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I have come across the following question in an exercise book for non-native students of English:

There is a lot of traffic today. We _______ be late.

a. must     b. might     c. should     d. won't

The authors' answer was "must". But l think "might" is the correct answer as it refers to possibility, right?

Screen shot of exercise

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  • This is a very well-presented question. I like the way you explained where you found this, clearly explained what was confusing you, and included the screen shot. – J.R. Dec 30 '17 at 14:47
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The best answers would be either might be late or will be late, depending on if your being late is a certainty, or merely a possibility. That would depend on several factors: the time, the traffic flow, and how far away you are from your destination.

There is a scenario where must be late could be grammatical, but it’s a little bit contrived. I explained it in an earlier comment:

Imagine that I am dropping you off at the airport. We decide we’ll leave at 6 o'clock in the morning, to avoid rush hour traffic. But when we get onto the highway, the traffic is already moving sluggishly. I might say to you, "There is a lot of traffic already – we must be late.”

In that example, “late” doesn’t mean late to the airport, it means later than we planned on leaving. (I suppose a better way to say it would have been, “There is a lot of traffic – we must have left late.”)

But that seems very unlikely, due to the word today in the original question. (Notice how I changed the word today to already in my scenario.)

This could be an indicator that your practice software isn’t very trustworthy. Or it could just be an isolated glitch.

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  • J.R.@: I totally agree with you that 'might' and 'will' are the best options here. Your interpretation is really clear and informative. – Mido Mido Dec 30 '17 at 14:56
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Assalamu Alaikoum,

Thanks for the valuable contribution above but for clarification, It happened today that this sentence came in my son's English exam. First of all, the context should be clear that it is based on a part of the curriculum taught to grade 9 students in Egypt. In this part, they study the difference between using "might" and "must" in the case of prediction from the known prospective that "might" is used when there is doubt or uncertainty while "must" is used when there is a strong proof that something is going to happen.

Accordingly, the resource used here has tried to contextualize the question mentioning that there is a lot of traffic today as a proof that something is going to happen and it, at the same time, meant not to show any sign of uncertainty or giving a view point in an anticipation such as using I think or doubt, not sure, believe, probably etc. Hence, in his point of view, he is applying the grammatical rule in a perfect sense.

However, the question maker made a mistake that my son who chose "might" and I am not, at all, blaming him, will be the victim for which is that he doesn't have any right sense of the language use and he is dealing with language as Mathematics which is absolutely wrong for the following reasons:

  1. The word today makes it clear that this is an unusual happening that no one knows whether it will continue or not and for how long will it be there. In addition, we have no idea how far the speaker is now from his destination so we have no idea about the level of certainty the speaker means to show. Besides, we are always dealing with regularities not irregularities in such a sense, such as saying roads always have a lot of traffic on Sundays, we must be late. Here we don't have to think about anything that is unusual.

  2. Strong proofs that make "must" the correct answer should not include different interpretations specially when a de-contextualized sentence in an exam is concerned. For example if we say "It cannot be Ali who is knocking the door, he travelled in the morning". Here, the speaker is showing certainty that Ali is not the one knocking the door with no regard to the unusual possibilities that he missed the plane and is coming home back or something unusual happened and he decided not to come back such as that his boss called him and asked him to cancel his trip as they need him in an urgent matter tomorrow morning at work, etc. In another example when we say It must be Ali who is knocking the door, he promised to come at 9am. Here the speaker is showing certainty again as it is 9am now with no regard to the fact that the knocker may be someone else because Ali is running late today due to any reason that the speaker isn't aware of.

In conclusion, as long as the context is absent the test maker needs to understand that he must be very specific and by all means to compensate for this absence by using crystal clear logic not his own in introducing such ideas. Using any of the certainty or uncertainty means would have solved the mystery putting into considerations that using, these questions, changes our kinds from being humans into being machines that are just applying rules rather than trying to understand them and the way they apply to real life, let alone thinking about reasons.

Sorry for not being able to control myself and be brief but I always feel nervous when I see such questions in high stake exams with the full sense of irresponsibility and indifference of the test maker while I doubt he himself understands such constraints.

Regards,

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  • You should take this up with the examining board and/or with the teacher who used this example. The best answer would be (but it's not listed) "We're going to be late." because the speaker is making a confident prediction about the future based on present evidence i.e. there's a lot of traffic. Note that in the screenshot supplied the auxiliary be is missing. – Mari-Lou A Jan 12 '20 at 12:39
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The question should read:

“There is a lot of traffic today"

Anyhow, I would choose either "will" or "might" as they are both matters of opinion.

Not a reliable language resource, it seems.

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May be late or might be late make sense.

Must implies that the traffic is forcing you to be late.

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  • That means both are correct but with different interpretations. – Mido Mido Dec 30 '17 at 14:12
  • @MidoMido - That’s true! Good observation. Imagine this scenario: I am going to drop you off at the airport. We decide we’ll leave at 6 o'clock in the morning, to avoid rush hour traffic. But when we get onto the highway, the traffic is already moving sluggishly. I might say to you, "There is a lot of traffic – we must be late.” In that example, “late” doesn’t mean late to the airport, it means later than we planned on leaving. (I suppose a better way to say it would have been, “There is a lot of traffic – we must have left late.”) – J.R. Dec 30 '17 at 14:36

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