187. Advising and Recommending

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Advising and recommending can each be done in numerous ways

THE IMPORTANCE OF ADVISING & RECOMMENDING

Advising and recommending are both common in professional writing. Advice might found, for example, within instructions – for laboratory work, examinations, consumer products and the like – or in health leaflets. Recommendations frequently occur at the end of reports. I am considering advising and recommending together here because, though they are not the same, they have a similarity to each other that is reflected in the occasional usability of the same wording for either.

In this post, I will first try to clarify the difference between advising and recommending, and I will then survey the variety of ways in which each can be expressed in professional contexts. I will also consider how advice and recommendations can be reported rather than given directly.

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THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ADVISING AND RECOMMENDING

Advising and recommending have very similar aims. They both inform an addressee of a particular behaviour that someone (usually the speaker) believes the addressee ought to carry out because it would be beneficial. The behaviour could be considered a weak kind of necessity (see 129. Differences between Necessity Verbs).

The difference between the two ideas seems mainly to be the reason why the benefit-bringing behaviour is mentioned. Advice appears to have the aim of saving the addressee from something undesirable – it suggests that ignoring it might bring harm – while recommendations suggest this much less or not at all. There might also be more subjectivity in recommendations: they seem often to be their giver’s opinion about what is best, rather than what is generally accepted to be so.

Note that English says give advice and make a recommendation (see 173. “Do Research” or “Make Research”?).

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THE LANGUAGE OF ADVICE AND RECOMMENDATIONS

Advice

A key distinction is between advice that is the speaker’s own and advice that the speaker attributes to other people. Both may be communicated either to advise the addressee – i.e. to try and persuade him/her to carry out the advised behaviour – or simply to establish awareness of what the advice is.
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1. Advice Originating with the Speaker

In most cases, this kind of advice is communicated in order to advise the addressee. A natural way to introduce the advice is with you, a word that can sometimes feel inappropriate in formal writing (see 46. How to Avoid “I”, “We” and “You”). However, in many advice-giving contexts, including examinations and government leaflets, this word is quite normal. Common expressions with you include:

You should / ought to / need to…

What you should (etc.) do is…

You would do well to…

It is best if you…

Informal giving of the speaker’s advice can also make a reference to the speaker:

I advise / urge you to…

I advise -ing / (NOUN)

My advice (The advice I give) is to…

(If I were you,) I would…

On the other hand, if it is wished to avoid informal words like you, one could write:

It is advisable to (or that…) (see 103. Postponed Subjects in “It” Sentences)

It would be best to…

It is best if …

The (best) advice is to / that…

…is advisable.

Customers are advised/urged to…

In this last, any noun describing the addressee like customers can be used. Other common examples are candidates, members of the public, readers, students and visitors.

A further option is verbs in the base “imperative” form, which only rarely have a “commanding” function (see 128. Imperative Verbs in Formal Writing). However, to prevent these from sounding like commands, there must be some other clue present – either contextual or verbal – that advice is meant. The following sentence has a contextual clue in its first half:

(a) If the condition persists, contact your physician.

An example of a verbal clue is my/the advice is… placed just before the imperative verb.

The main occasion where mentioning one’s own advice need not also be advice-giving seems to be when the advice is reported to someone. Useful expressions for reporting one’s own advice (formal equivalents in brackets) include:

My advice (The advice) was/is to…

I advised X (X was advised) to…

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2. Advice Originating with Other People

Most ways of communicating other people’s advice require indirect speech. If the purpose of mentioning the advice is to advise the addressee, you is again common:

You are advised to…

The advice is that you…

X advises you to…

According to X, you… (it is best if you…)

X says / advises (that) you… (it is best if you…)

X here can be either a name, or a personal pronoun like she, or a description of someone (e.g. the doctor, experts).

To avoid you, one could replace it with a noun like customers (see above). Alternatively, there are expressions that do not need the meaning of you to be expressed at all, e.g. X’s advice is to… and X advises (NOUN).

