Certainty and uncertainty

Sometimes we make confident statements, while at other times we want to express some uncertainty. In this resource we will explore the expression of certainty and uncertainty. This is one of the areas of meaning we call modality.

Goals

Lesson Plan

The teacher explains that today, we will discuss modality. One element of modality is the expression of certainty and uncertainty. How do we express certainty and uncertainty? There are many ways.

The Activity pages appear in the menu entitled 'This Unit' in the upper right.

Activity 1 contains four example sentences. Ask the students to re-write each sentence in a few different ways so that it appears less certain. Have them imagine that they want to express the ideas in each sentence, but that they aren't very sure that they're correct. What ways do they find to express uncertainty? They should have found a range of different ways, such as:

These are not the only possibilities. What others did they find?

In Activity 2, students are asked to compare examples and decide which ones express the most uncertainty and which the least. They will be given sets of three examples on each slide. For each set they should do as follows:

Further work

As a follow-up project, ask students to compose two short pieces of writing (a paragraph each). They should choose two different things to write about:

They should try to reflect their level of certainty or uncertainty in the way they write, so that it will come across clearly to the reader.

Next, the students swap pieces of writing with other students. They then read each other’s work and discuss how the level of certainty comes across. They then see whether any changes are needed to express this better.

Finally, have a class discussion about these issues:

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Certainty and uncertainty: Activity 1

Imagine that you are not sure about the following statements, and find ways to make them sound less certain.Write three different versions for each example.

  1. Amy has gone home.
  2. I will definitely have the essay written by tomorrow.
  3. This disease is caused by a virus.
  4. The British team will win this match easily.

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Certainty and uncertainty: Activity 2

Rank the given examples in order from most certain to most uncertain, with most certain at the top and most uncertain at the bottom. Identify the words in the examples that help to convey certainty or uncertainty. Are they modal auxiliary verbs? Adverbs? Main verbs? What conclusions can you make about the way that individual word choices affect the certainty of expressions?

This may not be easy, and some examples may be debatable!

Compare your rankings with somebody else. Are there any areas of disagreement?

 

It’s possible that he will be here in time for the ceremony.
It’s likely that he will be here in time for the ceremony.
He will be here in time for the ceremony.

That girl is Tom’s sister.
That girl must be Tom’s sister.
That girl could be Tom’s sister.

It might have been Kate who thought of it.
It was Kate who thought of it.
It was probably Kate who thought of it.

They have already gone.
They have already gone, I think.
Perhaps they have already gone.

They said that.
They would say that.
They may have said that.

I will talk instead.
I might talk instead.
I may talk instead.

It must have been tricky.
It certainly was tricky.
I just don't know whether that was tricky.

It wouldn't have occurred to him.
It didn't occur to him.
It may not have occurred to him.

We will start again.
We will possibly start again.
We will probably start again.

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