General Writing and Grammar Help/Sentence opinion followup


Dear Ted,
This is "James from Georgia." I had no idea about abuse on the website. Believe me, my question was innocuous; i had no ulterior motives. I am a former "expert" myself (not English), and albeit I've received many no-replies or appreciation of gratitude, I've never received any abuse per se. But, no matter.
Background to my query: These statements were two of four presented on a recent CLEP exam. I didn't include the other two since they each had clear errors in punctuation. I wanted your expert opinion because either was acceptable; however, I could pick only one and therefore went with the latter and got it wrong. This has occurred on other tests wherein I felt the correct answer was more opinion than fact; style rather than convention. I don't have your credentials unfortunately, but I have been studying our wonderful language for three decades following graduation, and hope one day to have a masters like you.
I wonder about the individuals composing these tests and questions. I become concerned when I find a clear error in the instructions to the test and then am forced to rely on their expertise (opinion?) regarding usage.
My point--and you've justified it--is make the test questions unequivocal. Don't ask the student to judge on potential areas of style, etc., when knowledge can be properly tested otherwise.
I welcome your thoughts, if any, and appreciate your detailed response. Very nice of you to take the time.
Best regards.

Dear James:

Your message is very clear, and I totally agree with you.  

Because I responded as a rejection, I do not have your original question, but I seem to recall that I had problems with both of the sentences.

I have two examples I would like to share with you:

1.  Many years ago, I served as a reader for Advanced Placement English examinations.  I did it for two years and then stopped.  At that time, not every student took advanced placement courses; only the very best did.  In my own AP English classes, I had few students, but they were very gifted and creative.  If a student wrote an essay that was not exactly on target but presented his ideas well and used a novel approach, I threw aside the guidelines, gave him a good grade, and encouraged him to "think outside the box."  I was dismayed to learn that the Educational Testing Service did not like that kind of "freedom."  In short, the readers were told "what to look for" in an AP essay.  If an essay was outstanding in every respect, but the writer did not FIND what THEY were looking for, then he received a low score.  I myself had been subjected to this kind of thinking in both undergraduate and graduate schools.  Do NOT be original.  We will spoonfeed you and you had better eat what we give you.

2.  Currently, I have two foreign students who are studying for the ILEST exams.  One is from South Korea, and the other is from Iran.  Both of them send me sample test questions that they question: Is this correct?  Has the question been written in good English?

It's disheartening.  I have to tell them that the test directions or the sample questions have grammatical errors.  It's as if they must prepare for the exam with the "correct" answers to "incorrect" or "poorly written" questions, and, at the same time, remember that they themselves should never write in this manner.  Save the unnatural or incorrect English for the exams.  Use the correct versions for everything else.

Another problem I encounter is the dictionaries that these students use.  The definitions of a word are not wrong, but they are not complete.  [The Longman Dictionary is most frequently cited.]  If a word has three very common definitions and uses, and if the dictionary recognizes just one or two of them, the students are really baffled.  "I thought the word meant _______, but the dictionary does not offer that meaning."

I have been volunteering at Allexperts for 13 years, and I have many stories to tell. I once did a presentation at a professional conference, and I used questions from Allexperts as the basis for my talk.

In the early years, when founder Steve Gordon [Yale undergrad and Harvard law student] was running Allexperts on his own, I was threatened with a lawsuit.  A woman found a poem written in a ledger in her grandfather's handwriting.  Her grandfather died in 1932.  The woman thought the poem was good, and she sent a copy to me for my reaction.  After a little research and evidence from several books, AND the Library of Congress, I informed her that the original poem was written by someone else and was published in 1875.

"Are you saying that my grandfather was a cheat?  Are you accusing him of plagiarism?"

I tried to explain that her grandfather probably saw the poem in a poetry anthology and COPIED the words, leaving out the true author's name.

That's when she threaten with the lawsuit.  She believed that, since her grandfather had handwritten the poem [in pencil], he had to have been the author.

Steve became my attorney and convinced the woman that she should remain in her fantasy world and leave Allexperts alone.

An Italian man went on a rampage sending all kinds of threatening messages -- his English blue language abilities were very good -- and it was based on my inability to make a change in the United States government.  He thought the Securities and Exchange Commission should be the INSECURITIES and Exchange commission. He thought I should lead a protest.

Recently, I received this "grammar" question:  "i havnt had my period in over 4 months. my bf and me are vary careful, so i couldnt be pregnant.  Could i?

I hit the reject question button.  

Thanks for writing.


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Ted Nesbitt


I am the bibliographic instruction and reference librarian at a public college. Some members of the English department recommend me to their students. I offer assistance in grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, and paragraph development. My master`s thesis concerns William Faulkner`s tragic novels. I formerly taught advanced placement English at two schools in the Philadelphia area.


I have been one of the highest-ranked volunteers in this category for more than a decade.

B. A. and M. A in English; MSIS in Library & Information Sciences; graduate study in philosophy

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