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Seven challenges for the word lover

What’s not to love about a short quiz on some favourite head-scratchers in the English language? Answers are at the end. Award yourself a chocolate truffle for every question you answer correctly.

1. Which is correct?

a) I’ve been racking my brain trying to remember the name of that play.

b) I’ve been wracking my brain trying to remember the name of that play.

2. Which is correct?

a) Juan sings poor and doesn’t even feel bad about it.

b) Juan sings poorly and doesn’t even feel badly about it.

c) Juan sings poorly and doesn’t even feel bad about it.

3. Which is correct?

a) Still, Eve holds on to the dream of a life with Juan and his dog.

b) Still, Eve holds onto the dream of a life with Juan and his dog.

4. Which is correct?

a) Eve soon learns that Juan thinks it’s alright to have a roving eye.

b) Eve soon learns that Juan thinks it’s all right to have a roving eye.

5. Which is correct?

a) Eve stays with Juan awhile longer because she loves his dog.

b) Eve stays with Juan a while longer because she loves his dog.

6. Which is correct?

a) Eve lies a blanket on her bed so the dog can lay near her. Adios, Juan.

b) Eve lays a blanket on her bed so the dog can lie near her. Adios, Juan.

7. Which is correct?

a) A total of 23 people have seen the play. (All gave Best Performance to the dog.)

b) A total of 23 people has seen the play. (All gave Best Performance to the dog.)

Answers

1. Likely (a), but read more about this usage on Grammarist.

2. (c). Most adverbs used to modify verbs are formed by adding   “-ly” to an adjective. For example, “Juan is a poor singer. He sings poorly.” But there are exceptions. For verbs that refer to the state of the subject of the sentence rather than to an action taken by the subject, the “-ly” rule does not apply. Examples of these verbs are “seem,” “be,” “become,” and, depending on their sense, “feel,” “sound,” and “look.” In these cases, the adjectival form of the modifier is the correct choice.

3. (a). Many verb phrases are made up of a verb plus “on” (e.g., hurry on, carry on, hold on). When such a phrase is followed by the preposition “to,” the “on” and “to” must remain separate. “Onto” is the form usually used after a verb that isn’t already followed by “on.”

4. (b). “Alright” is commonly considered a “disputed variant” of “all right.” Although “alright” appears in some print media and can be appropriate when a writer wants to signal an informal tone, most authorities recommend avoiding the one-word, one-el-short spelling. Over time, the words may permanently compact from “all right” to “alright.” But for now, conscientious writers should avoid using the latter.

5. (a). “Awhile” is an adverb, and here it is modifying the verb “stays.” “A while” is a noun. If “for” were part of the sentence construction, “a while” would be correct, because the preposition “for” needs a noun object (“stays with Juan for a while longer”). See Grammarist for more guidance on this.

6. (b). It’s relatively easy to decide how to use “lay” and “lie” when writing in the present tense. “To lay,” meaning “to put down or arrange,” is a transitive verb. It therefore needs a direct object—an actual thing to put down somewhere. “She lays a blanket on the bed.” “To lie,” meaning “to recline or be situated,” is an intransitive verb, so it cannot take a direct object. For a full explanation of the correct use of “lay” and “lie” (and “lie” as in “fib”) in all tenses, read more on the Oxford Dictionaries website.

7. (a). When words such as “total,” “number,” and “range” are preceded by the article “a,” they usually team up with plural constructions and are treated as plural. “A total of 23 people” is another way of saying “In total, 23 people” or “All together, 23 people,” both of which require the plural verb (“have”). On the other hand, when preceded by “the,” these words typically refer to a single entity and are therefore singular. Example: “The total has exceeded our expectations.”

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