Direct speech is a rare alternative way to report other people’s advice (X advises “…”), but it must be chosen for one of the special reasons suggested in 127. When to Use Indirect Speech

In order to report someone else’s advice without trying to advise the addressee, it is usually enough to avoid you in one of the ways suggested above – the context will then often clarify whether or not advice is being given. One other option is to use the verb TELL (someone). It must be followed not by to… (which expresses a reported command – see 150. Verbs with Indirect Speech), but by that…should…, e.g.:

(b) Students were told that they should check their answers carefully.

The recipient of the advice is normally expressed by the subject of such sentences.

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Recommendations

1. Recommendations Originating with the Speaker

In order to recommend something, it is again possible to include or avoid informal words like you. Common expressions with you include:

You should / ought to / need to…

What you ought to / should do is…

You would not go far wrong -ing / with… / if…

You will find that X meets all of your requirements.

It will be seen that should, ought and need can express recommendations just as easily as advice.

Note that *you are recommended to… – an apparent equivalent of you are advised to… – is a grammar error. The subject of BE RECOMMENDED (the object of RECOMMEND) must express what is recommended, not the person being addressed. This error is a good example of the kind resulting from words of similar meaning not having similar grammar (see 10/140. Words with Unexpected Grammar).

Informal recommendations with a reference to the speaker include:

I (would) recommend X / that…

My recommendation is that / to…

We have the following recommendations to make.

More formally, the following are possible:

The most suitable (choice / option / alternative / solution) is…

…would be a suitable choice

…is recommended

…would meet all the requirements

…would solve the problem

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2. Recommendations Originating with Other People

Indirect speech is again the norm. Most of the possibilities are again interpretable as either making or simply reporting a recommendation. The options include:

X recommends -ing / that… / (NOUN)

It is recommended that…

The / X’s recommendation is to… / that… / (NOUN)

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PRACTICE EXERCISE: ADVISING & RECOMMENDING

The following exercise is offered as a means of making the numerous possibilities listed above a little easier to remember. Below are presented a number of sentences with their words in the wrong order. The task is to reorder the words so that they make sense. Answers are given afterwards.

1. be museum a would good visit to a choice

2. forget be it best refund to about claiming would a

3.complaint write you I letter I a of were would if

4. recommend every walking minutes of experts vigorous 20 day

5. our are prices is that recommendation reduced primary

6. the inform you is do what to ought police

7. far parents children would go reading not their wrong to

8. of keep you to would do a any documents well sent copy

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Answers
1. A visit to a museum would be a good choice (or A good choice would be a visit to a museum).

2. It would be best to forget about claiming a refund.

3. If I were you, I would write a letter of complaint.

4. Experts recommend 20 minutes of vigorous walking every day.

5. Our primary recommendation is that prices are reduced.

6. What you ought to do is inform the police.

7. Parents would not go far wrong reading to their children.

8. You would do well to keep a copy of any documents sent.

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186. Language in Oral Presentations

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Oral presentation language is fairly variable, but some expressions are more likely than others

THE ROLE OF LANGUAGE IN ORAL PRESENTATIONS

Oral presentations are common in both the business and academic worlds. This means there is plenty of published advice on how to do them successfully. There are normally three basic skills that tend to be considered: composition (selecting and organizing the content), delivery (voice projection, eye contact, visual aids etc.), and language. The last of these is given special attention in courses for speakers whose mother tongue is not English.

Given the aims of this blog, it is language skills that also feature strongly here. However, I would not expect this post to be just a simple repetition of what is said elsewhere: oral presentations are so varied and potentially involve such a range of language that no two linguistic samples are likely to be the same. It is my hope that readers will find useful novelty in either what I have to say here about language or the way I say it.

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A KEY DELIVERY SKILL

Although delivery is not the primary concern here, one aspect needs to be highlighted because of its centrality and potential to affect language choice. This is the skill of remembering what to say without writing it all down and reading it to the audience. Reading aloud is an important skill in academia and business, with its own delivery and language subskills (see 91. Pronunciation in Reading Aloud), but it should not be the primary method of oral presentation.

