I want to write my professor an email about a question regarding a test. I felt that I should write in the subject of the email an attributive noun, but then I realized it might be ambiguous.

Does a test question mean:

  1. a question about the test, or
  2. a question in the test

And will it convey my meaning if I write "a test question" in the subject of the email?

  • 2
    "A test question" could also mean that the question is asked to test something, like whether the professor receives the message and decides to answer it... Oct 19 '15 at 18:12
  • Short answer: go with option 1 ("question about the test").
    – ryanyuyu
    Oct 19 '15 at 18:13
  • I thought that "a test question" has only one meaning. It looks like I am wrong in assuming that. Then how will you decide which meaning is the right one in a context? Oct 19 '15 at 18:14
  • @ryanyuyu I just felt that writing "a question about the test" might be too long in the subject of the email. Oct 19 '15 at 18:18
  • "Earlier Change Management Activity and Activity Scheduled for Tonight." Here's a subject line from an email I receive every day at work. You're really overestimating how seriously people take the subject line of a single email.
    – Crazy Eyes
    Oct 19 '15 at 18:21

I want to write my professor an email about a question regarding a test.

Okay. Then put that in the subject of your email.

Subject: Question regarding our test

Problem solved.

In all seriousness, you are correct in assuming that your subject line is somewhat ambiguous, but providing 1 or 2 more words for clarification is not a cardinal sin. Generally when English speakers say "test question" out of context, they mean a question that was provided as part of a test, not a question about the test. It is not unheard of to be misunderstood in that regard, especially since many professors aren't native English speakers, even in native English speaking countries. In spoken English, the distinction is usually immediately apparent, because the asker will say "I have a question about the test," or "I have a question about number eight," but usually not "I have a test question."

However, you should not worry too much about things that can instantly be clarified with context. For instance, it is hard to imagine how your professor would be confused when they look at the body of the email and read what your question is about; the distinction becomes meaningless at that point assuming the professor has an answer to your actual question. If your professor does not read your email for some reason, then there is some deeper issue than miscommunication at hand...

  • You are right that once my professor reads the email, he will know what I meant. But I most of the times become fussy about these things. First, when I felt the ambiguity, I thought that there was only one meaning to "a test question" and I felt that writing "question regarding our test" might be too long in the subject. So I thought writing an attributive noun is better. And I see many topic lines, headlines use attributive nouns to tell the reader what he/she will read. Oct 19 '15 at 18:24
  • Just think about what your professor would want to see. When I was in college, I would usually include the course name/number, like CS 3845, at the beginning of the subject line because I know many professors teach more than one course and they certainly don't want to have to figure out what course you're even talking about before answering your question. Other than that, mention that you have a question about "brief word or phrase that indicates the subject matter," and mention which test it was. Billions of these tiny pieces of data come and go every day, please don't fuss over this.
    – Crazy Eyes
    Oct 19 '15 at 18:29

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