Grammar Challenge: Answers and Explanations


The answers to the other night’s grammar challenge appear haphazardly throughout that post’s comments section, but it seems like people are still taking it, so I thought I’d hide the answers here under the fold for ease of checking.

Here is the essay “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage” that Wallace published in Harper’s in 2001. Those of you who give knowing the rules a bad name by correcting other people’s spoken and casual English really need to read this. So do those of you who think fiction writers and poets don’t need to know the rules. Both groups are lazy. It’s lazy to learn some rule in elementary school and continue to lord it over people while failing to pay attention to shifts in usage. And it’s lazy to distract readers unnecessarily because you don’t realize that your misplaced adverb causes ambiguity. Every writer would do well to invest in a copy of Garner’s Modern American Usage. I took quite the browbeating from Wallace  before I bought mine for putting “over all” (should be one word) in a story. And yes, the shakedown took place in Footnote 7 in his letter of critique.

But Wallace would recommend another, older essay–the one that inspired his own subtitle, George Orwell’sPolitics and the English Language.” Read that here.

Answers to worksheet, once you’re ready, are below.

1. He and I hardly see one each another.

“One another” is used for a noun that is three or more in number; “each other” is used for two. Many commenters took umbrage with the use of “hardly,” arguing that “hardly see” means some kind of visual impairment, but I don’t find any support for this idea. This is also why I emphasized that each sentence has one main error–all of them could surely be edited in other ways, too, but the real–to use Wallace’s word–boner here is “one another.”

2. I’d cringe at the naked vulnerability of his sentences left wandering around without periods and at the ambiguity of his uncrossed “t”s.

This is a parallelism problem. The subject cringed at two things; the intervening prepositions “of” and “without” cloud the meaning without the repeated “at.” Lots of people put a comma before and, but that is a nonstandard way to improve clarity.

3. My brother called to find out if whether I was over the flu yet.

If you can use whether, always do so. If implies conditionality. Whether or not is redundant.

4. I only spent only six weeks in Napa.

The adverb only modifies six, not spent. If it modified spent, the sentence would be implying that the subject didn’t, say, work or weep or dance six weeks in Napa–merely spent six weeks there. Clearly, not the author’s intention. Wallace had a funny way of teaching this:

You have been entrusted to feed for your neighbor’s dog for a week while he (the neighbor) is out of town. The neighbor returns home; something has gone awry; you are questioned.

“I fed the dog.”

“Did you feed the parakeet?”

“I fed only the dog.”

“Did anyone else feed the dog?”

“Only I fed the dog.”

“Did you fondle/molest the dog?”

“I only fed the dog!” [Here Wallace’s voice cracked funnily.]

5. In my own mind, I can understand why its implications may be somewhat threatening.

You can understand something only in your own mind.

6. From wWhence had his new faith come?

Grossly redundant. Whence means from where.

7. Please spare me your arguments of as to why all religions are unfounded and contrived.

Idiom error.

8. She didn’t seem ever to ever stop talking.

Don’t split infinitives if you can easily avoid it. Here you can easily avoid it without sacrificing meaning or elegance of expression.

9. As the relationship progressed, I found her facial tic more and more aggravating irritating.

As I explained in the comments section: Aggravating was a special peeve of Wallace’s, since you could just as easily use irritating and thereby not, ahem, irritate readers who believe that aggravate should only mean to make worse. Again, his thing was that if you can use a synonym that doesn’t come with a fraught usage history, you should, because you never want readers to be distracted in that particular way. This distracting-the-reader caution is in the essay linked above.

10. The Book of Mormon gives an account of Christ’s ministry to the Nephites, which allegedly took place soon after Christ’s his (or His) resurrection.

Simple rule, avoid needless repetition.

In a kind of fit I revealed answers sooner than I intended, which makes judging difficult for those who apparently didn’t see those answers and still tried on their own. So, thanks to everyone who tried, but I think the winners are two early commenters, our own Ryan Call and the anonymous “Michael,” who I called David a few times. They each got 2 before anyone else and they kind of collaborated on a 3rd. I don’t know what they win yet. Ryan and “Michael,” what would you like to win?