How do we talk about events or actions that make us happy or hopeful about the present and future? In other words, how do we talk about optimism?
In today’s Everyday Grammar, we will explore a point of connection between grammar and hopeful ideas about the future. You will learn how to understand the difference between closely related words – and how to use them in sentences.
Let’s start with some important terms.
History and relationships
Today’s lesson begins with a noun: optimism. It is a feeling or belief that good things will happen in the future.
The online Etymology Dictionary traces the roots of the word “optimism” to 1759. The word first appeared in translations from the French writer Voltaire.
We also have a closely related noun that appeared in English at about the same time: optimist.
An optimist is a person with a hopeful way of looking at things.
The two nouns differ by only one letter. Optimism ends in an –m and suggests a general feeling or belief. Optimist ends with a –t and means a person with a hopeful world view.
From optimist, we can add an –ic ending to get an adjective. Optimistic describes a person who is hopeful about the future or expects good things to happen.
From optimistic, we can add an –ally ending to get an adverb: optimistically. This word describes or modifies verbs.
So, we have a family of words. We have two nouns: optimism and optimist. From the noun optimist, we can add more letters to get the adjective, optimistic, and the adverb, optimistically.
Now, how do we use these words in everyday discussions?
It is important to remember that some words are commonly used together. You might think of these as high-frequency structures, or word groups you see or hear a lot in speech and writing. What are some of these high-frequency structures?
Let’s start with optimism.
Google’s Ngram Viewer tells us that the most commonly used word before “optimism” is the short word “of.”
For example, we might say the following:
At that time, people in the streets were happy; the economy was strong. A feeling of optimism was in the air.
What about the noun “optimist”?
Once again, Google’s Ngram Viewer tells us that another short word is commonly used before the noun “optimist.” In this case, the short word is “an.”
So, you are likely to hear or read something like this:
I am an optimist.
She is an optimist.
What about the adjective “optimistic?” Once again, Google’s Ngram Viewer tells us that the short word “an” is the most commonly used word before “optimistic.”
So, you are likely to hear or read something like the following:
He gave an optimistic answer.
Finally, we have the adverb “optimistically.” What is the most commonly used word before it? In this case, we have the verb “said.” You are likely to hear or read something like this:
The traffic doesn’t look too bad, she said optimistically.
Now let’s take some time to work with these ideas.
Fill in the blank with the correct word – either noun, adjective, or adverb.
She spoke ____________ about the country’s economic outlook.
The correct word is the adverb optimistically. The sentence is “She spoke optimistically about the country’s economic outlook.”
We know that the adverb is needed because it is modifying or describing the verb “spoke.” How did she speak? She spoke optimistically.
Now let’s consider another example. Fill in the blank.
Tom is always so hopeful. He’s an _________ at heart.
The correct answer is the noun optimist. The full statement is “Tom is always so hopeful. He’s an optimist at heart.”
We know that the answer is optimist because the words coming before optimist suggest a noun phrase. When we see the short word “an,” that tells us that a noun or noun phrase is coming.
In today’s report, we explored a few closely related words. We also learned about commonly used structures.
There are, of course, other ways to talk about hopeful views or ideas about the future. But that will have to be the subject of another lesson.
I’m John Russell.
John Russell wrote this lesson for VOA Learning English.
Words in This Story
optimism – n. a feeling or belief that good things will happen in the future
trace –v. to follow the path of something
translate – v. to change words from one language into another language