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In the 1998 film “Saving Private Ryan,” actor Tom Hanks plays the part of Captain Miller. The fictional Captain Miller was an English teacher before becoming a soldier and fighting in World War II.

In one scene, Captain Miller describes how he has changed:

"So I guess I've changed some. Sometimes I wonder if I've changed so much my wife is even gonna recognize me whenever it is I get back to her, and how I'll ever be able to, to tell her about days like today."

These lines give you an excellent example of how speakers show uncertainty in everyday speech.

In the first sentence, Miller used a common grammatical structure: verb + a noun clause.

In today's report, we will explore this structure and show you how speakers use it in everyday situations.

Noun Clauses

Noun clauses are groups of words that act as a noun. They often begin with “that” or a word beginning with “wh,” such as “where,” “when,” “why,” or “what.” Here are two examples:

I think that she is mad at me.

I wonder where he went?

In the examples, the main parts of the sentences are the words “I think” and “I wonder.” The verbs are followed by noun clauses: "that she is mad at me," and "where he went."

By the way, the word “that” does not add any meaning in these types of clauses, so it is often dropped. Instead of saying "I think that she is mad at me," speakers might say, "I think she is mad at me."

If you want to learn more about why the word "that" disappears from sentences, you should read our previous Everyday Grammar story "The Mystery of the Disappearing That."

Showing Uncertainty with Verb + Noun Clause

Americans often use a verb + noun clause structure to show uncertainty.

The verb shows uncertainty, and the noun clause shows the idea.

Here is an example:

Excuse me, do you know when the last train leaves?

I think (that) the last train leaves at 7.

In the example, the second speaker uses the verb “think” to show uncertainty. The noun clause "the last train leaves at 7" is the main idea of the sentence.

If a person told you, "I think the last train leaves at 7," you should probably ask another person. You do not want to make your travel plans based on uncertain information.

Speakers show certainty by stating ideas in a simple sentence. In these cases, they generally do not use the verb + noun clause structure.

Think back to the conversation about the train. How could the second speaker give a certain answer?

Let's listen:

Excuse me, do you know when the last train leaves?

The last train leaves at 7.

Common uncertainty verbs

Susan Conrad and Douglas Biber are language experts. They note that Americans often use three verbs to show uncertainty.

These verbs are “think,” “believe,” and “guess.”

#1 and 2 - Think and Believe

Americans often use the verb “think” in the present and past tense.

“Think” shows some amount of uncertainty, but the exact level of uncertainty that it shows varies among speakers.

How can you tell how uncertain a person might be?

One tip is to listen to the pitch of the speaker's voice. The pitch can often give you a clue about how uncertain the speaker is.

Consider these examples:

I think (that) the bank is open today.

I think (that) the bank is open today.

In the former example you can hear more confidence in the speaker's voice. In the latter example, you hear far less confidence.

In conversation,think” has a similar meaning as “believe.”

“Believe” is slightly less common and slightly more formal.

So, instead of saying, "I think the last train leaves at 7," a speaker could say, "I believe the last train leaves at 7."

The two sentences have the same meaning and show similar amounts of uncertainty.

Once again, the pitch of the speaker's voice can give you information about how uncertain he or she is.

#3 - Guess

A third common verb of uncertainty is “guess.”

“Guess,” according to Conrad and Biber, is very common in American English but rare in British English.

Americans almost always use the verb “guess” in one way: “I guess.” The phrase still shows uncertainty, but it tells you that the speaker’s claim is probably based on evidence.

Here is an example:

He was smiling as he walked out the front door. I guess he got some good news!

In the example, the first sentence gives some information about the situation. In the second sentence, the speaker makes an uncertain statement based on the information in the first sentence.

Let’s go back to the fictional Captain Miller from the film “Saving Private Ryan.” He gives you another example of how “guess” can show uncertainty in everyday speech. Remember: Captain Miller was talking about being a teacher before he said these lines:

"So I guess I've changed some. Sometimes I wonder if I've changed so much my wife is even gonna recognize me whenever it is I get back to her, and how I'll ever be able to, to tell her about days like today."

In the first sentence, Miller says, "I guess I've changed some." He is showing uncertainty about how much he has changed from his former life as a teacher. Perhaps he does not want to admit that he has greatly changed.

What can you do?

The next time you are watching a film or speaking with an American, try to listen for examples of uncertainty. Ask yourself how the speaker shows uncertainty. Does the person use the verb + noun clause structure, or a different structure?

Learning the subtle ways that people communicate in another language can be difficult. But with time and practice, you will succeed.

We are certain of that.

I'm John Russell.

And I’m Jill Robbins.

John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.

We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.

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Words in This Story

scene – n. a part of a play, movie, story, etc., in which a particular action or activity occurs

uncertainty – n. the quality or state of being uncertain ; doubt

clause – n. a part of a sentence that has its own subject and verb

practice – n. the activity of doing something again and again in order to become better at it

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