"These items have been completely untested"

« previous post | next post »

From an ebay listing for a "job lot" of used computer keyboards:

Philip Taylor, who sent in the link, wrote that "For me, that would have to read 'These items are completely untested'".

I agree, though maybe the problem is construing have been completely untested to mean that "None of these items have been tested", rather than "These items have not been tested at all".

A search for the sequence {these items have been completely untested} turns up plenty of examples where the cited tense/aspect combination seem fine in context, e.g.

[link] He’s been patient about getting this massive project finished, a virtue that has proven its worth time and time again at Drag Week. “A week and a half before Drag Week 2018, I still had to finish the wiring in the car,” Kyle says. “I figured I could work around the clock and get it drivable, but it would have been completely untested – no track time, no setup, or anything like that. There are people who do that sort of thing, but I’m way too cautious with the car for that."

[link] When the drillhole and assay data are plotted into 3D modelling software, and a long-section is defined along strike of the foliation, it shows the mineralisation is open at depth and along-strike within the fresh rock (Figure 3), highlighting areas which to date have been completely untested.

[link] Do we really know which workplace chemicals can have reproductive effects and what those effects may be? The answer is a strong no. Researchers have found over 1,000 chemicals used in the workplace to have reproductive effects in animals, but most of these have not been studied in humans. Furthermore, over 4 million chemical mixtures in commercial use have been completely untested for potential effects.

In all of those cases, have been completely untested means something like "have not been tested at all".

Why it's hard to get that interpretation in the ebay listing isn't clear to me.



  1. Gregory Kusnick said,

    March 6, 2022 @ 7:15 pm

    To me it suggests a comprehensive checklist of tests that could have been done but weren't.

    Or maybe they were done, and then thoroughly undone.

  2. Breffni said,

    March 6, 2022 @ 7:20 pm

    It looks to me like the eBay example wants to be read as a passive (e.g., "…have been completely untested by the seller"), i.e., auxiliary BE + Past Participle, while Mark's examples are copular BE + Adj: "would have been completely untested" is a past conditional, "to date have been completely untested" and "have been completely untested" are present perfects. They seem parallel to "would have been completely fine", "[to date] have been completely fine".

    I think it's hard to read "these items have been completely untested" as a present perfect because the context is descriptive and as such doesn't imply the kind of temporal frame in which a present perfect is normally used (X has been the case to date but may not be in future).

  3. Breffni said,

    March 6, 2022 @ 7:56 pm

    Rethinking: even as a passive “these items have been completely untested” would be present perfect. So back to the drawing board:

    The eBay context seems to resist the adjectival reading and in its absence to invite a passive-voice reading – but “untested” isn’t a verb, so that reading fails. Maybe the reason the adjectival reading seems strained is that “Present Perfect + adjective” implies that the state may be about to change? Like “has been fine" implies “…so far”, whereas “untested“ as a description of goods in an ad is a permanent state as far as the transaction is concerned.

  4. JPL said,

    March 7, 2022 @ 12:48 am

    Since when? (Since they suffered flood damage? They've been completely unused since they were delivered.) In the second linked example it seems that an adverbial like "since they were discovered" would work better than "to date", which in turn would go better with "is yet to be tested". Now why would that be? Perhaps "untested" describes a state, the end state that begins after an event ("flood") (focus on the state where nothing is happening; "has remained completely untested"), while with "as yet" what describes the period since discovery (not expressed) is that an expected event (focus on the expected event) has not happened. In both cases there have been no tests. In one the description is of a static situation; in the other the description is of the non-occurrence of a specific kind of event. I don't know if that's right, but that's a first stab at it.

  5. Yuval said,

    March 7, 2022 @ 1:21 am

    @Gregory: or, a series of untests that were all performed…

  6. Nat J said,

    March 7, 2022 @ 1:44 am

    In line with Yuval's comment, the problem I think with the eBay listing is that it suggests that "untesting" is a positive process to which the keyboards were subjected, rather than a merely negative lack of tests. As though there were a time at which one could say, "These keyboards are currently being untested."
    Is there generally some sort of entailment relation between past perfect and present progressive? Or are there natural-sounding examples where they clearly come apart?

