How Good is Your Grammar? | John Sutherland

Kernel Deb reviews a book after my own heart, a book that appreciates fine grammar but also talks all about it and gives you 100 quiz questions to improve your own grammar. In my humble opinion HOW GOOD IS YOUR GRAMMAR? 100 QUIZ QUESTIONS – THE ULTIMATE TEST TO BRING YOU UP TO SCRATCH from John Sutherland should be compulsory reading for all English speaking idiots who can’t correctly use their, there or they’re and/or my biggest grammar nightmare, “they must of,” IT’S “HAVE” YOU DIMWITTED NUMBSKULL. I guess I also just discovered I fit into Russel Brand’s group of “anarchistic liberationist wanker-grammarians.” I can’t wait to read HOW GOOD IS YOUR GRAMMAR?, it is out now from the fine folks at Allen and Unwin Book Publishers, it is sold out on their website so you will need to track this one down in good bookstores or online. Enjoy Deb’s splendidly grammatical review, can you find the grammar mistakes? All the best……………JK.


In HOW GOOD IS YOUR GRAMMAR? 100 QUIZ QUESTIONS – THE ULTIMATE TEST TO BRING YOU UP TO SCRATCH, John Sutherland sets out a hundred questions that cover a rag-bag of grammatical ruminations and curiosities. In doing so he broadly covers a wide range of grammar related topics without being overly academic. Whist the book will appeal to anyone with a love of language there are also enough amusing segments to keep grammatical anarchists happy.

John Sutherland (Lord Northcliffe) is a past grammar school boy who loved books. Perhaps not surprisingly he has evolved into the Emeritus Professor of Modern English Literature at the University College London (UCL). He is the author of a slew of books and regularly writes for the London and New York Times and the London Guardian. He is a self-confessed grammar nerd.


john sutherland author image
John Sutherland author imae. Photograph credit to Forbes


According to Sutherland the study of grammar in academia is as technically demanding as the study of physics. He argues that we use grammar and language every minute of our day, in thought, expression and communication, and that it inhabits both our waking lives as well as dreams. Language needs rules to create an ordered framework with which to communicate; grammar provides these rules and, like it or not, grammar matters because people judge others on the basis of their spelling, grammar, punctuation and sentence structure.

Sutherland exposes the current tension between the disciplinarian grammarians who conceptualise ‘good English’ as a defence of nation, and the anarchistic liberationist wanker-grammarians popularised by the likes of Russel Brand and his tribe of trews. Whilst there is value in both positions Sutherland himself seems to be more interested in context, quoting Rudolph Quirk who enjoins that “the language we use should make sense, and the sense made should be appropriate to situation”.

Sutherland notes that in 1712 Johnathon Swift (Gulliver’s travels) proposed the establishment of an institution of linguistic control “to ascertain and fix our language forever.” Luckily, perhaps, this has never materialised because language is not frozen. Language has a wonderful plasticity. It evolves with culture, each successive generation taking language into new frontiers. For Sutherland the use of txtspeak by the millennial generation is one such example of language evolution. Dialects reflect the language of localities, with their own vocabulary, idioms and idiosyncratic grammar. Furthermore, our idiolect (the identikit language style) is as unique as our fingerprints or DNA, and our sociolect (the language that places us socially) is determined by our family, friends, education and environment. These cannot and are not static because people, their social groups and localities are forever subject to change.

For Sutherland English grammar is like a liquid, flowing to adapt to the situations in which it is used. Language needs to make sense, but it also needs to be appropriate to the situation in which it is used. In poetry, for example, ambiguity is prized and rhyme can take precedence over grammatical correctness. In contrast the precise discourse of professionals aims to avoid ambiguity. Context is everything with time and scenario remolding meaning.


How Good is Your Grammar? Book Cover Image


Sutherland points out that knowing the rules of grammar does not mean they slavishly need to be followed. Indeed knowingly breaching grammatical rules can be used to great effect in poetry, popular song lyrics and political discourse as Sutherland demonstrates using “ain’t” the vulgar contraction of “are not”, “is not” and “has not” as an example to demonstrate this point:

“It ain’t necessarily so” – Ira Gershwin

“It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing” – Duke Ellington

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” – Barak Obama

HOW GOOD IS YOUR GRAMMAR? is sectional with the 100 questions of the title split into three tests along with their answers according to Sutherland. The questions cover a wide range of topics, but not every musing will appeal to every reader.

Highlights for me included the origin of em-dashes and en-dashes, the fact that the phrase “Loved One” was initially a coy euphemism for cadaver, the fun that can be had with double negatives (I don’t know nothing) , oxymorons (jumbo shrimp), the 1960’s penchant for adverbial suffixes (likewise, clockwise, lengthwise), the malapropisms of public figures (“It’s great to be back on terrra cotta” – Former Deputy PM of the United Kingdom John Prescott after a bumpy plane ride), and Sutherland’s lamentation at the loss to common-language usage of widdershins, swive, twat, pell-mell and sprunt – the definitions of which made me kench (bellow with laughter).

Good grammar is like personal hygiene: you can ignore it if you want, but it is a vital component of personal expression. Print cannot match the expressive power of the spoken word, but grammar can be used to try and provide stress, pause, tone and expression in the written word. Sutherland loves language and in HOW GOOD IS YOUR GRAMMAR? he cleverly discusses a variety of traditional grammatical topics even while he simultaneously endorses wankers’ grammar as being healthily antiauthoritarian. This is a book to read for instruction but the pleasure of the book is that the content is softened by the congenial conversational tone of the author.


4 Pops


Deborah is a lifelong lover of books, food, TV and film with a penchant for schlock horror, superheroes, science fiction, black comedy and Asian martial arts stars. She would prefer to skydive than couch surf and is a fan of zombie walks. She can be found plugged into podcasts on long walks with her dog.

** All images courtesy of various sources on Google or direct from the distributor/publisher – credit has been given to photographers where known – images will be removed on request.