The following problem gave me headache. I got this one wrong, but I think it's just the problem is so ambiguous. I know I'm not very good with English, but I'm not that bad.

In 1920, after some thirty nine years of problems with disease, high costs and politics, the Panama Canal was officially opened, finally linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans by allowing ships to pass through the fifty-mile canal zone of traveling some seven thousand miles around Cape Horn. It takes a ship approximately eight hours to complete the trip through the canal and costs and average of fifteen thousand dollars, one tenth of what it would cost an average ship to round the Horn, More than fifteen thousand ships pass through its locks each year.

The French initiated the project but sold their rights to the united states, which actually began the construction of the project. The latter will control it until the end of the twentieth century when Panama takes over its duties.

The Problem: Who currently controls the Panama Canal ? (A) France (B) United States (C) Panama (D) Canal Zone

My answer: C. Panama

Key Answer: B. United States

My reasoning Look at the last sentence. According to this sentence, the Panama Canal currently is controlled by Panama, since we live in 2021. But this sentence also tells us that the text was written before Panama took over the control. So, at the time this text was written, the answer is ofcourse United States.

The problem doesn't mention anything about when "currently" is. Is this based on the text or our current time? Nobody knows. I mean, nobody sure about. Or is it just me?

Does this problem really have a correct answer that is timeless or it depends on the date we answer it? Or this problem really is just ambiguous, like I said.

  • 2
    It is a terrible question. I sympathize with you. But I would have answered B. There are clues in the text that it was written before the end of the 20th century. It is not a history question. It is not about looking at calendars. The purpose of the test is to see if you understood what was written. You are supposed to assume that everything in the text is true (including that the 20th century is not yet over), and answer under that assumption.
    – mkeith
    Commented Aug 10, 2021 at 1:08

2 Answers 2


The correct answer is (E) China. :-) See, for example, https://www.eurasiareview.com/25082020-china-and-panama-penetrating-americas-backyard-oped/

Yes, this is a very poorly worded question. It says "currently", which most readers would understand to mean "the day I am answering this question". But the person who wrote the question was apparently thinking that "currently" means "the day I wrote the question".

If you study the question carefully, the wording implies that it was written before the twentieth century ended. Note it says that the US "will control it until the end of the twentieth century". "Will" ... future tense. But how is the reader supposed to know that that isn't simply clumsy wording?

Personally, if I was writing such a question, I would not say "currently", I would say, "as of May 1992" or whatever date I wrote the question.

Indeed, even if the test-maker had had the intelligence to say, "oh, wait but now it's the 21st century, so Panama should have taken over" ... without doing additional research, how would he know what really happened? How would he know that, say, the US didn't break the agreement and refuse to hand over control? Or that Panama didn't sell the rights to someone else? Or dozens of other possible scenarios.


Where did you see this question? The paragraph says that America will control the Panama Canal until the end of the twentieth century. But "will" is for the future. I think you found a question and answer that were written in the 20th century. The question and answer no longer make sense.

If you encountered this question on a test now, I think the answer should be "unknown'. You would have to assume that the paragraph was written in the past, so anything about the future is uncertain. Panama was supposed to take over, but did that really happen? Who knows?

  • It was from the test I took yesterday. Maybe it was from old document or something. I even found another text on the internet, but with the last sentence changed to "The latter was to control it until the end of the twentieth century when Panama was to take over its duties."
    – Azlif
    Commented Aug 10, 2021 at 1:13
  • I saw "The latter was to control it" in your question before you edited it, and that line was frankly very confusing. It didn't fit the rest of the paragraph. Depending on the source of the test, it is possible that the question is very old. Either the test hasn't been updated in years, or the person creating the test isn't all that good at English. I'm guessing you are not in an country where English is the native language. I have seen situations in such countries where the teachers and test preparers have limited English skills.
    – Readin
    Commented Aug 10, 2021 at 1:22

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