What would you do… if you had to sit this exam?

What would you do if you had to sit the following exam? Why don’t you give it a try? Sit yourself down with a nice glass of wine and slowly work your way through these questions…


1. Give the past tense and past participle of each of the following verbs, dividing them into strong and weak; add explanations: tell, wake, buy, eat, lay, lie

2. Mark by an acute accent the accented syllable in each of the following words: subjected, hyperbole, microscopical, photography, contemplative, confident, confidant, pusillanimity, gangrene, tureen

3. Write down the abstract nouns connected with the following adjectives and verbs: precise, adhere, apt, predominate, optimistic, crystallise, negligent, hate, attain, detain, betray, ingenious, seize, charitable, zealous

4. Embody each of the following words in a sentence, in such a way as to shew that you clearly apprehend its meaning: commence, comment, commend, recommend; incredible, incredulous

5. Correct or justify four of the following sentences, giving your reasons:

a) I hope you are determined to seriously improve.
b) Comparing Shakespeare with Aeschylus, the former is by no means inferior to the latter.
c) I admit that I was willing to have made peace with you.
d) The statement was incorrect, as any one familiar with the spot, and who was acquainted with the facts, will admit.
e) It has the largest circulation of any paper in England.
f) The lyrical gifts of Shakespeare are woven into the actual language of the characters.

English Essay

Write an essay on one of the following subjects:

a) The effect of political movements upon nineteenth century literature in England
b) English Pre-Raffaellitism
c) Elizabethan travel and discovery
d) The Indian Mutiny
e) The development of local self-government
e) Matthew Arnold

English Phonetics

Make a phonetic transcription of each of the following passages, illustrating in the case of the passage (a) a careful pronunciation, in the case of (b) the pronunciation of educated persons in ordinary conversation:

a) But, whatever be the profession or trade chosen, the advantages are many and important, compared with the state of a mere literary man, who in any degree depends on the sale of his works for the necessaries and comforts of life. In the former a man lives in sympathy with the world in which he lives. At least he acquires a better and quicker tact for the knowledge of that with which men in general can sympathise. He learns to manage his genius more prudently and efficaciously. His powers and acquirements gain him likewise more real admiration; for they surpass the legitimate expectations of others. He is something besides an author, and is not therefore considered merely an author. The hearts of men are open to him as to one of their own class; and whether he exerts himself or not in the conversational circles of his acquaintance, his silence is not attributed to pride, nor his communicativeness to vanity.

b) “Ah, Mr Holmes. I am delighted to see you.”
“Good morning, Lanner. You will not think me an intruder, I am sure. Have you heard of the events which led up to this affair?”
“Yes, I heard something of them.”
‘Have you formed any opinion?”
“As far as I can see, the man has been driven out of his senses by fright. The bed has been well slept in, you see. There is his impression deep enough.”
“Noticed anything peculiar about the room?”
“Found a screwdriver and some screws on the wash-hand stand. Seems to have smoked heavily during the night, too. Here are four cigar ends that I picked out of the fire-place.”
“Hum! Have you got his cigar-holder?”
“No, I have seen none.”
“His cigar case then?”
“Yes, it was in his coat pocket.”

2. Describe fully the articulation of the various vowel sounds in the (ordinary) spelling of which the letter ‘o’ is used (alone or in combination) in the above passages.

3. Explain the terms: ‘glide’, ‘narrow vowel’, ‘semi-vowel’, and give two examples of each in both phonetic and ordinary spelling.

4. How would you teach a pupil the correct pronunciation of the vowel sounds in fare, fate, fat, fall, far?

5. Discuss carefully the articulation of the consonants in quite, huge, dreary

So, how did you do? Did you, like me, struggle dutifully with the grammar section (not that I think I would have passed), base your essay on Elizabethan times around what you can remember from the second Blackadder series, and then utterly abandon the test when you reached the phonology section? Good, I’m glad I’m not alone on that!