  7. Nat J said,

    March 7, 2022 @ 1:54 am

    As for the other examples, the first one is a counterfactual context, and in the last one, "have been completely untested" is primed by the earlier "Researchers have found…." Perhaps this is why the phrase sounds natural in them. (Though I don't have any idea of what to say about the second example.)

  8. Bob Ladd said,

    March 7, 2022 @ 2:59 am

    I think MYL is right that the problem is construing the sentence to mean "None of these items have been tested" – that is, making the sentence refer to the (absence of) testing of INDIVIDUAL items. It really seems to refer to the testing of the COLLECTION of items. In the three examples MYL cites, by contrast, there is one case that refers only to the testing of one thing anyway, and in the two others, the context clearly refers to the (absence of) individual testing of a whole series of items.

  9. Trogluddite said,

    March 7, 2022 @ 7:27 am

    I think that "completely"may be a bit of a red-herring here – I would replace "have been" with "are" in all of the examples except for the counterfactual, which seems more apt regardless of any (or no) qualifying adverb that I can think of.

    @Nat J is closest to my feeling for why "have been" doesn't work (who untested the items?!), though I struggle to put my finger on exactly why. It's almost as if there's a fight between the "un-" prefix and "-ed" suffix ; i.e. "untest"+"ed" (VERB+"ed") is somehow more salient than "un"+"tested" ("un"+ADJECTIVE), despite "to untest" being a nonsensical verb.

  10. John Lawler said,

    March 7, 2022 @ 11:13 am

    As I keep telling people on English Language and Usage Stack Exchange, if you have a negative and a modal in the same clause, you're guaranteed to have ambiguity because the scopes can get twisted. If the negative is morphologized to boot, look out for syntactic radiation.

  11. Daniel Barkalow said,

    March 7, 2022 @ 12:19 pm

    I think the part that seems wrong to me is that the seller could still test them. "I'm shipping out keyboards that have been completely untested" works, but the "time has run out" reading of the perfect isn't available for the ebay listing, so it reads as a process that is over, despite there not being a sensible process that could be described that way. I think the warning works if the seller is selling them sealed in the original packaging, having gotten word that they somehow bypassed the normal QA at the manufacturer.

  12. Michael said,

    March 7, 2022 @ 12:56 pm

    It struck me as being a shortcut to having both possibilities in a sort of form-letter (or copy-and-paste) response: "These items have been completely tested" being the default, and adding "un" when necessary.

  13. chris said,

    March 7, 2022 @ 8:39 pm

    I don't think plurality is important to this issue: "this item has been completely untested" is just as bad as its plural counterpart. I also think "completely" is a distraction, deleting it doesn't affect the issue.

    IMO it's more an issue of whether "has been" is allowed to govern something not happening (as opposed to "unlock", "untie", and other actual reverse processes). The more I look at your other links the more I'm not sure if they sound right either.

    "His shoelaces have been untied" to me implies that they were formerly tied, at least partially. But "untested" can't do that because it isn't a participle, it's an anti-participle (whereas "locked" and "unlocked" are both bona fide participles).

    If all my work is undone, I might just be lazy (or commenting on some blog somewhere), but if all my work has been undone, that is something quite different. Does this mean there are actually two different words "undone", the participle of "undo" and the anti-participle of "do"?

    Perhaps the anti-participle of an irreversible verb ("untested") only superficially resembles the participle of the reversed form of a reversible verb ("unlocked"), but because "do" is extravagantly polysemous, it swings both ways. And when the distinction is essential people will invent a new word, e.g. "unclassified" vs. "declassified".

    One example of this is "unopened", which does not just mean "closed". "These items are unopened" means something specific. "These items have been unopened"? That's just not right.

    Sorry if the issue remains unclarified and unilluminated.

