For example, I'm trying to figure out what the proper answer to a question like,

"Why did the car blow up two weeks ago?"

Would the answer to the question be simply the reason why the car blew up, and two weeks ago is an identifier (helping you figure out possibly which incident is being referred to), or would it be why it happened specifically two weeks ago as opposed to another time?

  • Please edit your answer and include (do not delete the original sentence) the sentence which you are currently having difficulty with i.e. "Why did the civil rights movement start in the postwar period?" an exam question, where there is no intonation of voice, and your comments posted beneath Ricky's answer. You posted a question, a user answered but you are still unsatisfied. Well, the fault is yours. Try to be as clear as possible from the start. The question is quite a good one, it's intriguing and it should be useful to future visitors, so it's worth editing IMO. – Mari-Lou A Oct 30 '15 at 8:22
  • The reason I was unsatisfied was because it seemed as though it was answered within the rules of colloquial conversation. I was clear in that I wanted to know what the "proper answer" was, and I wasn't sure if that was overlooked. I made the comment to clarify, but added my friend's situation just to ask a few extra things. There is some irony in my question considering, though. – Dave Oct 30 '15 at 12:07
  • Given what you know about the world, if someone asked you, "Why do you drink coffee before bedtime?", do you think a good answer would be "because I like the taste"? Or do you think the questioner might be wondering why you would drink a caffeinated beverage when you'd be wanting to fall asleep? – TRomano Oct 30 '15 at 13:02
  • Depends completely upon whether I would be trying to be a smartass or not. However, if I had not had my daily pre-bed coffee yet, my mind might not be sharp, and I might say something along those lines. I'm sure the mistake would be excusable in any circumstance. Unfunny jokes aside, I understand that there is context involved, but I also understand that a testing situation is a totally different one in which there should be NO room left for wide interpretation. As a teacher myself, I personally believe I would have to either accept an answer on these grounds or allow a retake of the question – Dave Oct 30 '15 at 21:20

The sample sentence is a bit awkward any way you scramble it.

I think I know what you mean, though. It depends on where you put the stress.

  • Did you go to the opera on Tuesday?

The meaning of the question here depends on which part of the sentence you put the stress on.

  1. Did you go to the opera on Tuesday? (... like you planned?)

No, I misplaced the ticket and couldn't find it.

  1. Did you go to the opera on Tuesday? (... I thought Jack was supposed to go, not you).

Yes, I did. Jack was supposed to go, but he couldn't, so he gave me his ticket.

  1. Did you go to the opera on Tuesday? (... I thought you were supposed to see a hockey game on Tuesday)

No. I really wanted to see the game.

  1. Did you go to the opera on Tuesday? (Weren't you supposed to go on Friday?)

Yes. Someone mixed up the tickets.

  • How about in a testing/formal context? The actual example i'm struggling with is an instance where the test-maker wrote: "Why did the civil rights movement start in the postwar period?" The gist of the response given by the test-taker was "oppression" The test maker said that was not an adequate answer because the question was actually asking the specific reasons why it took so long to start (post-1945). Should I tell the test-taker to fight this as an unclear question like you described? (I agree) – Dave Oct 30 '15 at 6:06
  • @Dave Presumably this is an essay question, seeking a discursive answer. It gives the candidate an opportunity to discuss various angles to this. He/she needs to state in the opening paragraphs how they intend to approach the question. Then is the time to explain how much weight they will attach different aspects. e.g. to the time period. There will be long-term causes, and short-term reasons why the movement started then. One approach might be to argue that most revolutions happen after things have begun to get better for the oppressed. I'm not saying this is necessarily the right one. – WS2 Oct 30 '15 at 7:06
  • @Dave: This would depend on the result you wish to achieve. If you want to fight the curator, instructor, or whoever the hell this "test-maker" is, you do have a case (objectively), but it might turn out to be a long struggle, and you're likely to lose. If not, then you need to find out exactly what the "test-maker" wants to see in the paper. There are more than one theories why "it took so long," and the "test-maker" is very likely to reject those he or she does not like should she be presented with any of them. Chances are the test-taker knows what the curator wants. – Ricky Oct 30 '15 at 7:53
  • @Ricky All I can say is that in British universities a large number of essay questions in the Humanities are worded in a such a way that the first thing the student needs to do is to discuss the question and the various ways of approaching it. In my view this is an important transferable skill to learn, because in life questions seldom come at you in a simple, concise, and easy-to-understand-what's-required manner. – WS2 Oct 30 '15 at 8:13
  • @Ricky Ricky, the only reason I don't believe that the test-taker may have been "supposed to know" anything, is because the test was a take-home test and the taker was supposed to do research at the time of taking it. WS2, This wasn't a true essay question. It was a "list your reasons in bulleted format with a paragraph each" type of "essay" question (though it was labeled essay by the professor). That said, this wasn't my test, but i'll pass the advice on regardless. – Dave Oct 30 '15 at 12:01