The fundamental problem with presentation by reading is that audiences often find it hard to follow. There are good reasons why. Firstly, pre-written texts for reading aloud are linguistically very different from spontaneous speech. A linguistic difference between written and spoken English has always been recognised, but it is only recently that the extent of this difference has been appreciated. It is only recently that separate grammars of spoken and written English have started to appear, and separate spoken and written vocabularies – illustrated in this blog in 108. Formal & Informal Words – have been fleshed out. These linguistic differences make extended reading aloud burdensome to audiences because they force them to listen to a kind of language that they are not used to hearing.

Secondly, pre-written texts differ from spontaneous speech in the nature of the information they convey. Whereas written information tends to be given efficiently, with minimal repetition (see 24. Good and Bad Repetition), spoken information tends to be more spread out, with deliberate repetition. The probable reason is that efficient information-giving is less of a problem for readers because they can stop reading at will to re-read or reflect; but it challenges listeners because they can rarely stop the flow of speech, and hence need the information to be less dense to give them time to take it in.

Another problem with reading presentations aloud is that it reduces the speaker’s eye-contact with the audience. The value of eye-contact is said to be the way it simultaneously motivates audiences to listen and informs speakers about the effect of their words.

The most common way of remembering what to say in oral presentations without writing it all down first is by means of notes. These should be much briefer than a mere representation of the entire talk in abbreviated form. What they include should act as reminders of what they leave out. Keywords or headings, with or without a few abbreviated sentences, can be effective reminders. They might be listed all together in one place, or kept separate on cards or sequenced computer screens. It is often useful to reveal them to the audience.

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USEFUL LANGUAGE

The three main stages of a presentation – beginning, middle and end – each have some characteristic language.

1. At the Beginning

After an initial greeting and reminder of the title, it is customary to indicate the overall structure of the talk, naming its sections in the order of their occurrence. One way to do this is with I will, I shall, I am going to or even I want to, followed by a speaking or thinking verb (often like those in essay instructions), such as argue, consider, describe, examine, explain, indicate, outline, present or survey. Verbs of a more informal kind are also common, e.g. deal with, look at and touch on.

These same verbs can also have a subject referring to some or all of the presentation itself, rather than I, such as the first part, section 3 or my main argument. Will must then be used in preference to shall, and there will be becomes a further option. For more on will/shall in introductions, see 147. Types of Future Meaning, #5.

The verbs that show the structure of a presentation will often follow a connector of the time-sequence kind. Common ones are to begin with, afterwards, following that, next, subsequently, then, finally and lastly, as well as number adverbs like first(ly) and secondly. This use of such expressions at the start of a presentation is not quite the same as that within the main body of a text (as in 122. Signpost Words in Multi-Sentence Lists).

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2. In the Middle

The various sections in the middle of a presentation usually need to have their beginnings and endings clearly signalled. Two useful beginning words are well and now. The former seems mostly to introduce the first point after the general introduction, like this:

(a) In this talk I will be dealing with the various aids available for language learning. WELL, dictionaries are an obvious starting point.

Now too could be used here, but it is also widely found at the start of later sections:

(b) NOW I need to say a few words about recording devices.

Sometimes, OK is found instead of now. Another is an alternative as well, but being an adjective instead of a connector it needs a following noun, e.g.:

(c) ANOTHER useful language learning aid is recording devices.

This might seem rather wordy, but wordiness is not usually a problem in oral presentations because of the need to reduce information density. Moreover, another has the value of reminding the audience of the list that the new topic belongs to (underlined).

After the starting word, it is common to give a general name for what is to follow: recording devices in (b) and (c). In (b), this name ends a sentence starting with I. Common verbs in such sentences are am going, need, want and wish. The speaker can also make a self-reference by means of let me (see 128. Imperative Verbs in Formal Writing, #7). In (c), the verb is BE. Recording devices may be at the end as shown, or at the start as subject (…are another).

When the general name in the opening sentence stands for a list, the second sentence can show this by means of a starting there, e.g. There are various types after (b) and (c) (see 122. Signpost Words in Multi-Sentence Lists).

After a section has been introduced, it is vital to show clearly how its different parts are linked to each other. Connectors and Connector Synonyms are obviously useful here – especially the kind associated with listing and arguing – but one form of connector synonym has especial value in an oral presentation: the extended, sentence-form type. Consider the following:

(d) Now what conclusion can be drawn from this?