This, amazingly, isn’t an early version of the DELTA end of course exam, but rather the 1913 Cambridge Proficiency Exam. That’s right, non-native speakers were expected to be able to answer these questions. This leads me to the question… what the hell happened to our knowledge of language?

What does this exam tell us?

There are several interesting points that this exam raises.

Firstly, we can see that the differentiation between grammar and lexis was not as great as we imagined it to be at this point in history. Question three is clearly based around collocational knowledge of particular words, while question four works as a textbook example of asking what it means to know a word.

Secondly, we can see that not only was content based learning alive at the time but it was also thoroughly kicking. I dare say that those grading the essays would be looking for appropriate subject knowledge just as much as they would for accurate use of the language.

Finally, what the hell’s with all the phonetics? Why, I wonder, was it so much more important then than it is now.


1) We’re all getting dumber. Gordon notes:

The test is a good example of how our society has been dumbed down. Have a look at some old textbooks and you’ll see. I looked at a grade 4 British textbook from 1920 and it was equal to or more complex than my textbooks from university in the 90′s. What do you envision our tests will look like in 2100? Will anyone be able to handwrite or spell? Will we even teach languages or will it all be translated automatically? Will we even have more than 300 languages left by then?

2) Such testing is no longer relevant. spiral78 explains:

It’s not that we’re stupid; it is that some of the stuff they were testing for back then simply isn’t a priority in the modern world.

3) The people who knew this stuff died in the war. mmcmorrow (who shared this on the ELT World forum) notes:

I wonder how many of these examinees found themselves in opposing trenches a couple of years later? I hear that mustard gas plays havoc with your fricatives.

I would have done horribly if I’d had to take this exam, but then again I would have been the product of a drastically different education system. It begs the question of where we’ll be in a hundred year’s time.

Pleas etake the time to check out Martin ‘mmcmorrow’ McMorrow’s wonderful podcast site.

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19 thoughts on “What would you do… if you had to sit this exam?

  1. Talking about pronunciation / phonetics, it’s interesting that the authors of the test clearly believe that there is a ‘correct’ pronunciation or at least one that is shared by all ‘educated persons’ whereas I can’t believe there are many that would hold that view today.

  2. Thanks (former colleague, now headed to England to do his PHD) Benet. You make a good point about the split infinitives. How many former grammar ‘rules’ – think about who/whom and can/may have become redundant through the passage of time. This whole exam feels, above all else, completely archaic.

  3. I would imagine that the number of ‘intelligent’ and the number of ‘dumb’ people remains pretty much constant. What changes is the access to education, and the increasing number of people able to take tests and succeed in them. In 1876, 16% of men and 22% of women were incapable of even making a mark on the local register.


    Gordon is being pretty dumb comaparing school textbooks from the 1920′s with university textbooks from the 1990′s, without noting the corresponding participation rates. The farmhands’ and miners’ sons and daughters from the 1920′s wouldn’t have spent much time at school, but today’s equivalent will be at ex-polytechnics working on media studies degrees. It’s progress, and something the Daily Mail conveniently forgets when they tell us how great it was when we all had rickets and doffed our caps to our betters.

  4. Thanks, Darren. You have a good point. Nevertheless, back in the day there was probably less incentive to make sure that a certain proportion of the test taking population were successful than there is today.

    Having recently read ‘Brave new world revisited’, I’ve become aware of Aldous Huxley’s intriguing hypothesis that we are in fact becoming a dumber species due to the fact that issues like modern medicine and better diets are negating the survival of the fittest doctrine. That’s getting a bit too heavy for this, though!

  5. Probably the most to the point and informed information I’ve come across on this subject. I am delighted that I came across this. I’ll be opting-in for your rss feed to get the most current posts… Appreciate the information here.

  6. 22. Perfect 10 that’s how I rate your article. I really love reading them repeatedly simply because thoughts are nicely spoken and very comprehensive to me. One factor, it is unique.

  7. I’m not sure about the “We are all getting dumber” idea, but it seems to be quite persistent, and when I read things like this it starts to make more sense. Hmm…

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