This morning I (ahem!) scored 100% on an online grammar test. But hold your bravos! I had some quarrels with the test. Some of the questions had two correct answers, some weren’t about grammar at all, and some weren’t worth asking.
For example, you were supposed to know the difference between may and might. I happen to know that may is present tense and might is past. But who cares? I use may and might interchangeably, and you have my permission to do the same.
Here’s a question that had me guessing. Is this sentence right? “This dress would fit if I lost weight.” I think you can stick “had” (one of the choices) in there without changing the meaning. In other words, both answers are right: “This dress would fit if I had lost weight.”
Another question dealt with a severe storm that had affected a region. I would have scratched that question on the grounds that affect is almost always a useless word.
I hear it all the time: Severe storms affect regions. Smoking affects your health. Studying hard affects your grades. No, they don’t!
Severe storms devastate regions. Smoking harms your health. Studying hard improves your grades. Good writers never settle for a weak word. They immediately start casting around for a strong one.
There were several questions about whom. It’s a pronoun that’s disappearing from the language, for two excellent reasons: few people can use it confidently, and it doesn’t add anything useful to a sentence. Begone!
And there was one additional question that shouldn’t have been there because even the experts can’t agree on the answer.
Funny thing – an hour ago I came across a similar sentence while I was reading the New York Times. Guess what? The Times got it wrong (at least that’s what I say). If the Times can’t get it right, nobody can.
I’ll talk about this thorny grammatical issue in my next post – and I’ll also explain the difference between grammar and usage.