(e) Here’s an example that might make this clearer.

The meanings here are not much more than those of therefore and for example, which could be added instead at the start of the subsequent sentences. The value of a longer version is that it gives both speaker and audience time to think. Language like it is very typical of oral communication in general.

The end of each section within a presentation also needs a clear signal. Referring to the information in the section with that or those is especially common. Possible expressions are that is all I have to say about… , that is (or those are) the… and that is the end of… .

One other common kind of language in the central part of presentations accompanies the use of visual information. A visual display can be introduced with a phrase like look at this or here is a slide/diagram/table (etc.) showing. Once the information is displayed, it can be referred to with as, though not as often alongside a passive verb as it would be in writing (see 104. Naming Data Sources with “As”). Common expressions are as you can see, as this shows and as shown here. Here alone is also useful (here we see, here there is, shown here).

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3. At the End

The main things to do at the end of a presentation are to briefly answer the main question being addressed, indicate the arrival of the end, and invite questions.

Sometimes the first of these will be a consequence indicated by preceding arguments and/or evidence, in which case a statement beginning with in conclusion can be useful (followed by a reminder of the main contributory points). At other times, the main question will already have been answered by means of a simple list, so that a summary is the only requirement at the end. This can be introduced by to conclude, as a conclusion, to finish or to sum up.

Possible phrases for signalling the end of a presentation are:

(f) Thank you (for listening/for your attention).

(g) That is all I have to say.

(h) And that brings this presentation to an end.

To invite questions, one might say:

(i) Now I’d like to invite questions.

(j) Now I will try to answer any questions you might have.

(k) If you wish to ask about anything, please do so.

185. Noun Synonyms of Question Words

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Question words have numerous noun alternatives in indirect speech, some with quite challenging grammar

THE NATURE AND OCCURRENCE OF QUESTION WORD SYNONYMS

Question words – how, who, when, why etc. – are found in both direct and indirect questions. However, in indirect questions, even those with a “to” verb, they can often be replaced by a noun synonym, for example person instead of who, time instead of when and reason instead of why (see 57. Indirect Questions in Formal Writing).

In indirect questions at the start of a sentence, a noun equivalent is probably more usual than a question word. In the following example, how might the blank space be filled with the question How much training is required?

(a) … is a source of dispute.

The missing words here could be something like the amount (or quantity) of training (that is) required.

On the other hand, in indirect questions that are the object of their sentence there is often a free choice. Consider the following sentence (from 94. Essay Instruction Words):

(b) Describe the way in which second language learners acquire grammatical competence.

The underlined words here are quite easily replaced by the question word how. It is only in a few cases that a question word must be used: after some asking words, such as WONDER; in questions asked with whether; in sentences starting with it (e.g. it is interesting where … – see 88. Exotic Grammar Structures 1, #8); and alongside a parenthetical asking verb (see 183. Parenthetical Statements).

One advantage of nouns may be their ability to make it clear whether one or many possibilities are involved – way not ways in (b). Using a noun can also be a good way to paraphrase a question taken from another text (see 80. How to Paraphrase). This post considers the exact way in which indirect questions can be made with a noun instead of a question word, and explores the variety of available nouns.

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THE GRAMMATICAL FORM OF QUESTIONS STARTING WITH A NOUN

Indirect questions are usually “noun phrases”. This means that all of the words within them together occupy typical positions of a noun – subject, object, complement or partner of a preposition. The difference between ordinary indirect questions and those starting with a noun is the type of noun phrase that they are.

Ordinary indirect questions are sentence-like: they have a central verb plus other necessitated words, especially its subject. Because this verb is not the only one in the sentence (the words outside the question generally include a verb too – see 150. Verbs with Indirect Speech), the indirect question also contains what I have elsewhere called a “joining device” (see 30. When to Write a Full Stop). This is the question word itself. This kind of noun phrase is in the same category as those beginning with that (see 153. Conjunction Uses of “that”).

On the other hand, indirect questions beginning with a noun are noun phrases of the more ordinary kind. They usually comprise a central noun rather than verb, attached to one or more words describing it (“modifiers”), such as an adjective before or a preposition phrase after. For example, the noun amount in (a) has an of phrase after it, and way in (b) has a following which statement.

