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English Grammar, Expressing uncertainty in EnglishOliver Pritchard looks at ways of expressing uncertainty in English without using the subjunctive


Different languages reflect different concepts in different ways – and some languages are better than others at different things – it’s one of the fascinating things about languages. For example, Japanese is very useful for distinguishing between two speakers. English is very good for identifying precise times of events. Spanish uses the subjunctive a lot, which is very convenient for expressing doubt and uncertainty.

However, the fact that the subjunctive is used so often in Spanish sometimes creates problems when switching to English. This is because certain things in English should not sound vague or imprecise, as they make the speaker sound uncertain and sometimes even stupid.

We’ve covered imprecise language before, in Robin Davies’ excellent piece. However, today we’re going to examine how to use maybe and might, and when these phrases should and shouldn’t be used in English.

A very common error I hear from my students is to use maybe when referring to known past events or personal history. For example, “I have worked at this company maybe five years.” In English, this sounds very strange, as you clearly know how long you have worked at the company, unless you have suffered some sort of memory loss. If that is the case, put this paper down and seek urgent medical help before continuing. This is also true when talking about imprecise space measurements, for example, “I am maybe 180cm tall”.

This problem is easily solved by using words like around; about; more or less. First, choose a general number which is easily recognised, for example a unit of five or ten closest to the actual number. In these examples we will use five years (we don’t usually measure by months) and 180cm (a more convenient number than 181cm). If you put these words before the number, it means that you think it is close to the number, but that you don’t know the exact amount.

“I have worked here for about five years.”
“I am more or less 180cm tall.”

If you know that the exact number is less than the general number, use nearly; close to; almost.

“I have worked here for nearly five years.”
“I am close to 180cm tall.”

If you are sure that the exact number is above the general number, use over; a bit/little over; more than.

“I have worked here for over five years.”
“I am more than 180cm tall.”

Might, may and maybe are all useful in English, and we use them a lot. However, you should remember that we usually prefer to state things clearly, even if it’s a situation we can’t be sure about, for example “have a good day” rather than “que tengas un buen día”.

May, might and maybe in English represent things we are really not sure about, or where a decision is still not made. For example:

“I might go to the concert / I might not have enough money/time etc”
“Maybe it’s going to rain”.

Another common theme is to overuse ‘can’, which sounds a little unusual in English. For example, although it’s OK to say “at Plaza Bolivar you can find llamas” it sounds a bit strange to say “on Septima you can find photocopy shops”. This is because in English we use ‘can find’ to show that something is slightly unusual or interesting. With something regular and boring like a photocopy shop, we’d simply say they are there. The same goes for verbs, with actions like skiing, we might use ‘can’, but not so much with ‘walk’ depending on context. To say “you can go for a walk on Septima” instantly gives the idea that this is something that was not true recently, or is not easy.

So, when you’re thinking about how to translate a phrase like “espero que sea…” or “sería bien…” just remember that in English we tend to be a little more precise. It makes the language more brutal and a lot less attractive, but it will also stop you sounding like you don’t know what you’re talking about.


By Oli Pritchard

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