A Quirky Quiz on the English Language

Samuel Johnson
A stained glass portrait of Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) at 17 Gough Square in London. It was here that Johnson compiled his two-volume Dictionary of the English Language (1755). RDImages/Epics/Getty Images

Do you consider yourself an expert in the English language? Wondering how much you still need to learn? Take a few minutes to test your knowledge of English. Answers are down below.

  1. Roughly what proportion of the world's population is fluent or competent in English?
    (a) one person in a thousand (b) one in a hundred (c) one in ten (d) one in four
  2. Which country contains the largest English-speaking population in the world?
    (a) England (b) the United States (c) China (d) India (e) Australia
  1. In approximately how many countries does the English language have official or special status?
    (a) 10 (b) 15 (c) 35 (d) 50 (e) 75
  2. Which of the following is probably the most widely used English word throughout the world?
    (a) dollar (b) okay (c) Internet (d) sex (e) movie
  3. According to rhetorician I.A. Richards, a proponent of the simplified language known as Basic English, "Even with so small a word list and so simple a structure it is possible to say in Basic English anything needed for the general purpose of everyday existence." How many words are in the lexicon of Basic English?
    (a) 450 (b) 850 (c) 1,450 (d) 2,450 (e) 4,550
  4. The English language is conventionally divided into three historical periods. In which of these periods did William Shakespeare write his plays?
    (a) Old English (b) Middle English (c) Modern English
  5. Which of the following is the longest word that appears in a play by William Shakespeare?
    (a) honorificabilitudinitatibus
    (b) sesquipedalian
    (c) antidisestablishmentarianism
    (d) disproportionableness
    (e) incomprehensibleness
  1. An acronym is a word formed from the initial letters of a name. An eponym is a word derived from the proper name of a person or place. What term is used for a word that's derived from the same root as another word?
    (a) retronym (b) oronym (c) paronym (d) exonym
  2. Which one of the following words is an example of an isogram?
    (a) destruction (b) racecar (c) sesquipedalian (d) buffet (e) palindrome
  1. Which one of the following observations applies to the word typewriter?
    (a) It's the longest word that is typed with only the left hand.
    (b) It's a palindrome.
    (c) It appeared in Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language--several decades before the invention of the first typing machine.
    (d) It's the only word in English that doesn't rhyme with any other word.
    (e) It can be typed using only the top row of keys on a standard keyboard.
  2. Which of the following is generally regarded as the first genuine dictionary in English?
    (a) The Elementarie, by Richard Mulcaster
    (b) A Table Alphabeticall, by Robert Cawdrey
    (c) Glossographia, by Thomas Blount
    (d) Dictionary of the English Language, by Samuel Johnson
    (e) An American Dictionary of the English Language, by Noah Webster
  3. Which of the following was Noah Webster's best-selling book or pamphlet?
    (a) A Grammatical Institute of the English Language (popularly known as the "Blue-Backed Speller")
    (b) Compendious Dictionary of the English Language
    (c) a booklet on global warming titled "Are Our Winters Getting Warmer?"
    (d) An American Dictionary of the English Language
    (e) a revision of the King James Bible
  4. The sentence "Natsaha is a friend of Joan's and a client of Marlowe's" contains two examples of which grammatical structure?
    (a) double comparative (b) double entendre (c) double genitive (d) double negative (e) double superlative
  1. What was novelist David Foster Wallace's name for "a really extreme usage fanatic"--someone "who knows what dysphemism means and doesn't mind letting you know it"?
    (a) grammaticaster (b) purist (c) SNOOT (d) language maven (e) prescriptivist
  2. Which of the following terms refers to the substitution of a more offensive word or phrase for one considered less offensive?
    (a) dysphemism (b) euphemism (c) dramatism (d) orthophemism (e) neologism

Here are the answers:

  1. (d) According to David Crystal in English as a Global Language (2003), "[A]bout a quarter of the world's population is already fluent or competent in English, and this figure is steadily growing--in the early 2000s that means around 1.5 billion people." See: Notes on English as a Global Language.
  2. (d) English is spoken by upwards of 350 million people in urban areas of India. See: Indian English and Hinglish.
  1. (e) The director of editorial projects for the Oxford English Dictionary, Penny Silva, says that "English has official or special status in at least 75 countries (with a combined population of two billion people)."
  2. (b) According to linguist Tom McArthur in The Oxford Guide to World English, "The form OK or okay is probably the most intensively and widely used (and borrowed) word in the history of the language."
  3. (b) The list of 850 "core" words introduced in C.K. Ogden's book Basic English: A General Introduction With Rules and Grammar (1930) is still used today by some teachers of English as a Second Language. See: Basic English.
  4. (c) The period of Modern English extends from the 1500s to the present day. Shakespeare wrote his plays between 1590 and 1613. See: Key Events in the History of the English Language.
  5. (a) Honorificabilitudinitatibus (27 letters) shows up in a speech by Costard in Shakespeare's comedy Love's Labour's Lost: "O, they have liv'd long on the almsbasket of words. I marvel thy master hath not eaten thee for a word, for thou art not so long by the head as honorificabilitudinitatibus. Thou art easier swallowed than a flap-dragon."
  6. (c) A word derived from the same root as another word is a paronym (similar to the rhetorical figure of polypton). See: Name That -nym.
  7. (e) The word palindrome (which refers to a word, phrase, or sentence that reads the same backward or forward) is an isogram--that is, a word in which no letters are repeated. See: Verbal Play.
  8. (e) It can be typed using only the top row of keys on a standard keyboard.
  9. (b) Published in 1604, Robert Cawdrey's A Table Alphabeticall contained roughly 2,500 words, each matched with a synonym or brief definition. See: The Earliest English Dictionaries.
  10. (a) Originally published in 1783, Webster's "Blue-Backed Speller" went on to sell nearly 100 million copies over the next century. See: An Introduction to Noah Webster.
  11. (c) Both "a friend of Joan's" and "a client of Marlowe's" are double genitives. See: What Is a Double Genitive?
  1. (c) In his review article "Authority and American Usage," Wallace wrote, "There are lots of epithets for people like this--Grammar Nazis, Usage Nerds, Syntax Snobs, the Grammar Battalion, the Language Police. The term I was raised with is SNOOT." See: What Is a SNOOT?
  2. (a) See: How to Flatter an Audience With Euphemisms, Dysphemisms, and Distinctio.