Sometimes the central noun in this kind of indirect question is used by itself – it will represent both the subject and the verb of the corresponding standard indirect question. This is especially possible with who and what questions containing the verb BE. Consider the following:

(c) Identifying who the victims were has proved difficult.

It is much easier here just to say the victims. In the same way, instead of why it happened, one can just say the reason.

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COMMON NOUNS THAT CORRESPOND TO QUESTION WORDS

It seems to be normal for each question word to have a variety of corresponding nouns. Perhaps this is in order to allow a variety of subtler meanings to be expressed. The possibilities that I have gathered together are as follows:

1. Simple Question Words

HOW

way, means, manner, mode, method, methodology, procedure, process, approach, strategy, style, tactic, technique. In addition, it is often possible to use a noun made from the verb in the indirect question, without any special “how” word at all (see 131. Uses of “Action” Nouns, #6).

WHAT

action, event, thing

WHEN

time, occurrence, date, moment, hour, day, week, occasion, point, stage, period, age, era

WHERE

place, location, position, spot, stage, point, bearings, way

WHICH

alternative, choice, option, possibility

WHO

identity, name, person, the ones, those

WHY (two meanings)

(a) cause, determinant, explanation, factors, reason; (b) purpose, intention, aim, motive, end, objective, desire, goal

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2. Compound Question Words

Many nouns correspond to a question word combined with a particular other word, often a preposition. Common examples are:

HOW LONG

duration, extent, length, period

HOW MUCH/MANY

amount, degree, extent, magnitude, number, quantity

HOW OFTEN

frequency, incidence, number of times, regularity

WHAT … LIKE

appearance, characteristic(s), description, features, nature, quality

WHAT … WITH

apparatus, implement, instrument, tool

Combinations with how are especially numerous, other examples being how far, how large, how old and how successful. Sometimes the two words together are like an adverb (e.g. how often); sometimes they are adjectival (e.g. how successful). In both cases, the noun synonyms are sometimes derived from the word after how (e.g. success), sometimes not (e.g. distance, size, age, frequency).

In the same way that many words after how are neutral about quantity (how old does not presuppose “old” – see 94. Essay Instruction Words), the equivalent nouns may also be neutral (age does not have to mean “old age”). However, to prevent confusion some such nouns may be prefaced with degree of (e.g. degree of success).

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GRAMMATICAL REQUIREMENTS OF INDIVIDUAL NOUNS

Sentence (b) above, in illustrating the use of way to express the idea of how, places it before the words in which:

(b) Describe the way in which second language learners acquire grammatical competence.

Some learners of English might wonder why way needs both a preposition and which after it – and even why the preposition is in.

Regarding the second of these questions, the preposition varies according to the noun. In which is typical after manner, mode, style and way; by which is more likely after procedure and process. Frequency needs with which; period needs in which. Because the preposition is a “typical” one (see 111. Words with a Typical Preposition), a dictionary will often indicate what it is.

It is possible in (b) to drop the words in which. However, this does not mean that they are absent – they are just “understood”, an example of a “zero” relative. The following discussion concerns why we need them even when they are not visible.

The reason why which is so often needed after a question noun is that the next words, which express the rest of the indirect question, usually contain a verb (cf. acquire after way above). Since this verb is not the only one in the sentence (there is also describe above), there must be a special joining word, and this is which. There is no need for which when the question begins with a question word like how because question words are also joining words.

Words like which usually need a preposition when they are not the subject, object or complement of their verb (acquire above). Thus, looking to see whether who or which is a subject, object or complement is a useful way to discover if a preposition is needed. There is also a clue in the grammatical class of the question word being avoided: if it is an adverb, a preposition will probably be needed. How, the equivalent of way etc., is certainly an adverb.

Other adverb question words are when, where, why, some compound how words and some uses of what … with (examples of question words that are not adverbs are who, whom, whose, which, what and how with adjectives, e.g. how old). To further illustrate the common need for a preposition when adverb question words are replaced by a noun, consider how when might be replaced in the following:

(d) One MAY ASCERTAIN when acquisition IS complete through testing.

