Yesterday, I answered an email from a Magoosher who wanted to know a little bit more about the two common meanings of “yet.”
One the meanings of “yet” relates to time. In this sense of the word, “yet” usually describes things that will happen, but have not presently happened. For example, suppose your birthday is next month. If someone says “happy birthday” to you right now, you could say, “It’s not my birthday yet.
“Yet” can also be used to refer to things that have already happened, but had not happened at a specific time in the past. You can use “yet” in this way when you want to describe what things were like in the past. For instance, when I describe my own early childhood, I sometimes say “We didn’t really use email, because broadband Internet had not been invented yet.” (I was born in 1979.)
TOEFL example of “yet” as a time word:
Rocks trapped in ice together would have moved together when the ice moved. But that doesn’t always happen. The rocks seem to take separate routes. Nevertheless, ice is probably involved, we just don’t quite know how yet.
(This example comes from page 350 of Official TOEFL iBT Tests, and is part of a transcripted lecture about the real mystery of giant rocks that seem to move on their own in California’s Death Valley. Although the mystery had not been solved yet when that TOEFL track was created, scientists have since figured out how the rocks in Death Valley are moving. And the professor in the TOEFL lecture was right—the movement does involve ice.)
“Yet” is used very commonly as a time word in conversational and informal English, the type of everyday English you come across in popular music, TV, and casual conversation.
But “yet” has another meaning—it can be used to mean “but,” or “however.” This use is not quite as common as the use of “yet” in its “time sense.” But using “yet” as a substitute for “but” or “however” is certainly not uncommon. In fact, it is quite common in formal academic writing, the kind you often seen in the academically oriented TOEFL exam. (Also, those of you who are studying for the GRE as well as the TOEFL may recognize yet as a “shift word”—a word that introduces a contradiction or complete change in tone.)
And you’ll also sometimes hear “yet” used this way in formal English speech. This is especially true in formal “teacher talk” such as professor’s lectures. If you like to watch English language TV and movies, you may have also heard this use of “yet” in courtroom dramas. In fiction and in real life, professors, lawyers, and other highly educated people love to use “yet” this way to make their arguments sound smart and serious.
TOEFL examples of “yet” as a substitute for “but,” or “however”:
The numbers of deer have fluctuated markedly since the entry of Europeans into Puget Sound country. The early explorers and settlers told of abundant deer in the early 1800s and yet almost in the same breath bemoaned the lack of this succulent game animal.
(This example comes from page 12 of Official TOEFL iBT Tests, in the first reading of the first exam in the book. As you’ll recall, I said that “yet” can be a substitute for “but” or “however.” And yet in the passage above, “yet” can only be a substitute for “however.” This is because “however” can come after a conjunction word such as “and,” while “but” generally cannot be placed immediately after a conjunction.)
An individual can have an experience that he or she cannot consciously recall yet still display reactions that indicate the experience has been somehow recorded in his or her brain.
(This one is from Official TOEFL iBT Tests, page 180, part of an Integrated Speaking Task. In Example 1, you saw that “yet” is sometimes only a substitute for “however.” Yet in this second example, “yet” can be a substitute for “but” or “however,” because there is no conjunction word before “yet.”)
So that’s the difference between the two “yets,” in a nutshell. You’ll notice all of my examples came from the ETS book Official TOEFL iBT Tests. I feel this is a very good book. If you haven’t bought it yet, I suggest doing so. And yet, there are also many great free sources of official TOEFL Practice Materials. I especially recommend TOEFL Quick Prep.