As part of the publicity for the documentary “Two Million Minutes”, which examines the differences in the high school lives of students in the U.S., India, and China, its executive producer has created a quiz called the Third World Challenge.  He claims that it is representative of the test that Indian 10th grade students must pass in order to move on to 11th grade.  Being interested in education reform and seeing that the test included a grammar section (English grammar, no less!), I was compelled to take it.  But as soon as I started, I became disillusioned.  Firstly, this was clearly not an American English grammar test, and secondly, many of the questions weren’t about grammar at all.

PART I: THE GRAMMAR OF THE QUESTIONS

Let me start by backing up my claim that the test was not on American English grammar.  Judging from the preface to the test, it’s intended to be taken by an American audience, so it’s only fair to test them on American English grammar.  But looking at some of the questions, we see that whatever form of English is being used (Indian English, perhaps?), it’s not Standard American English.

Question 3: The Oxford University conferred the Doctorate _____ him.

Americans do not refer to Oxford as “The Oxford University”.  Neither, it seems, do the Brits, nor much of anyone else for that matter. First off, it’s properly “University of Oxford”, according to the school’s website, and that may or may not be prefaced with the.  But Oxford University is acceptable to many people (incl. me), and Googling for “oxford university” shows a ton of usages of it. Googling “The Oxford University” returns a lot of hits (888,000) as well, but of the first 40, every single one is part of a larger phrase, such as “The Oxford University Press”, “The Oxford University Sports Federation”, “The Oxford University appeal”.  There weren’t any that were just The Oxford University.

Basically, it appears that compound nouns that start with Oxford University can be arthrous (introduced by the article the, as discussed at length by Arnold Zwicky), but Oxford University itself is anarthrous (not introduced by an article).  The same is true of many other universities; no one I know would say that they went to the Princeton University, but they might say that they were part of the Princeton University band.  Now, I can’t speak much about Indian English, and maybe some people do prefer “the Oxford University”.  But in my grammar, that sounds distinctly nonstandard.  And some quick searching through the British National Corpus (BNC) seems to agree with me.  So that’s one point off. There’s a similar article problem in question 15, which is unintentionally hilarious:

Question 15: ‘Can I come in, please?’ ‘You can, if you have the legs with feet’.

(Ha ha! Comeuppance for the grammar snob!  It’s like when someone, say your third grade classmate, tells you that you suck at basketball because you can’t make a lay-up, and then that kid goes to do a lay-up, but misses the basket and has the ball come right back down on his head, knocking down most uproariously, and you get to stand over him and yell “Ha ha, Brian, you putz!”.  But I digress!)

There’re a few other weird grammar things in the grammar part of the test, but none that lend themselves to interesting commentary. Instead, I’m going to skip over to the history section, where things really go off the rails:

Question: Non-aligned movement where all members have an equal say is naturally equipped with greater scope and potential than the UN whose performance is monopolized and restricted by veto powers of it 5 permanent members. State true or false.

There had been some more grammatical curiosities in the first few questions of the history part, but this one set my head a-pounding.  There’s a typographical error (it for its), at least one incorrectly article-less NP (Non-Aligned Movement and in my opinion, veto powers as well), and it’s written nearly incomprehensibly.  If surviving reading a test like this is what it takes to stay competitive in the global marketplace, then I will patiently await my outsourcing.

(I just want to remind everyone that I am only being critical of the grammar because the test purports to be a test of grammar.  My familiarity with Subcontinental English is extremely limited, and what little experience I do have is primarily with Pakistani English.  Perhaps these grammatical oddities are standard in Indian English.  In that case, this would be a more reasonable test to Indian students than to American students. It is presented as though it is intended for speakers of American English, though, and clearly it isn’t.  Please do not construe my comments to imply a xenophobic distaste for people who do not use the same form of English as I do. You are, however, welcome to construe my comments to imply a distaste for purveyors of bad grammar tests.)

PART II: THESE ARE NOT GRAMMAR QUESTIONS

All right, so it’s clear that this is not a grammar test for any variety of English that I’m familiar with.  Is it even a grammar test at all? I’m going to say no; what it’s testing could perhaps generally be considered “usage” of the language, but even that doesn’t seem a broad enough label. The first question starts it off:

Question 1: My young son [could/had to/can] speak English when we lived in London.

So which modal is correct here?  Well, can isn’t, because the sentence’s tenses don’t agree.  But both could and had to are equally fine here; the former says that the son was able to speak English and the latter says that he was forced to. There is absolutely no way to decide between these without additional information. The correct answer according to the test is “could”. I don’t know why.

Then the next question asks about the tone/mood that a sentence conveys, and the answer is “nostalgic”. This is so not grammar.

Skipping ahead, the fifth question is about the meaning of no sooner, and claims that no sooner means the same as as soon as. I don’t think that’s the case at all; no sooner usually means “immediately or very shortly after”. But that’s not an option on this test.

The sixth question asks us to pick the “most appropriate” preposition for this sentence: The batter hit the ball [of/over/at/on] the fence. Grammatically, none of these are wrong, and any of the last three options are reasonable to use in this sentence. Over is the desired answer, but that’s only the best choice in the context of competent baseballers. T-ballers could practice by hitting balls on fences, and young baseballers tend to hit more balls at the fences than over them. But none of these is any more or less grammatical than the others.

Question 8 asks for the meaning of a word (hope) and then has the correct answer being the meaning of the phrase containing the word (hoping against hope).  And that was all I could take.

I don’t know what this test is really testing, but it’s not grammar, and it isn’t even usage.  If this is really what the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education test is like, then for the love of all that is holy, please do not agitate in favor of its adoption anywhere else.  (I’ve poked around a little, and it seems that the ICSE test does ask similar questions to this, but not as multiple choice.  Well, that’s good in that presumably there are multiple acceptable answers, but these questions still suck, and they depend on things like preposition choice, which native speakers often don’t agree on.)

[By the way, if you happen to know anything about ICSE, or the Indian testing system in general, I’d be extremely interested in learning if this is at all an accurate portrayal of the country’s tests.]

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