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I have a question regarding the following question in a English grammar test:

Fill in the correct option in the blank:

What  ___  in order to get a permit to work in your country?

A) do I need to do
B) must I do

The correct answer (as per the key) is option A, but option B sounds fine to me.

Can anyone tell me why option A is better than option B?

  • 6
    A and B are equivalent. – deadrat Sep 8 '16 at 1:00
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    B sounds fine to me, too; see Acts 16:30. – StoneyB on hiatus Sep 8 '16 at 1:37
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This question appears to derive from the 'Entry Test' at the beginning of Diana Hopkins with Pauline Cullen, Cambridge Grammar for IELTS, 2007, and the answer from the 'Key' on page 223. You are invited to read Unit 14 for an explanation of the answer. If you do so you will find these among the 'rules' given there:

We use must when the obligation comes from the speaker.
You must invite me to visit you. (the speaker wants this)

When there is an institutional rule or a law have to or need to are more common than must:
You have to get a work permit before you go. (this is a rule)

We do not usually make questions with must and ought to:
What sort of things do you need to know? (not What sort of things must you / ought you to know?)

There is thus, even on the author's terms, absolutely nothing wrong with must I do in this context; "more common" and "usually" are statistical observations, not constitutive linguistic rules.

My personal opinion is that this sort of neo-prescriptivism is a methodologically unsound abuse of scholarship, and that its incorporation in formal tests which profoundly affect students' academic and career prospects is an outrage.

But I don't get a vote on these matters. Mss. Hopkins and Cullen are unquestionably more familiar than I am with the canons of grammaticality embraced by the IELTS writers, and we may probably assume that their book is a reliable guide to the sort of rubbish you need to know to succeed on this examination. I advise you to pay close attention to everything they say and follow it to the letter—until you have passed the examination and are free to follow your own linguistic instincts, which at least in this instance are impeccable.

  • Very nice explanation! Thank you for your research into this.... – Gottano Sep 8 '16 at 2:10
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    @Gottano I'm happy to pursue so interesting a question. But when you next ask a question, you will make it easier for potential answerers if you provide your source in the body of the question--an online link is especially helpful. – StoneyB on hiatus Sep 8 '16 at 2:17
  • OK, I'll make sure to do so next time. Thanks again – Gottano Sep 8 '16 at 2:46
  • I would argue that You must invite me to visit you is a colloquialism and doesn't imply obligation, but rather enthusiasm. I would probably always add an exclamation mark to the statement to make that clear. Imagine the line (without an exclamation mark) being delivered by The Terminator - it has an entirely different meaning! – rghome Sep 8 '16 at 16:01
  • I was just wondering whether to write: "What a load of pointless drivel" when I read StoneyB's post, so now I don't need to. – Robbie Goodwin Sep 23 '16 at 20:04
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Answer A would come to American lips more readily than B. (What do I need to do to get a drink around here?). Answer B is a little more fastidious, a little less colloquial, perhaps, but sufficiently idiomatic to find its way into the lyrics (and title) of rapper, Lil' Zane's 2000 recording, What Must I Do?. It is also used in the same sense in most English versions of the Acts of the Apostles (chapter 16, verse 30). There is no reason to believe that answer B is anything other than standard, idiomatic English.

  • The perceived aggressiveness of "What do I need to do to get a drink (around here)?" is exactly why I'd probably pick "must" in the original question. The formality of "What must I do..." seems to fit the topic of getting a work permit. Assuming, of course, that the speaker actually wants an answer and not just to gripe about work permits by asking a rhetorical question. – trentcl Sep 8 '16 at 15:39
  • @trentcl, why do you perceive aggressiveness in the "What do I need to do..." construction? It's not necessarily said with a growl. A smile on the face and in the voice makes the question downright amiable. Similarly, one can imagine an indignant Margaret Dumont character huffily demanding, "What must I (one) do to get decent service in this establishment?" – user193445 Sep 22 '16 at 17:01
  • @PresterJohn Maybe just because it's less formal-sounding, but I can't not hear an aggressive (or passive-aggressive) undertone in the question. Even with a smile it sounds sarcastic. But without the "around here" (or "in your country" in the original), it sounds neutral to me. YMMV – trentcl Sep 22 '16 at 18:17

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