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I have come across such a gapped sentence in a placement test for pre-intermediate-intermediate students to the course book, Choices by Adrian Tennant (2012):

A new school ... in our city.

A student is supposed to choose one of the following four options:

1) has built

2) has been built

3) is built

4) built

According to the answer key the correct answer is #2 (has been built).

My question is, since there is no context whatsoever, if answer #3 is also possible? If yes, what is the difference in shades of meaning between these two?

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You could say

A new school is built in our town every year now that gold has been discovered and the population is growing so rapidly. In fact, one is still being built right around the corner.

But if you're talking about one school in particular, and wish to say that the construction is complete, it would be:

A new school has been built in our town.

As StoneyB says of telic events, "if the event is complete, it is no longer current, so we use the perfect".

The following spoken statement would be unidiomatic; I could only guess at what it might mean:

A new school is built in our town. (not ok)

  • 2
    The last sentence is appropriate in a chronology. – Jasper Feb 6 '15 at 22:59
  • OK, annals aside. :-) StoneyB covered that (chronicles). I've changed "sentence" to "spoken statement", to distinguish it from a written chronicle. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Feb 6 '15 at 23:00
  • What about the following sentence with no context: The animals are fed. (=they are satisfied and not hungry any more) @TRomano Isn't it grammatical on its own the way it is? I mean, it shouldn't necesserily be: The animals have been fed. – Yukatan Feb 7 '15 at 15:40
  • @Yukatan: I don't understand. What sentence is "the following sentence"? – Tᴚoɯɐuo Feb 7 '15 at 15:41
  • look above @TRomano – Yukatan Feb 7 '15 at 16:57
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Ordinarily we use the simple present to express current states, not current events—especially telic events, events which have a goal 'built in' to the sense of the verb. If the event is still in progress, we use the progressive construction:

A new school is being built in our city.

If the event is complete, it is no longer current, so we use the perfect:

A new school has been built in our city.

This rule is relaxed with activity verbs, events which have duration but no built-in goal:

The Mississippi river runs past our city.
The 4th of July is celebrated every year in our city.

But even here the progressive is preferred if the activity is seen as temporary, as having a foreseeable end:

The 4th of July is being celebrated now in our city.

The simple present is used for singular (non-repetitive) events only in a handful of circumstances:

  • In live-action narration—for example, the broadcast of sports events:

    He shoots, he scores!

  • In chronicles and headlines:

    1066 – William of Normandy conquers England.
    1215 – Magna Carta is imposed on King John.

    West Side resolution: hostages are released.

  • In synopses of the action of works of fiction and drama:

    Spain is torn apart by Civil War. The commander of the Royalist Aragon troops, Count di Luna, is obsessed with Leonora, a young noblewoman in the queen’s service, who does not return his love.

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    I don't understand how the part about the use of the present simple tense relates to my question; I'm specifically interested in the use of the present simple PASSIVE not just present simple – Yukatan Feb 6 '15 at 22:14
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    @Yukatan If my words mean anything, it's the tense that makes #2 the correct answer, not the active or passive voice. If you really want to use the present tense, I believe you will need "is being built". – Damkerng T. Feb 7 '15 at 10:20
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    On second thoughts, it's both the tense and the voice that make #2 the correct answer. – Damkerng T. Feb 7 '15 at 10:22
  • @Y School is the subject of the sentence, but not the agent or "doer" of the action. That explains why a passive construction is needed. If we want to make this into an active sentence in the present simple, we need to decide who the builder is: The city builds a school. Construction workers build a school. I think that is a complete explanation of active or passive in this case. The only difference between the two answers is the tense, not the voice. That is why we have described the tense issue in detail. Does this help? – Jim Reynolds Feb 7 '15 at 12:19
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Yes, #3 is possible. As you suspected, it needs additional context.

Imagine that you are watching a newsreel from 1940. There is a news story made by the people of a small town somewhere in the United States. As it begins, the narrator says "A new school is built in our city." The rest of the news story is in the simple past tense, describing the events that made up the building of the school: the young family who wrote a letter to the mayor, the bond levy to raise the money, the hiring of the architect, the hiring of the construction company, etc. The story ends with children arriving at the school for its first day of operation.

The first sentence was a summary of the whole story, which also set the approximate time limits of the story. People often write in the present tense to describe a past or future event when they're summarizing events or establishing the scope of a more-detailed description. In ordinary speech, you would not use the present tense even if you were talking about the action or situation right now. If you wanted to say that the building of the school is in progress now, you'd say "A new school is being built". If you wanted to say that the building of the school is now complete, you'd say "A new school has been built." By using the simple present tense (which is somewhat unusual in English) to describe something that takes a long time, you are momentarily "stepping out of time", "stretching" the present tense to hold the full duration of the building of the school. Doing that at the beginning of a news story suggests that you will present the details momentarily. And when you do, you'll go back to using tenses in the ordinary way.

A well-known example of the same construction is the title of the movie A Star is Born. (The link goes to several movies and many songs by that name.) The title is in the present tense in order to promise that the movie tells the story of someone going to Hollywood and becoming a star, from beginning to end.

The reason for using the passive voice, of course, is only that schools don't build themselves (at least not in English). An active-voice summary of a news story might go "A communist recants and a publisher turns a profit." However, I think you'll find that this "scope-establishing" present tense tends to use the passive voice more often than ordinary sentences. (I don't know what grammarians call the "scope-establishing" or "summarizing" usage, and I recommend not finding out.)

  • 1
    A man walks into a bar and says, "Why am I in the present simple?" – Jim Reynolds Feb 7 '15 at 0:33

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