A suitable noun equivalent of when here is the moment. The later verb is means which must also be present. A preposition is necessary too because which is not the subject, object or complement of is (the subject is acquisition and there is a complement complete). This preposition has to be the normal one required by momentat (see 111. Words with a Typical Preposition, “Preposition-Noun Combinations”). Thus the moment must be followed by at which.

There is actually another possibility. One could also say the moment when. This when looks like a return of the question word – but it is not. It makes an adjective phrase (describing moment) rather than a noun one. It is technically called a “relative adverb”. Some other simple question words can also be used as relative adverbs, particularly where and why. Indeed, place where and reason why are practically the norm, preferred to place in which and reason for which. Confusingly, though, *way how is not the norm: way in which must be used instead!

Replacing a question word that is not an adverb still usually necessitates who or which or that, but without a preposition. Consider in the following how a noun might replace who in Who needs special attention?

(e) Teachers must know…

A suitable “noun” might be those, the learners or the students. With all of them, the next word needs to be the relative pronoun who (or need with -ing added – see 52. Participles Placed Just after their Noun). If the above question had what instead of who, one could say the area that needs… (or needing…).

One exceptional situation where a relative pronoun is unnecessary is that illustrated by (c) above, where the replacement noun can be used by itself. Another is where the question word we are seeking to avoid is how + ADJ, e.g. how old. Instead, the corresponding noun tends to have a following of. Thus, the equivalent of how successful/useful is X? is the success/usefulness of X. These contrast markedly with noun equivalents of adverbial how combinations like how often and how freely, which are just like noun equivalents of other adverbial question words: the frequency/freedom with which .

184. Adjectives with Restricted Positioning

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Some adjectives can only occupy one of the two common adjective positions

ADJECTIVE USES & LIMITATIONS

English adjectives can be used in a variety of ways. Normally they need an accompanying noun, but sometimes this is absent (see 6/102. Adjectives with no Noun 1/2). With an accompanying noun, adjectives can go either directly in front of it or after with a link verb like BE in between (cp. that important topic versus that topic is/seems important). In a few exceptional cases, they can follow their noun without any verb in between (see 109. Placing an Adjective after its Noun).

This post is about the second of these possibilities, the standard positions of adjectives relative to an accompanying noun. The reason why these need some examination is that they are not a possibility for all adjectives: some adjectives go only in front of their noun, some go only after with a link verb in between, and some change their meaning according to which position they are in. I wish to illustrate each of these categories and to list adjectives within them that seem most likely to occur in professional writing.

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ADJECTIVES THAT MUST PRECEDE THEIR NOUN

Adjectives of this kind – technically called “attributive” – cannot be used alone after verbs like BE, BECOME, REMAIN and SEEM. The word “alone” is important here because many can actually follow their noun if they have the pronoun one(s) after them (…is a…one). The following are common subtypes of attributive adjectives.

1. Quantity Adjectives

These include precise number words (one, two, etc.) and vaguer ones like few, many, more and several (numerous, though, is not always attributive). They cannot follow their noun by combining with one(s). An error commonly made by speakers whose mother tongue is not English is illustrated by sentences like the following:

(a) *The participants were ten.

The most common correct way to give this kind of information is by starting with there and placing the noun at the end after the number word (see 161. Special Uses of “There” Sentences):

(b) There were ten participants.

If the “noun” is actually a pronoun, incorrect sentences like *We are ten can again be avoided by starting with there and placing the pronoun at the end, but this time after of: There are ten of us. The reason why of is needed is that pronouns are considered to be like nouns with the, which always have of in front after a quantity word (see 160. Uses of “of”, #5).

There is actually one exceptional situation where the word order illustrated by (a) is possible. This is with the words in number added after the quantity word (…were ten in number). It is likely to be necessary when emphasis needs to be given to the fact that a quantity is being named.

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2. Time Adjectives

Time-referring adjectives that are always attributive include former, latter, past, previous, eventual, ultimate and future. Consider this:

(c) A former president still has political influence.

You could not say *If a president is former (though you could say …is a former one).

There are a number of other time adjectives that are not purely attributive but in the non-attributive position change their meaning (see below).