    P.S. Although having said all that, I find "these rules have been unspoken and unwritten" both tempting and apt, even though it should be illegal by my own anti-participle distinction. Maybe because it strongly implicates "…Until now!"?

  14. Bob Ladd said,

    March 8, 2022 @ 2:05 am

    @ chris – Yes, I think you've got it. Regardless of plurality, has/have been unVERBed is no good when the intended meaning is 'has/have not been VERBed', unless the true present perfect "until now" implication is also intended. So This hypothesis has been untested since it was formulated in the 19th century, but the new work suggests it is correct seems OK. But when unVERB is itself a verb meaning 'reverse the effect of VERBing', has/have been unVERBed seems fine.

  15. davep said,

    March 8, 2022 @ 5:10 am

    They meant "these have not been tested/verified in any way".

    That is, "We have no idea if they even work (and are making no guarantees)".

  16. davep said,

    March 8, 2022 @ 5:18 am

    The weird phrasing is an attempt at being passive and oblique (indirect).

  17. B.Ma said,

    March 8, 2022 @ 7:16 am

    I used to sell old computing equipment on ebay. I can't remember what I used to write though I probably wouldn't have phrased it like that, but the "completely" is just meant to emphasize the "untested". The intention is to convey that the items may or may not work, but you should expect that they don't work and bid / buy on that basis. That way, you won't be disappointed.

  18. Trogluddite said,

    March 8, 2022 @ 10:02 am

    @chris: Thankyou; you have indeed greatly clarified the shadow of a hunch which I was struggling to abstract.

  19. JPL said,

    March 8, 2022 @ 9:39 pm

    All expressions like the one from the ebay listing in the OP need to be OK is inclusion of an adverbial expression referring to the (past) point at which the present state (of the non-occurrence of some relevant event) came into effect (as a result of a previous event perhaps). E.g., "since they were discarded", "for six years". Focus on this state's duration makes the difference between this use of the perfect and expressions such as "these items are completely untested", which describe a property of the object at only the present point. ("These items have been dormant." "These items have been (completely) untouched." "These items have been taking up space" These bands have displayed their excellence.": all these expressions describe a situation stretching from a past reference point to the present, and really need an adverbial expression to complete the intended meaning expressed. Sometimes people's expressions are insufficient or inconsistent, but I don't think there is a question of grammaticality here.

  20. Josh R. said,

    March 8, 2022 @ 10:54 pm

    My personal suspicion is that this is a result of habitual "has/have been" in such listing descriptions. "This product has (not) been…" is the go-to construction when describing anything done or not done to the product. I suspect the writer's natural inclination to write "These products are completely untested," ran up against their internal Ebay listing style filter, and "These products have been completely untested" was the result.

  21. unekdoud said,

    March 9, 2022 @ 8:33 am

    I read unqualified "has been not X-ed" literally that at at least one point in the past X had not yet happened, a tautology that gives me "up to 50% off or more" vibes.

  22. Trogluddite said,

    March 9, 2022 @ 9:50 am

    @JPL said: "…need an adverbial expression to complete the intended meaning…"
    If the potential customer looks for an elided temporal qualifier, the only one possible for "untested" is "since the items came into existence" as it is the initial state of literally every object in the universe. So, pragmatically speaking, it seems very unlikely that this elision would be the writer's intent, as it provides no information useful to the audience, who need only to know the items' state at the point of purchase. I don't intend this to criticise your analysis – it could be that the drive to read a passive construction with the verb "to untest" is driven by exactly this Gricean stumbling block.

  23. Batchman said,

    March 20, 2022 @ 5:32 pm

    On a related note, there is a sign prominently displayed in our local Aldi grocery:

    "We insist that our specials are thoroughly tested."

    Aldi, I do not think that sign says what you think it means.

    What they probably meant to say was: "We insist that our specials BE thoroughly tested." As it stands, it inspires far less confidence in the quality of their goods, as if they are obstinately denying to the health inspectors that there are untested specials in the store.

    Which puts me in a rather subjunctive mood.

RSS feed for comments on this post