An exciting grammar quiz!

Who doesn’t love a good grammar quiz? Damn near everybody doesn’t, but stick with me, you may actually learn something.

Which of the following sentences is grammatically correct:

a)  If the tree was torn up by its roots, that meant it was probably ogres or trolls or giants — something impressive and dangerous.

b) If the tree were torn up by its roots, that meant it was probably ogres or trolls or giants — something impressive and dangerous.

This sentence was at the center of a lively discussion between members of an Every Day Fiction round-table, of which I am one. A member. Not a round table. You may think I’m trying to be funny here, but actually I am second guessing everything I write as to whether each and every sentence is grammatically correct. And second guessing everything you write can sure slow a writer down.

I hate grammar. Let me state that, as emphatically as possible, right here and now. If I could figure it out maybe I’d grow to love it. But the rules of grammar are so arbitrary, I can’t see any love growing in the near future.

The answer to the above quiz is at the end of this blog. I’m sure the anticipation is killing you but please try to refrain from skipping the rest of my blog and going straight for the answer. Here’s a hint; moody verbs.

I am not only trying to teach you something, I’m also trying to explain how frustrating writing can be for those of us attempting to get the craft right.

A lot of grammar rules have softened over the years. At one time beginning a sentence with a conjunction, such as ‘and’ (as I did in a previous paragraph), was frowned upon. Ending a sentence with a preposition, such as ‘to’ or ‘upon’ (as I did with the previous sentence), is still tut-tutted by elitist grammar scholars. Fortunately for a lot of us writers, most editors, or at least I hope most editors, realize that our grammatical blunders are easily fixed, and it is the story that is most important.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t have the basics down. If you do not know when to use ‘their, there or they’re’, you should be taking classes. Keep writing, by all means. Get your thoughts and story ideas down on paper. Then learn how to get the story across to your audience as coherently as possible.

The correct answer for the above quiz was debated by writers and editors over a couple of hours and it was finally decided that the correct answer is the first one, a. Which is how the author wrote it, and which I thought was right all along. But, apparently, there is something called a ‘subjunctive verb’. This subjunctive verb was causing arguments. And even after all the expert explanations, all I can figure out is that verbs can be moody.

I must be a verb.

For those of you still reading, and hopefully there is one or two finding this particular blog at least a little interesting, here is an excerpt of our round-table conversation. I particularly like Camille’s analogy.

Joseph I’d just like to pipe in and direct a comment back more to Amanda — the issue you are asking about (was/were) is, in my opinion, a vanishingly small case of grammar-worry, no matter how it turned out. I wouldn’t go too crazy about it (not that you are). As an editor, I certainly don’t care. I might mention in feedback, “I think you might want to use ‘were’ there…” but that’s as far as it would go.

I hate to sound elitist, but for me, it’s about how “smart” you seem. If you use “irregardless” (non-ironically) and chronically mix up “they’re”, “their”, and “there”, you are going to turn me off. If you play fast and loose with subjunction or sideways verb tense shifts, that’s fine — don’t waste your mental resources fretting about it. Story — real, live, full, beginning, middle, end, not-just-a-first-chapter, engaging, well-paced story-telling is the stuff.
It’s incredibly cool to still worry about grammar (and I think too few people do), but I also firmly feel some battles have precious little to do with the campaign.  *smile*
Amanda Capper Thank you. I’m quite comfortable with basic grammar rules so I won’t fret the more obscure rules. I will keep my focus on the campaign. Cheers.
Camille  Nicely put, Joseph! I tend to look at obscure/esoteric grammatical points as being like extremely expensive wine — if appreciating and/or debating them is your thing, great, but most people won’t be able to tell the difference anyway.

My heart is happy when sensible people speak.

It’s highly possible that this particular blog of mine is full of grammatical errors. I also have a problem with tenses. I hope any and all errors are pointed out to me. It’s a good way to learn.