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3. Priority Adjectives

These adjectives assert the meaning of their noun to be something of maximum importance (not necessarily quality), or even the only one in existence. The main ones include chief, leading, lone, main, major, only, principal, sole and utmost. Primary may be becoming less purely attributive, being found occasionally after BE.

Priority adjectives need to be distinguished from adjectives indicating high quality rather than importance – e.g. special, outstanding, unique – which can go in any position. Note particularly the non-equivalence of unique and only/sole.

Although chief and principal cannot usually be used alone after a verb like BE, they can be placed in this position if they are followed by certain preposition phrases like …among them, …in line or …in importance. Indeed, combinations like this can even start a sentence.

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4. Other Adjectives

Notable here are mere, utter, upper, very and adverse. The first two indicate the user’s belief about the size or importance of the noun idea. For example, a mere boy indicates a belief that boyhood is of minimal status, and an utter fool asserts the foolishness in question to have maximum status.

Upper always refers to the top end of things (unlike higher, which can refer to places near the bottom too). Common partner nouns are atmosphere, body, class, crust, Egypt, floor, level, limit, parts, ranks, reaches and storey. Note also the idiom has the upper hand (= is in an advantageous position). Upper can be made to follow its noun by adding the/an…one (…is the upper one). You cannot say *is up instead (see 154. Lone Prepositions after BE).

Very is an attributive adjective in expressions like the very beginning/end and the very place. It means “exact” and always needs the. Adverse means “unfavourable”. The nouns it precedes are rather predictable, common examples being circumstances, effects and publicity (see 105. Tricky Word Contrasts 6, #6).

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ADJECTIVES THAT CANNOT PRECEDE THEIR NOUN

Some adjectives are unable to precede their noun merely because of surrounding grammar – especially subsequent words that clarify their meaning. For example, anxious in anxious about their jobs cannot go before employees, but by itself it can (see 109. Placing an Adjective after its Noun, #2). Of more interest here are adjectives that cannot ever go before their noun. Technically they are called “predicative”.

A major group of purely predicative adjectives begins with a-. Common examples are ablaze, adrift, afloat, afraid, ajar, alight, alike, alive, alone, aloof, ashamed, askew, asleep, averse, aware and awash (for more on averse, see 175. Tricky Word Contrasts 6, #6). Most of these indicate a temporary state.

Alive and alone mean the same as the similarly-spelt live and lone, which are not predicative and can replace them before a noun (e.g. an animal that is alive = a live animal). Other useful non-predicative synonyms are frightened for afraid and sleeping for asleep.

Also predicative are ill (mostly), unwell and well.

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ADJECTIVES THAT CHANGE THEIR MEANING ACCORDING TO THEIR POSITION

This group is probably the largest of the three. Some can be listed under the same headings as above.

1. Time Adjectives

Early and late suggest to most people the meanings of before and after a deadline. With these meanings, they can go either before or after their noun (early trains/trains are early). However, before their noun they can also mean “near the start/end of history” (as in early/late architecture), and the late means “deceased” (the late John Kennedy).

Current in the sense of “happening now” seems usable both before and after its noun (current works/works are current). However, when the meaning is merely “existing now” (the current President), the pre-noun usage is mandatory. Present with this meaning must also precede its noun, but is compulsorily predicative when meaning “not absent”.

Old and new meaning “previous” and “latest” go only before their noun, but when meaning “not young” and “freshly made” can go after as well.

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2. Priority Adjectives

Of especial interest are the so-called “ordinal” numbers, first, second, third etc., plus last. Used with the, they indicate a position in time or priority (the first event, the third reason), and can go either before or after their noun. Without the, however, they indicate rank in a competition, and must follow the noun (…was fifth).

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3. Degree Adjectives

There are a number of synonyms of utter (cf. 4 above) which change their meaning when used after their noun. Most can also have this other meaning in front of a noun. Common ones (alternative meanings in brackets) include absolute (not relative), complete (without omissions), pure (unmixed), real (authentic), sheer (high and perpendicular) and true (accurate, loyal). Very similar is sure, which means “definite” before its noun (e.g. a sure criminal) and “not doubting” after it (criminals who are sure).

