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I am working on IELTS Test Preparation. The original text writes:

After leaving school, Moore hoped to become a sculptor, but instead he complied with his father’s wish that he train as a schoolteacher.

And the question asks you whether the statement “On leaving school, Moore did what his father wanted him to do” is true or false.

I chose “false” because I think on implies the exact time point when he just left without doing what was told to do. But the correct answer is “true” because it seems that both on leaving school and after leaving school are thought to mean the same thing.

Is this really the case in English?

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    As Kate pointed out, the test-taker should assume the statements are correct, not deceptive, so this thread is tangential to the question about "on leaving" and "after leaving"; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – gotube
    May 25 at 21:32
  • Agreed. This is not a ruse by the test administrators. May 27 at 14:49

7 Answers 7

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It's true that on leaving has a connotation that something happened immediately afterward, while after leaving implies only that something happened at some later point (possibly much later), but since there is no information given that indicates that any such delay actually occurred, there is no reason to assume or believe that the time differential was significant.

In fact, if no other information is given, it is generally understood that any gap that "after" allows for was relatively short and that nothing of consequence happened in it; otherwise a duration or an event would be mentioned. You might see something like "after school, he first got his driver's license and then complied" or "two years after graduating, he complied".

So, given that he wanted to do something, his father asked him to do something else, and he did that other thing instead of what he wanted, the statement should be considered true.

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    There is a reason to assume that such delay actually occurred -- the sentence uses the word "after", which creates the possibility of such a delay, despite the option to use "on" or "upon" which do not. The choice to leave an option open that one could just as easily have foreclosed suggests the option is intentionally left open. This impression is strongly reinforced by the question which specifically seems to ask whether that is possible or not -- the possibility specifically left open by the first sentence. May 26 at 7:11
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    @DavidSchwartz We know he didn't do what he wanted to do, because he "instead" did what his father wanted. It's technically possible that he first did some third, completely unmentioned, thing but that would be contrary to the cooperative principle in English. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cooperative_principle "After being elected president, George Washington died." is technically true, but do not write this in a history essay (and likewise do not tell someone that they "don't look a day over 80" if they are only 60). May 26 at 15:22
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    @user3067860 The problem with making that assumption is that this is an English test and we generally assume they are asking us what the words mean and not so much what beyond their meaning a listener might infer. The question forces us to decide how strong we consider these inferences with no clear idea what we should compare that to. May 26 at 21:45
  • @DavidSchwartz "Devon went to school on Monday. After school was over, they got ice cream with some friends." Did Devon get ice cream on Monday? Jun 1 at 14:43
  • @user3067860 One would usually think so, but the given statements don't definitely say so. If I was specifically asked whether the rules of the English language assure us that they got ice cream on Monday, my answer would be no. It's a fairly strong implication. (The implication is stronger in your example than in the specific question asked both because a time frame is stated and because an event with a very specific point in time is mentioned -- after leaving a particular visit to a school -- rather than the vaguer idea of after leaving school generally.) Jun 1 at 17:15
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This is a terrible question. The two statements are slightly different, and the question seems to specifically ask whether this slight difference exists or not.

The test maker had the idea that the difference was too subtle to justify a "false" answer. You believed that the difference was not that subtle and thus justified a false answer.

There simply is no wrong or right here. You have to decide whether you think the first sentence specifically chose "after" rather than "on" or "upon" to leave open the possiblity that there was a delay or whether this was merely a stylistic choice.

But the correct answer is “true” because it seems that both on leaving school and after leaving school are thought to mean the same thing.

That's certainly not true. After leaving school can be used regardless of the amount of time that had elapsed. It only creates ordering, not proximity. That's why you can say "ten years after leaving school".

For what it's worth, I would have answered "false" as well. I believe that a "true" answer is only permissible if the given sentence assures us that the queried sentence is true and that if the queried sentence may be false, we should answer "false".

That is, I understand these questions to be asking if the truth of the second sentence is assured by the first. The first sentence does not assure us that the second sentence is true.

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  • Have you considered that "On leaving" here is used in the same way as the construction "On [topic x]"? e.g. "On waging war, President Truman said...". I don't think "on" here is used to denote time analogous to "after".
    – Polygnome
    May 26 at 11:16
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    "The two statements are slightly different, and the question seems to specifically ask whether this slight difference exists or not." I believe that this is an incorrect assumption based upon the specific minimal framing of the OP's question which omits the general context of the test format and other examples. May 26 at 19:32
  • After all, something as simple as "Hockey-stick is to hockey-puck as baseball-bat is to baseball." (which should be evaluated as TRUE in almost all contexts) could be framed as FALSE if one assumes that the question-maker intends a counterintuitive trick answer along the lines of "The two sports are so apples-to-oranges different as to be incomparable." The question OP struggled with, when placed in a "basic full-paragraph reading comprehension" context, makes much more sense as TRUE than it does to assume some hidden-information counter-intuitive framing preferring FALSE. May 26 at 19:41
  • As I said, I understand this kind of question asking if we can be sure that the second sentence is true if we assume the first sentence is true. That is, whether the second sentence restates something assured to us by the first sentence. Here, it doesn't quite do that. So we are left to try to decide whether it's close enough or not close enough. May 26 at 21:42
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You're correct that there's a difference between "on leaving" and "after leaving", in that "after leaving" could mean soon after or years later, while "on leaving" only means soon after. So, based on the original text, we cannot know if Moore studied to be a schoolteacher immediately after finishing school, or if he waited a while.

