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I was doing a CAE (Certificate in Advanced English) sample paper and there you should choose the best fit for a gap:

It is hard to believe that salt is now such a cheap _____, because centuries ago it was a commercial equivalent of today's oil.

A provision B utility C material D commodity

I know that the correct answer is D, "commodity". It's clear for me, why "provision" and "utility" don't fit, because they both don't have an appropriate meaning.

I do understand, why commodity is right, but I couldn't understand why "material" is wrong or even less suitable. For example, "The poodle we bought was the cheapest dog in the shop". "Dog" is a generic term for "poodle". So why can't we use "material" in the same way here?

Usually in this test there is a specific reason why the other answers don't fit. Even though people who answered my question below kindly explained that "commodity" is the best option due to economic context, it is still not quite clear to me if "material" is wrong or just less suitable. Some natives say it is just less suitable and some say it is wrong, cause it lacks an appropriate meaning.

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  • What research have you already done on the meanings of 'commodity' and 'material'? – curiousdannii Sep 17 '15 at 7:03
  • Relevant meanings for "material": Oxford dictionary: 1) the matter from which a thing is or can be made (materials) things needed for an activity; CollinsCobuild: 1) A material is a solid substance. ...electrons in a conducting material such as a metal. ...the design of new absorbent materials. ...recycling of all materials. 3) Materials are the things that you need for a particular activity. Relevant meaning for "utility": A utility is an important service such as water, electricity, or gas that is provided for everyone, and that everyone pays for. (CollinsCobuild) – Choksy Sep 17 '15 at 7:18
  • How is "utility" relevant? You asked only about material vs. commodity. – Brian Hitchcock Sep 17 '15 at 7:40
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    As the word is generally used, a "commodity" is some sort of material which is of value and which is stored, transported, and measured in bulk, rather than in discrete countable units. "Material" has a broader definition and could be substituted, though with a loss of precise meaning. – Hot Licks Sep 17 '15 at 12:14
  • I've voted to reopen this question, but another four votes are necessary though. Fingers crossed! – Mari-Lou A Sep 24 '15 at 9:03
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I think salt is being compared with oil which is used in the sentence as a commodity (thing/product that can be bought and sold) rather than a material (the matter from which a thing can be made).

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  • Thank you for your explanation. Is there any reason why the word "material" is absolutely wrong here? Or is it just less suitable than "commodity"? Why can't we use "material" in the meaning of a generic term, as far as salt is one of raw materials? – Choksy Sep 17 '15 at 7:58
  • @Choksy, the word "material" is not absolutely or even a little wrong. It is simply not the best fit from the 4 choices given for the test question you are asking about. "Commodity" is the best fit. The test asks which of A-D is the "best fit", not which of A-D is 'right'. "Commodity" is the best fit because it best fits the context, which is 'things bought and sold'. – JEL Sep 17 '15 at 8:22
  • I'd argue that "material" is indeed wrong, because the connotation of that word is the substance is used as a component of something greater, which is not the case here. Also, tangentially: commodity is the standard term in economics (i.e. a "good" as opposed to a "service") and is being used here in its economic sense: a fungible asset (whereas the word "material" lacks this sense of fungibility). – Dan Bron Sep 17 '15 at 12:15
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In trade, especially in stock exchange trade the term commodity has a special meaning. Goods as coffee, sugar, copper, oil (each item of a special quality) are called commodities as the stock exchange trade is relatively easy, for buying or selling you only have to indicate the quantity. Horses, shoes, cars are no commodities in stock exchange trade, because each item is different.

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One of the meanings of commodity is : a useful or valuable thing . The sentence simple means that now salt is really cheap and we use it in our households regularly (every meal), while back then it was extremely expensive product to trade, like oil nowadays.

The material doesn't carry the meaning of something valuable. Your shoes are made of leather for instance.

Edit: Thinking more about the subject I remember the tulip mania, where the decrease of the price of tulip made economical crise.

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Commodity has a very specific meaning in terms of trade and economics. From Wikipedia:

The term commodity is specifically used for an economic good or service when the demand for it has no qualitative differentiation across a market.

This means that one item of a commodity is completely equivalent to another item of that commodity. This means that a commodity is fully fungible:

In other words, a commodity good or service has full or partial but substantial fungibility; that is, the market treats its instances as equivalent or nearly so with no regard to who produced them.

No one cares if your salt comes from the Atlantic or Pacific. If it was processed in Europe, Asia or Africa. As long as it's sodium chloride crystals, we're happy. This meets the definition of a commodity, so although "material" is also correct, commodity is more correct because it's more descriptive.

By way of comparison, contrast this to, say, a car, where you have different makes, and usually many different models within each make. And even within a given model, there are a variety of options, such as colour, whether the seats are leather or fabric, a choice of engines, manual or automatic transmission, optional extras such as tinted windows or built-in GPS navigation, and so. A car can only be fungible with another car of exactly the same make, model, options and extras, so a car is not a commodity, though it is certainly constructed of materials which may themselves be commodities.

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