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Grammar and Uncertainty

Everyday Grammar
Everyday Grammar
Grammar and Uncertainty
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Consider an unusual time in your life. Perhaps your country was having a financial crisis or a political crisis. Perhaps one of your family members became sick. In other words, you were facing an uncertain situation.

How do you talk about such situations?

That question will be the subject of today’s Everyday Grammar. You will learn about questions and answers. You will also learn about verbs and expressions used to express uncertainty.

Let’s start with some important terms and ideas.

Questions about uncertain times

Uncertainty means that something is doubtful or unknown. And, as the saying goes, life is full of uncertainties.

We often ask friends, family, coworkers, or even strangers about their thoughts and expectations during uncertain times.

There are two closely related questions we use in such situations. One involves “will” and the other involves “be going to.” Although the questions have different wording, their meaning is the same. So, we have:

What do you think will happen?

What do you think is going to happen?

The structures of these questions are complex. We have the question word “what,” the helping verb “do,” the subject “you,” the verb “think,” and then the future marker – either “will” or “be going to” along with “happen.”

We can also make our questions more exact by adding a noun or noun phrase after the word “to” near the end of the question.

So, you might ask:

What do you think will happen to______________?

What do you think is going to happen to _________________?

If your country has an uncertain financial situation, you might ask one of the following questions:

What will happen to the economy?

What is going to happen to the economy?

If your brother becomes sick, you might ask a doctor one of these questions:

What will happen to my brother?

What is going to happen to my brother?

These questions are open-ended. In other words, you are asking the person to give an answer that includes a lot of information.

Answers about uncertainty

We have explored questions about uncertainty. But how do we give answers? Answers could involve expressions, some specific verbs and adverbs, as well as phrasal verbs.

In terms of expressions, a person might say:

I don’t know.

I have no clue.

Verbs that we might use include hope, think, or doubt. Listen to these sentences.

I hope the economy turns around quickly.

I think the political disagreement will be solved quickly.

I doubt the economy will continue to fall apart.

And in the case of adverbs, we might use likely or unlikely, as in the flowing sentences:

It is likely that the economy will crash.

It is unlikely that the economy will crash.

With phrasal verbs, we might use “look like” - meaning to seem to be something because of appearances.

So, you might hear a person say:

It looks like the government is going to shut down.

It looks like that politician is going to win the election.

In the examples, “look like” suggests that the speaker has formed an idea about the situation. When you say, “It looks like something is going to happen,” you are saying that you think something is likely to happen, even if the situation is uncertain.

Closing thoughts

The next time you read the news or watch a movie, pay careful attention to how speakers talk about uncertainty. Do the speakers use some of the terms and ideas we explored today? Or do they use different terms?

With time, you will notice that uncertainty – and discussions about uncertainty – make up a large part of our lives.

I’m John Russell.

John Russell wrote this lesson for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

specific – adj. special or particular

phrasal verb – n. a group of words that functions as a verb and is made up of a verb and another short word