Since we don't know exactly when he studied to be a schoolteacher, "false" cannot be the correct answer. Since it's possible he studied to be a schoolteacher right after finishing school, "true" is a better answer.

The question could have been worded better by reversing "after" and "on". Then it would unambiguously be "true".

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    I don't understand your reasoning. You say it's possible that he studied to be a schoolteacher right after finishing school but also possible that he waited a while. So why is "false" a better answer given that you just said it could be either false or true? May 26 at 7:07
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    @DavidSchwartz I said, "false cannot be the correct answer" and "true is a better answer". Why do you think I said "false" is better?
    – gotube
    May 26 at 15:22
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In normal conversational English (American, east coast), "after" does mean any time after, but the cooperative principle of relevance constrains the meaning in context.

"I got a job after finishing first grade." is technically true, but it wouldn't be acceptable in plain conversational English because I didn't actually get the job until I was an adult--it has no relevance to finishing first grade.

Another example, if you are in school and someone asks "Would you like to get ice cream after school?" "After" here clearly means shortly after, not just any time in the future--you would never ask this question meaning tomorrow. Also, depending on the intonation and surrounding context...it could be an invitation (implying that the person asking does want to get ice cream with you) or a question about your feelings ("Do you want to get ice cream after school?" "Do you want to get ice cream after school?" "Are you sure you want to get ice cream after school?") or so many other things...

In American English the cooperative principle is so ingrained that people take it for granted unless they are specifically looking for a trick question. The answer with the cooperative principle in mind would be "true"--leaving school and training as a schoolteacher are presented together with the relationship "after" and the principle of relevance means that "after" is constrained to be close in time.

It's possible for test makers to create trick questions by deliberately breaking the principle of cooperation, but fortunately that sort of trickery seems to be going out of style.

(There's also a good argument that the cooperative principle is not optional in English...basically English is such a disaster that for two people to communicate with it they have to use the cooperative principle, like if two people were tied together they would simply have to cooperate in order to walk anywhere.)

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  • The cooperative principle is necessary in all languages, though it will have different effects on what becomes conventional in each language. May 27 at 3:59
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Since the true/false query refers to the preceding passage, then clearly the substitution of "on" for "after" was some accident or sloppiness on the part of the test composer and has no bearing whatsoever. So the correct answer is unequivocally "true". And by the way, the most common phrasing for this scenario is surely "upon graduating" or "upon graduation".

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Effectively, "on leaving" and "after leaving" mean the same thing. Both refer to an action ("leaving") which is not instantaneous or precise as to location. Lawyers and linguists could argue over for hours over subtle differences. For example, you might say that "on leaving" is closer in time to the action of leaving, while "after leaving" could be somewhat (minutes? days?) later. But, without further information, there's really no precise way to say exactly what the differences are.

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  • This is an argument that we cannot infer from just what is given that it is reasonable to describe the timing as "on leaving school" and that thus "false" is the better answer. May 26 at 7:08
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    Just my opinion as an editor and native speaker, I would say the statement is true -- on leaving (after leaving) school, he complied with his father's wish to train as a schoolteacher. I'm not sure if the previous comment disagrees with that or not.
    – user8356
    May 26 at 14:18
  • Since JP Zhang asked, I've been what was obviously missing there, and David's hit it square on the head: 'After' creates ordering, not proximity. Jun 2 at 18:13
  • Seems like lawyers trying to split hairs, and missing the main meaning. I believe the test question is to test understanding of "complied", not the timing difference in "on" and "after" leaving school. In that case, it's a stupid distinction that many, many native speakers would get wrong, if one is supposed to decide that he left school, did something (sculpted? that's not said), and then "after" leaving (three months later?) became a teacher. There is no way that's supposed to mean that he didn't do what his father wanted "on leaving school". Ridiculous semantic gymnastics.
    – user8356
    Jun 7 at 2:37
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No, "on leaving…" and "after leaving school" are not at all the same.

"On (anything)…" refers to the time of leaving… literally, to the moment; figuratively to the hours or perhaps days immediately following but still clearly related to the act of leaving. For instance, we might officially leave school on 1 June, but hold a leaving prom or graduation ceremony a few days (or even weeks) later.

Consider the difference between "at or on" and "round or about" the head of a pin? Does that make it clear "on" is very specific?

"After (anything)…" refers not at all to the act or moment of (anything), but to all the time since; the time between then and now.

"On leaving school I took up a career in banking…" means "at the time of leaving… I started"…

"After leaving school I had a (long, short or whatever) career in dance…" means "since leaving… I have had"…

"On leaving school I took up a career in acting, after which I moved into stage management…" means "at the moment of leaving…" I did one thing and following that, another.

I do see how a detailed exposition of "after/since leaving…" and "I had/have had…" might confuse the issue and I suggest that here, those differences are not relevant.

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