There's a question in an exam paper to which there's only one answer:

Students ______ to make tough decisions after the final exams are out.

Between 'have' and 'are', which most suitably fills the gap?

(the tense of the passage is present - from a newspaper actually)

  • 3
    Exam-related questions are highly discouraged on English Stack Exchange. Please consider moving this post to ELL. – VTH Aug 20 '18 at 5:05
  • Note the phrase "most suitably." See Writing – Kris Aug 20 '18 at 7:59

The problem lies in the words "there's only one answer". Professor Pullum, co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, has written of the problematic nature of exam questions which require a binary choice. [See below.]

In the present case, both answers are grammatical, although one is more probable than the other.

The construction "are to" has various possible uses. Swan in Practical English Usage (p80) lists 6 of these. Among them:

Usage 1: We use this structure in a formal style to talk about official and other plans and arrangements.

  • The President is to visit Nigeria next month.
  • We are to get a 10 per cent wage rise in June. ...

Usage 5: The structure is used to give orders, often by parents speaking to children.

  • You are to do your homework before watching TV. ...

Both of the above uses are conceivable in the present context. Much more likely, however, is the use of have to to express a necessity, equivalent to:

Students will need to make tough decisions after the final exams are out.

Pullum in Correct/Incorrect Grammar-Test Items

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.

See also Pullum in Grammar-Test Dispute Resolution.

  • It's not a grammar question, as you've already noted. Please see also my comment at OP. – Kris Aug 20 '18 at 8:00
  • @Kris. Maybe the OP can tell us more about the test. But grammar or not, it is a a decontextualised binary choice question, and I thought site visitors might be interested in Pullum's view about such questions. As to where the question belongs (ELU, ELL, or Writing), I genuinely don't know. – Shoe Aug 20 '18 at 8:06

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