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Today I encountered this question in an English test:

Question: Select the answer that is closest in meaning to this sentence "It isn't necessary for you to complete this by Tuesday."

Answers:

  • a) You don't have to complete this by Tuesday.
  • b) You needn't complete this by Tuesday.
  • c) It is unimportant for you to complete this by Tuesday.
  • d) It is not essential that you complete this by Tuesday.

In my opinion, a) and b) should be both correct answers. So I think this question is wrong. Even worse, the teacher told me the right answer is c).

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    I’m voting to close this question because it's a stupid test. All 4 answers are semantically perfectly correct. Answer (c) isn't particularly idiomatic, but that's not what the test asks about. Find a different test-setter. And if the teacher thinks (c) is the answer, find a different teacher. Commented Oct 6, 2023 at 18:43
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    All the answers a to d are fine, and are equally 'close' in meaning to the one in the question. Commented Oct 6, 2023 at 18:53
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    +1. No need to downvote the learner's question because the test question they have asked about is a bad one. Commented Oct 6, 2023 at 19:23
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    @MichaelHarvey "unimportant" is decidedly different from "not necessary". Both "you don't have to" and "you needn't" convey a lack of necessity. The answers are not equally close in meaning to the given sentence.
    – phoog
    Commented Oct 7, 2023 at 1:21
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    I'd say c is clearly and objectively wrong and all of the others are clearly and objectively correct.
    – BigMistake
    Commented Oct 7, 2023 at 3:35

4 Answers 4

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My reaction was similar to most when I first read the question. Thanks to the discussion above, I see the problem differently.

At first glance, answers A-D are similar enough that, when one speaks casually, it is easy to use inflection to convey enough meaning to be understood. However, since this is a test question, we must assume that the point is to consider the problem in the context of the need for precision in writing where a reader does not have the luxury of tonal cues or the ability to ask for immediate clarification.

This question challenges students to consider the nuances of the information that is being conveyed. The amount of information that each sentence communicates contains different levels of precision.

My opinion, now, is that if either answer A or B were the source question, then the other would be the best answer among the five sentences. Both answers A and B convey basically the same information strait-forwardly with no implication about why there is no deadline on Tuesday.

Answers C and D add additional information to the statement that Tuesday is not a deadline. C labels it unimportant, while D classifies it as not essential. The sentence in question, also, provides a reason for Tuesday not being a deadline: It isn't necessary.

If proper deductions are made by the test takers, then A and B should be dismissed categorically. Students are left to decide between which of unimportant or not essential is the closer match to isn't necessary.

As has been stated above, not essential implies there is something whose essence is not affected by the task being completed by Tuesday. It would not be overreaching to infer that this task is a component of something else, and the deadline isn't necessary because it does not affect its essence.

On the other hand, unimportant does not convey any more information than isn't necessary. The two are closely matched in scale. Something can be inherently important or necessary without affecting the essence of a thing, even itself. We as the listener/reader do not know why a Tuesday deadline is unimportant or unnecessary, in both cases, we just know that it is. Therefore, for me, the answer is C and I hope for the sake of the students that this is an advanced course.

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I would say A, B, and D all mean the same thing, but C has a minor semantic difference and is the only possibly wrong answer.

The prompt and other answers A,B,D all refer to the level of importance of the action as a binary: "needs to"/"has to"/"is necessary". C refers to it being "unimportant", which is a low degree of importance and not a binary.

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This is a terrible test question. I'm a fluent, native English speaker. And I'd say all 4 choices mean essentially the same thing as the original sentence and all are correct. As JamesFaix says, (c) is arguably the WORST choice, as "important" is not really the same as "necessary". Something could be necessary but not particularly important.

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    Something could also be important but not necessary.
    – phoog
    Commented Oct 7, 2023 at 1:26
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    necessary "required to be done, achieved, or present; needed; essential" : "absolutely necessary; extremely important." - Something that's necessary is by definition extremely important. - Got an example?
    – Mazura
    Commented Oct 7, 2023 at 13:01
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    @Mazura Sure. “The form is used for anything, so it’s not important, but you’re required to fill it out, so it’s necessary.”
    – Davislor
    Commented Oct 7, 2023 at 16:38
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    Sounds important. it’s not important who wrote it or where it came from, but you filling it out is, by Tuesday. - It's not necessarily necessary, but if you want this apartment you'd better find a premade lease, sign it, and have it to me by tue or I'm renting it to someone else. - phoog's comment I don't disagree with, but it doesn't work in the reverse.
    – Mazura
    Commented Oct 7, 2023 at 16:48
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    @Mazura Lots of forms on the Internet contain fields that are mandatory, even though their value is completely irrelevant to the purpose of the form, and what you fill in will never be used for anything. Such fields are necessary, but unimportant. Old-school captchas (from before captchas were used for machine learning) were necessary, but entirely unimportant, since their values or your input was used for nothing – and in fact immediately discarded – once verification was complete. Commented Oct 8, 2023 at 2:18
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Question: Select the answer that is closest in meaning to this sentence "It isn't necessary for you to complete this by Tuesday."

They say "closest," which gives them technical leeway to write poor questions.

Answers:

a) You don't have to complete this by Tuesday.

This means almost literally the same thing, as "have" / "has" maps to the concept of "necessary" / "necessity" / "must."

b) You needn't complete this by Tuesday.

Who says this? No one. However, the questions is the meaning, not if it's a good sentence. However, it is correct, and is exactly the same in meaning as the question sentence.

c) It is unimportant for you to complete this by Tuesday.

Unrelated to the question sentence, irrelevant. This is the only one on the list that is wrong.

d) It is not essential that you complete this by Tuesday.

This is the exact same as the question sentence.

What happened?

Your teacher pulled this question from a question bank without writing it. He or she forgot to read or misremembered the instructions or full title of the question. The corrected question is as follows:

Question: Select the answer that does not have the same meaning as this sentence "It isn't necessary for you to complete this by Tuesday."

This makes it a good question, which has the right answer c.

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    D is not the exact same as the question. Necessary and essential are different things. Commented Oct 7, 2023 at 12:36
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    @JanusBahsJacquet yeah that's completely right. I would not expect that much nuance on a test for English learners, though
    – BigMistake
    Commented Oct 7, 2023 at 17:30
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    @JanusBahsJacquet As a native speaker, "necessary" and "essential" are synonyms in this context. Yes, technically "essential" means "related to the essence of a thing", but an "essential" task is always a "necessary" one, precisely because the task is "related to the essence" of whatever the task is for.
    – No Name
    Commented Oct 9, 2023 at 0:54
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    @NoName I can’t think of a context where an essential task is not also necessary; but a necessary task is not necessarily(!) essential. As you say, an essential task is related to the essence of the purpose of the task, but something can be necessary even though it’s peripheral to that purpose. In this context they’re close enough to be roughly equivalent, but they’re not the exact same (the wording used in the answer, to which I objected). Commented Oct 9, 2023 at 1:11
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    +1 for explaining what happened. Commented Oct 9, 2023 at 1:31

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