At work today, I took an FSA test that asked the question: "You can only give advice to a customer if they ask for it" True OR False?

Now, considering our organisation cannot offer advice under ANY circumstances, I could not see a correct answer to this. It turned into a big debate between me and the rest of my group. My argument was that for there to be a correct answer (False), the word "only" needs to be removed as it becomes the main focus of the question otherwise.

If it is True, it means we can only offer advice to those who ask for it. If it is False it means we can offer advice whether they ask for it or not.

I got very stressed as my entire group was trying to explain to me why I was wrong, when I was certain I was right. At the very least I was insisting that the question is unclear and needs changing. Please, am I right or wrong?

  • 4
    Many sellers of financial products (in the UK, at least) aren't allowed to give advice. OP's organisation is one of those, so the correct answer is "False". The reason for the FSA test being worded that way is simply to identify candidates who didn't take that on board, and might therefore suppose that they CAN give advice if someone asks for it. They can't (it's illegal), so anyone who answers "True" will have to be given more training, since they clearly didn't listen when they were taught this before. Sep 10 '12 at 17:11
  • I've voted to close as Too Localised. The people who phrased that question knew what they were doing, and it's pointless nit-picking over whether they could have worded it differently to satisfy pedants. Sep 10 '12 at 17:14
  • 2
    If you take it as a logic question: Let A be the statement, "You can give advice to customers," and let B be the statement, "A customer has asked you for advice." Then, the proposition is, "A only if B," which is equivalent to "A implies B." We know that A is false, therefore the implication "A implies B" is vacuously true. This, of course, doesn't really help answer the question at hand, because English sentences are usually not meant to be parsed as propositional logic statements. A man can dream, though.
    – Cameron
    Sep 10 '12 at 17:25
  • Thank you for your quick responses. John Lawler makes an interesting point, there is more than one way that this question can be confusing. SevenSidedDie and scleaver are referring to the point I was trying to make though. So, I agree, the answer is False either way. My main concern here then, is that a new employee taking this test could put false, be told his answer is correct, and then go to work believing you can give advice to customers whether they ask for it or not. The employee could then make a mistake he/she could get fired for, or even fined by the FSA, because of their bad wording.
    – AndyW85
    Sep 10 '12 at 18:18
  • Side note: A single word can often completely change the meaning of a question, or of any sentence. There's nothing remarkable about that. A word like "not" will reverse the meaning. Adding an adjective can radically alter the meaning. Consider, "I respect all men" versus "I respect all white men". Etc etc.
    – Jay
    Sep 11 '12 at 21:39

I understand the OP's objection to the question's phrasing.

However there are many ways a sentence can be false. Although it's counter-intuitive, saying that a sentence is false does not imply that it's false in the most obvious way or that the contrary of the most obvious way it could be false is therefore necessarily true.

In this case, it's correct to say "false" even with the confusing wording left intact, as in "False; You can't give advice at all." So though the wording is confusing, "false" is still correct even without eliding the "only".


The question is a strange one. Certainly it's ambiguous, and therefore probably needs changing. Unless the intent of the question is to create anxiety.

The problem, as usual, is that the modal auxiliary can, like all modals, has several meanings, and they interact differently with the negative trigger only. As I've pointed out before, beware of sentences containing any mix of Negatives, Modals, and Quantifiers.

One sense of can is 'be able to', a matter of personal ability, as in

  • He can only reach the top shelf if he uses a ladder.

Another sense of can is 'be allowed to', a matter of social permission, as in

  • He can only cross the street if his mother's watching.

The quoted sentence

You can only give advice to a customer if they ask for it.

could have either meaning of can:

On the one hand, it could refer to the actual limits of what anybody can do, in the way of giving advice to customers -- if the customer doesn't want to listen, you're wasting your time, and probably annoying them as well. If they were to ask, though, you would have a chance to succeed. This says nothing about permission, only ability.

On the other hand, it could refer to how the employer wants people to behave to customers -- if the customer doesn't ask for advice, don't bother them with it, by order of the boss. If the customer does ask, you're allowed to give it to them. This says nothing about ability, only permission.


The issue here in my mind is that the question implies something that cannot be directly contradicted with a simple answer of true or false. If you answer false (because you cannot give advice to a customer even if they ask for it) the false implies that you can give advice to a customer if they do not ask for it. Both are valid interpretations of the answer false, and false is still the only correct answer, but the question is phrased in a way that the listener will likely be led to the latter interpretation, which is wrong.

  • The second sentence of this answer is very hard to follow.
    – MetaEd
    Sep 26 '12 at 4:24

You can only give advice to a customer if they ask for it

First lets transform this statement to an equivalent one so that the operator and propositions are clearly seperated.

You can give advice to a customer only-if they ask for it.

This is also equivalent to

You may not give a customer advice unless they ask for it.

Compare this to the statements:

You will win the lottery only-if you buy a ticket


You will not win the lottery unless you buy a ticket.

Note that buying a ticket does not imply that you will win. So if you buy a ticket and you don't win, the statement is still true. Trivially the statement holds true if do not win, or if you buy a ticket and win. The statement is shown to be false only in the case that you win but do not buy a ticket.

P: You will win the lottery

Q: you buy a ticket

P Q | P only-if Q
F F        T
F T        T
T F        F
T T        T

So if we use:

P: You can give advice to a customer

Q: The customer asks for advice

And you have stated that whether or not the customer asks for advice you are not permitted to offer any (i.e., P is false):

P Q | P only-if Q
F F       T
F T       T

Therefore, if you are never allowed to offer advice then the statement "You can give advice to a customer only-if they ask for it," is true. You can give advice only if they ask for it, (and in that case you still are not permitted to give advice.) Just as you will win the lottery only-if you buy a ticket (and in that case you still may not win.)

Here's a textbook chapter on sentential logic

  • As Cameron comments above: "English sentences are usually not meant to be parsed as propositional logic statements"
    – 410 gone
    Sep 11 '12 at 8:07
  • That doesn't mean the statement can't be understood this way. In fact I would argue that it can't be taken to have a truth value at all unless it is understood this way.
    – bames53
    Sep 11 '12 at 13:54

The question is invalid. "You can only give advice to a customer if they ask for it." If the person replies true, that logically means that you can, indeed, give advice if the customer asks. If the person replies false, that logically means that you can give advice whether the customer asks or not.

There are a lot of questions which can be phrased as yes/no, true/false, either/or but in which both options are wrong answers. Like the classics, "Have you stopped beating your wife?" and "Were you lying then or are you lying now?"

If the intent is to determine whether the test-taker understands that he cannot give advice even if asked, I think a fair question would be multiple choice: "When can you give advice to a customer: (a) Only if asked, (b) Any time, (c) Never" or some such.

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