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Is it grammatically correct to say "An exam of French".

Or should I say "A French exam"?

I tried to google it, it gives a few results, but a lot were found in languages learning forum from non native, and a few other from books. Often with a word behind (but not always, and that's where the problem comes!)

An exam of French proficiency for instance.

Also, I don't understand why the English language use the nationality adjective to talk about the topic of the exam (or whatever), rather than its nationality.

For instance, in French, Spanish, and other Romance languages, if I say "A French test" I mean the nationality, not the topic.

Un examen de français = the topic is the French language.
Un examen français = the nationality of the test is French, not the topic.

How come? Is there an historical reason? With an equivalent of "Exam of French" in old English, but later replaced? Or is it linked to the English grammar and use of the words?

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Even though it's the normal way to say these things, this kind of expression is ambiguous and you have to use the context to work out what is meant.

The expression a French exam/test can be for, by or about the French language, culture or state:

  • An exam about the French language/literature/culture, for example in a London school sitting GCSE or A level exams (My daughter is sitting her French exam today. It's the written exam for her A-Levels -- to clarify you could say: ... her French language exam, but without qualitifcation would normally be French language. Clarify: her French history exam)
  • An exam in the French educational system, for example in a Parisian school for the baccalaureat (Since we moved to Paris my daughter tells me the French exams are much harder than the English ones. Except the French maths exams, she says those are easier. -- to clarify you could say: the exams in the French system/schools or in France) This includes French schools outside France, and doesn't necessarily mean the language of the exam is French: My daughter goes to the Lycée in London, so she will sit French exams not British ones; the Geography exam is in English.
  • An exam in France (I can't exchange my British driving license for a French one, they tell me I have to take a French test to continue driving here. to clarify: French driving test) The language would be expected to be French but not necessarily: Did you know you can take a Dutch driving test in English?

We don't say "an exam of French" though it will be universally understood, but we can say "a test of French" (means French language, but isn't idiomatic); "a test in X" (can be a language or a subject or a place).

We only commonly use exam for formal academic tests (both written, oral and practical). Others (driving, cooking) are almost always test, including tests organised by the teacher without formal significance. A test "under exam conditions" means a test just like the real exam, but organised by the teacher; many schools have "practice exams" or "mock exams". (School terminology is very variable and likely to be different by school, region, country across the English-speaking world.) We don't use control for a test: a control is the exercise of power, or a mechanism for that (additional rarer meanings too).

  • We would say "An exam in [subject]" rather than of. Obviously when the subject is a foreign language there is scope for ambiguity but, as jonathanjo says, in the context of an English-speaking school system "A French exam" is not likely to be misunderstood. – Kate Bunting Jan 14 at 10:05
  • I would include "an exam on [subject]" as another common way of phrasing this. – Ryan Jensen Feb 13 at 21:15

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