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Correct/Incorrect Grammar-Test Items

An English teacher living in Jerusalem wrote to ask me to resolve a dispute about a test question. Someone had set a correct/incorrect test on the preterite (the simple past, e.g. took) vs. the perfect (e.g. have taken). This was the test item (the students were supposed to circle the correct form of the verb inside the parentheses):

I (have just received / received) a message but I haven’t read it yet.

 

Some of the teachers who discussed the question felt that without further information neither sentence could be deemed incorrect. But many (some native English speakers and others native Hebrew speakers) disagreed. They felt that only the perfect could be correct; the preterite was not grammatical at all. Who was right?

Let’s number these two sentences for reference:

[1] I have just received a message but I haven’t read it yet.

[2] I received a message but I haven’t read it yet.

There can be no doubt that both [1] and [2] are grammatical in Standard English. So a test item asking for students to choose between them is really dumb.

Tragically, English teachers in various parts of the world (the Middle East is only one) love questions of this kind. For a couple of years I occasionally corresponded with a teacher in Iran who occasionally sent me questions of this general sort for adjudication. I answered as politely and helpfully as I could, hoping that I was assisting English language education in the Persian-speaking world, but eventually I pointed out to my correspondent that the work was dull and repetitive, because all she ever asked me to do was to say which of two examples was “correct,” and my answer was virtually always that both are correct but with certain slight and subtle meaning differences.

She gave up on me immediately: I never had any more correspondence from her. She vanished. I think if I had just chosen A or B at random each time and mailed back answers like “B is correct and A is incorrect,” with invented reasons, she would have been delighted. But I would have been giving unknown students grades assigned at random, which would feel like a violation of the linguist’s analog of the Hippocratic Oath. So I told her the truth, and she stopped consulting me.

The present case is of exactly the same sort. In [1] we have two simple clauses in the present perfect coordinated with “but.” Nobody could fault the sentence. The only difference with [2] is that the first of the two clauses is in the preterite. But since nobody could imagine that I received a message is ungrammatical, the question can only be about whether you can combine a preterite clause with a present perfect clause in a coordination when they refer to related situations.

Well, to see that the answer is yes, so [2] has got to be fine, it may help to try mentioning a specific time. Imagine someone whose phone goes ‘ping’ when a text arrives, saying: I received a message an hour ago (I heard the ping), but I haven’t read it yet.

Now keep in mind that temporal adjuncts like an hour ago are never obligatory. Adding a temporal adjunct that fixes a time in the past for received to refer to may improve its informativeness, and give us more clues to the context, but it can’t change its grammaticality.

The only interesting point raised by [1] and [2] is that the two sentences reflect a weak trans-Atlantic dialect difference in preferences. British English speakers tend to prefer the present perfect when talking about past events with present relevance. So take a case with an adverb like already, which implicitly introduces relevance to the present moment: British speakers will favor We’ve already done that, while American English speakers tend to prefer the preterite: We already did that.

From the fact that my email correspondent was so emphatic that [2] was acceptable, I could tell she had grown up in America (I told her so, and she told me I was correct; she went to Berkeley). But that doesn’t mean British speakers disallow sentence [2]; it’s just that in the majority of situations, if the receiving of the message and the not yet reading it were both being treated as having present relevance, British speakers would find [1] more natural.

But, as is often the way with the very limited number of American/British syntactic dialect differences, both dialects have both sentences.

So I wish people would avoid using this sort of differential preference in grammar-test items, testing for knowledge of a fictive grammaticality distinction. If “Correct/Incorrect” test items are to be used, the “Incorrect” choice better be genuinely incorrect.

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