Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Learning English: Real Test

The headline read, "Campus alert system passes real test." It referred to incident of a man with a gun on the UT-Austin campus. My first reaction was, "That wasn't any test. That was the real thing." Unable to come up with a word the headline writer should have used instead of "test" I was off to the dictionary.

test: the means by which the presence, quality, or genuineness of anything is determined; a means of trial.

This definition of test doesn't require that the trial be performed as a drill or in laboratory or simulated conditions. I had to admit that the event in Austin this week (real shooter, real bullets, real threat) was indeed a test of the alert system. This real life incident certainly was a trial by which the quality of the alert system was determined.

On the other hand, when storm sirens sound when a tornado approaches, the radio or television alert emphasizes, "This is *not* a test." I can imagine that the alerts that sounded on campus this week being communicated the same way, "This is *not* a test."

So, how can something not be a "test" when it's in progress, but afterward everyone look back and be relieved that the system passed the "test"?

In the case of our headline writer, I assume he or she knew of this ambiguity in the meaning of the word test, so "real" was added. Readers will more likely understand that a "real test" is not a simulation. Still, shouldn't English have words to better distinguish these difference cases? How would you have written the headline?

No comments: