Language tip of the week: unsure

Posted by on August 08, 2013

Learn English with Macmillan DictionaryIn this weekly post, we bring more useful content from the Macmillan Dictionary to English language learners. These tips are usually based on areas of English which learners find difficult, e.g. spelling, grammar, collocation, synonyms, etc.

This week’s language tip helps with ways in which you can express that you are not sure about something:

I think: used when you are not completely certain about something
Maybe: an informal way of saying that you are not certain about something
Perhaps: a more formal way of saying that you are not certain about something
As far as I know / To the best of my knowledge: used for saying what you think is true, though you cannot be certain because you do not know all of the facts
There’s no telling / Who’s to say? / You never can tell: used for saying that it is impossible for anyone to be certain about something

Examples:
I think that’s what he said, but I can’t be certain. It was very noisy.
‘Do you think it will rain?’ ‘Maybe. We usually get lots of rain at this time of year.’
I wondered if perhaps he’d forgotten to confirm the booking.
As far as I know, he’s coming. But I haven’t spoken to him for weeks.
There’s no telling what she will do next. She’s so unpredictable.

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Comments (4)
  • Is it possible to use ‘maybe’ at the beginning of a sentence? One teacher in UK was always correcting me and asking to use ‘perhaps’ instead. Maybe, it’s not a mistake to use ‘maybe’ like this?

    Posted by Julie on 8th August, 2013
  • Julie: regarding ‘maybe’ – a good question! The issue is less about where the word appears in the sentence and more about what kind of text it appears in. As Kati’s post says, ‘maybe’ is (as a generalization) more informal than ‘perhaps’. Comparisons we’ve made between mother-tongue academic writing and similar texts written by learners of English show that learners use ‘maybe’ far more than mother-tongue writers (who rarely use ‘maybe’ in academic writing). In spoken English or less formal registers, on the other hand, ‘maybe’ is more frequent than ‘perhaps’, and is quite often sentence-initial. These aren’t hard-and-fast ‘rules’ of course, but when we compare these types of text we can observe strong preferences for one word or the other..(Our corpus includes about 150,000 examples of ‘maybe’, of which around 40,000 occur at the beginning of the sentence.)

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 9th August, 2013
  • Michael, thank you for the explanation. I think I see the difference now. I’ll use ‘perhaps’ to talk to the Queen 😉

    Posted by Julie on 9th August, 2013
  • It is a great idea to post these langaguage tips, but for Foreigners it is of little use if we don´t know in which register these words/expressions can be used. Could you please add registers? Bags of Thanx!

    Posted by Maria on 29th August, 2013
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