From the comments, we find that the actual question in question is

Why did the civil rights movement start in the postwar period?

And what's in question is whether this means

What reasons prompted the postwar civil rights movement?

as the test-taker claims or

What reasons associated with the postwar period prompted the civil rights movement?

as the test-maker claims.

From a strictly grammatical point of view, the test-taker can make a reasoned argument. The problem is that grammar can take him only so far, and that doesn't extend to the semantics of the question.

Presumably, we're talking about the US civil rights movement in the period after World War II. Also, presumably, the test-taker has studied that period and the preceding period that we may call the Golden Age of American Lynching (roughly 1872-1942). If the test-taker had been paying attention, he should have been able to figure out that if oppression were sufficient to explain the movement, then that movement would surely have started during the GAofAL. The interesting answer therefore must take into account why oppression could help trigger a civil rights movement after the Second World War when it couldn't do so after the American Civil War.*

This is a semantic issue about the meaning of events in American history, and the instructor is within his or her rights to expect that students will grasp that much. Which is why an appeal to syntax will be met with stony disapproval.

*actually after Reconstruction.

  • First of all, you're making presumptions here. I do not know the circumstances myself as I am not the one taking the class, nor am I the person who took the test. Neither of us know that this was simply the result of "not paying attention" especially since this was a take-home test that allowed internet research. What I do know is that after 7+ years of higher education, I have never seen such an unclear question cost a student so much. I don't know your profession, but in my opinion, it is the professor's responsibility to maintain clarity, rather than the student's to interpret correctly. – Dave Oct 30 '15 at 11:55
  • @Dave Yes, I'm making some presumptions, which is why I used the word presumably twice. (One of those presumptions, based on your postings, is that you are neither test-taker nor test-maker.) None of those presumptions is unreasonable. It doesn't matter whether the test was a take-home, and my profession is equally irrelevant. English grammar permits intrinsically ambiguous sentences. If I say "I like Joan more than Susan," you can't tell whether I like Joan more than I like Susan or whether I like Joan more than Susan likes Joan. [con't->] – deadrat Oct 30 '15 at 22:20
  • @Dave [<-con't] And there's no context that can tell you which I mean even if you know all three of us This is different from the test question, which has a syntactic ambiguity that can be resolved by someone familiar with what it means to study history in general and the meaning of the events of this era in particular. These are semantic issues that a professor has every right to expect that a university student will grasp while parsing the syntax of a test question. Which is what I mean when I say that grammar can't take the test-taker where he wants to go. – deadrat Oct 30 '15 at 22:20
  • Here's my point: the English language also provides tools to create clarity. If you said, "I like Joan more than I like Susan," what you meant would be unambiguous. It is the university professor's responsibility to provide such clarity where possible so that DEDUCTION is possible, not the student's to make an INDUCTION of any kind based upon context. Poor test construction is borne of mandatory inductive thinking because these contexts are not inherent to the ultimate goal of said benchmarking. Scoring along those lines alienates eccentric thinkers. The score was overturned. – Dave Jan 18 '17 at 10:49
  • @Dave Test construction and the university professor's responsibilities are beyond the remit of this forum. Not only is your ultimate test score immaterial, the statute has run on this question. – deadrat Jan 18 '17 at 11:08

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