're going further, we can say that the PP over the bridge consists of a preposition over with a DP complement the bridge. We can also note that her must refer to Helen, and it can only do so because Helen is part of the subject of the clause but not actually the subject (her in Helen loves her can't mean Helen). 

So yeah, I'd fail. But if I'd been in this school and had been listening in class, I'd probably be OK.

Look though! It's got the now old-fashioned use of have as a verb that can undergo movement in questions: What properties have verbs?. Now, you'd say What properties do verbs have, with an extra verb do because we can no longer move all our verbs, like English used to be able to do (What say you and the like). There's also a spelling mistake in the spelling test section, if you go to the full link (which has maths, geography, physiology, civil government and history sections).


  1. Allegedly "correct" answers here:

    1. Ah, thanks! It looks like grammar teaching was pretty spot on back then!