But I would appreciate it if the corrections are demonstrated without making me feel like a chimpanzee who has learned to type. (Note to my big sister…I’m not referring to you. You never make me feel like an arboreal anthropoid ape. Though, on occasion, you still make me feel five years old. Just saying.)

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13 Responses to An exciting grammar quiz!

  1. Val says:

    yawn……I have to go to bed now………

  2. Linda says:

    I read it, but it bordered on torture…..just kidding…NOT!

  3. steve.capper says:

    Blame your parents if you look anthropoid! As for the grammar debate, here in the UK (where this grammar originated) “was” is a past tense singular whereas “were” would be plural. So more than one tree needed uprooting to be a was. There was only ever one Don Was!

    • ajcap says:

      Who the hell is Don Was? Brits have such a strange sense of humour. And you’re right about the single and plural except when the verb is moody. Seriously, look up subjunctive verbs. The song from Fiddler on the Roof, I think that’s the name of the play…anyway, the fiddler sings, “If I were a rich man…” not “If I was a rich man…”, and there is only one man. Because the ‘if’, in this instance, makes the mood hypothetical.

      I know. Still boring. But making sense, in some ways.

      • steve.capper says:

        Yes I know, but that was Yiddish and so can go anyhow. Don Was is a record producer and had a band called “Was not was” The real truth of grammar makes the discussion academic as it must mutate with the spoken word such as the Yiddish example has. So…moody verbs or not if people start to say ” I were just going down to Walmart” than that’s correct for any writer to use.

  4. steve.capper says:


  5. S. J. Crown says:

    Here’s the relatively simple way it was (definitely not were) explained to me, though I must confess my source was that ultimate final arbiter of all questions historical, philosophical, and yes, grammatical: THE INTERNET.
    Here it is: If the propositional if phrase presents something that is considered possible for the subject of the phrase to do, then use was. If the phrase presents something that is impossible, or at least nigh to impossible, for the subject to accomplish, then use were.
    Examples: A) If I was behaving like I know I can, I wouldn’t be talking to my lawyer right now. Now if the narrator of this sentence considered “behaving” impossible, then were behaving could be appropriate. That is why If I were a rich man can be correct, because Tevye considers becoming rich to be impossible. Now, if Tevye thinks it is somehow possible to become rich, then If I was a rich man could also be right. In the sentence at the beginning of this post, I suspect the consensus was that it is possible for a tree to be torn up by its roots, and thus was torn is correct. B) If I were standing on the planet Krypton, I might be happy. Since standing on Krypton is impossible, the were standing is appropriate.
    This makes sense to me, although if someone knows better, please educate me. Having said all this, entirely too much, I agree that the whole discussion is a case of straining at gnats. There are much more important grammatical camels to avoid swallowing.

    • ajcap says:

      Thanks, Stan, that makes sense to me, as well.

      Conversations help me a lot more than simply reading the rules of grammar. EDF had another interesting discussion on the Oxford comma, something I had never heard of but I enjoyed reading everybody’s take on it. And you’re right, I think, about the ‘straining at gnats’, though I’ve never heard the term before. Interesting. Think I’ll go Google that…

      • S. J. Crown says:

        A mea culpa. After a little more delving in a couple of grammar texts, I have learned that my explanation above is close, but wrong. Conditional statements about a present situation that express wishes or are contrary to fact always use the subjunctive mood, no matter what their inherent “possibility.” So for Tevye to say “If I was a rich man” would be grammatically incorrect. The reason that “If the tree was torn up by its roots” is correct is because this is not contrary to fact: The tree was indeed torn up, and quite possibly by its roots.
        Now, for conditional statements expressing changes in the present situation, my explanation above holds. If the changes are at all plausible, then the usual verb applies. For example: If a writer was to sit down at the keyboard (or simply “sits down at the keyboard”), she might finish the first draft. It is possible for the writer to “sit down” and so the usual mood of the verb is used. If I were to move to Alpha Centauri, I would be very hot. In this case, the change in the present situation is not possible, and so the subjunctive mood is used. Hope I’m right this time.

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