u_topn picture
Word Police by Barbara Wallraff
Atlantic Unbound Sidebar

When you are ready, proceed to the current exam.

Read about the new Word Police training manual, Word Court, by Word Police Commissioner Barbara Wallraff.

Join a conversation on Word Police and Word Court in Atlantic Unbound's reader forum, Post & Riposte.

Read recent Word Court columns from The Atlantic Monthly, and browse the Word Fugitives archive, in The Court Record.

Sample Entrance Exam

Word Police exams consist of questions similar to the ones below. Here beneath each question we've told you which answer is correct, and explained why.

When you are taking an actual exam, once you've answered all five questions, press the "Submit answers" button to have your responses scored. If you're not sure of the answer to any question, why not take your best guess? (No points are deducted for wrong answers.) You'll need to get at least four answers right to be allowed to proceed. On the next page, you will be asked a final question that you must answer correctly in order to pass the exam.

The actual exams provide a clue about the intent of the questions that isn't available here -- namely, that each of them is the test for a particular squad or division. The questions on the entrance exam for any given squad will have to do with that squad's specialty. So, for example, on the entrance exam for the Number Unit, the focus of the questions will tend to be grammatical number (say, "the Word Police is ..." or "the Word Police are ..."?).

1. When Word Police officers perform their duties properly, fewer/less crimes against the language occur.


Fewer is for things that can be counted ("one crime, two crimes ..."; "The fewer crimes the better"). Less is for things that pile up as amounts, not numbers of items, and aren't countable ("There hasn't been much criminal activity lately"; "There's been less criminal activity than usual"). Because crimes falls into the former class of things, fewer is the only correct choice here. (See pages 191-192 in Word Court.)

2. While on duty, you see your neighbor Mr. Smith discarding a candy wrapper on the sidewalk. You pick it up, say in your most cheerful tone, "You dropped something. Here you are!" and hand it back to him. Afterward, should you keep the matter between you and him, between he and the Word Police Force, or between you and he?

Between you and him
Between he and the Word Police Force
Between you and he

Any pronoun that comes after between ought to be one that can be used as a grammatical object (as in "The Word Police want us"), not one that is used as a subject (for example, "We want to join the Word Police"). He is a subjective pronoun, so neither the second nor the third answer can be correct. You can be either kind of pronoun, and him is objective, so "between you and him" is the right answer. (See pages 130-134 in Word Court.)

3. Which is correct?

"It's a dull officer who spends all their time shining their badge."
"It's a dull officer who spends all her time shining her badge."
"It's a dull officer that spends all its time shining its badge."

An officer can't be plural. Nor is an officer neuter (its). An officer certainly can be female, though, so "... spends all her time ..." is fine. The second answer is the correct one. (See pages 28-32 in Word Court.)

4. With which statement do you agree?

"A Word Police officer must see that poetic justice is done everyday."
"A Word Police officer can't concern himself with poetic justice on an every day basis."
"A Word Police officer must at least try to see that poetic justice is done every day."

Once again, the real issue here is which of these statements is worded correctly. See those variations of everyday? Everyday, one word, is an adjective, and so when that's the form used, it's supposed to be modifying a noun. Every day is an adverb or a noun phrase. In the first answer, the adjective everyday is being used as if it were an adverb, modifying a verb; and in the second one, the adverb every day is being used as if it were an adjective, modifying a noun. Only in the third answer does the adverbial form match an adverbial function; this answer is correct. (See pages 190-191 in Word Court.)

5. Is this alright?


Alright is a very informal spelling. Standard English calls for all right. So no, it's not all right, thank you very much. No, indeed. (See page 153 in Word Court.)

Proceed to the entrance exam

Back to introduction

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
Cover Atlantic Unbound The Atlantic Monthly Post & Riposte Atlantic Store Search