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4. Specialization Adjectives

This category is not listed above because it seems to have few members that are purely attributive or predicative. Most have one meaning that can exist in either predicative or attributive position, and another associated only with the attributive position. The word “specialization” refers to this attributive-only usage, which indicates the area of special concern of the person or thing being described.

An example of this usage is industrial plants, plants “specializing in industry” (for more on plants, see 81. Tricky Word Contrasts 2, #8). By contrast, industrial in industrial processes means “with industrial characteristics”, and can follow a link verb.

Other adjectives like this are similarly derived from nouns. They include chemical, criminal, legal, medical, nuclear and social. Thus, a medical school specializes in medicine, whereas a medical condition (or a condition that is medical) merely has medical characteristics.

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5. Focus Adjectives

This group includes certain, exact, individual, particular and precise. They single out a following noun idea from a group of similar possibilities. For example, certain criminals can indicate a subgroup of criminals (one whose identity is unimportant), and precise amounts can mean “the amounts (among all possible amounts) that I have in mind”.

This kind of meaning exists only when the adjective is attributive. An alternative meaning is also possible in this position, and is the only possibility after the noun. Thus, certain criminals could also mean “criminals who lack doubt”, and criminals who are certain exclusively means this. Similarly, precise and exact after a noun mean “accurate”, individual means “different” and particular means “fussy”.

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6. Other Adjectives

The following are notable (A = Attributive; P = Predicative):

poor = deserving pity (A), lacking money (A, P)

sorry = wretched (A), remorseful (A, P) (see also 48. Tricky Word Contrasts 1, #6)

ready = available (A), prepared (P)

183. Parenthetical Statements

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Parenthetical statements either mark the rest of their sentence as indirect speech or comment on it

KEY CHARACTERISTICS

Parentheses in writing are usually shown by special punctuation around them. The strongest kind has two brackets, the next strongest two dashes (or a dash and a full stop), and the weakest two commas (or a comma and a full stop). This double punctuation reflects a key characteristic of parentheses, their separateness from the main structure of their sentence: if they are left out, there will still normally be a grammatically possible sentence (as defined in 30. When to Write a Full Stop).

Parentheses vary in both length and grammatical form. Those that are statements include a verb and subject noun (or equivalent), often by themselves. These features are by no means the norm – there are many types of parenthesis without them (see 50. Right and Wrong Comma Places). The verb in a parenthetical statement will not be the only one in the sentence – it cannot be if the words outside the parenthesis are able to stand alone as a sentence.

Normally, when an extra verb is added to a sentence, a “joining device” must also be added – otherwise the new verb makes a new sentence (see 30. When to Write a Full Stop). However, parenthetical statements only sometimes have a joining device. They must have one (who, whom, whose or which) if they are “non-defining relative clauses” (see 34. Relative Pronouns and Commas). Elsewhere, however, they often have no joining device. There is none in the following example (verbs in capitals):

(a) Too much money, one COULD ARGUE, IS COMING into sport.

Here, the parenthesis is in the middle of the sentence, but it could also be placed at the end, the full stop replacing the second comma.  In a few cases (though not here) it could also be at the start, with a comma after.

Parenthetical statements like that in (a) are themselves divisible into two main types: those that convert the main part of the sentence into indirect speech and those that resemble sentence adverbs.

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PARENTHETICAL STATEMENTS WITH INDIRECT SPEECH

1. General Features

This is the kind of parenthetical statement that is illustrated in sentence (a) above. The existence of indirect speech is shown by the fact that the meaning is similar if the parenthesis words are moved to the start and combined with the main statement in a typical indirect speech structure, in this case by means of a following that (One could argue that… – see 127. When to Use Indirect Speech). Also notable when a parenthesis indicates indirect-speech is the tendency of its verb to be a typical indirect speech one (see 150. Verbs with Indirect Speech).

When the indirect speech shown by a parenthetical statement is a question, all of the features of direct questions are kept except quotation marks:

(b) Who was responsible, everyone wondered, for these atrocities?

If the words in this parenthesis are moved to the start, the comma after them must usually be dropped and the normal features of indirect questions, including the non-use of a question mark, must be introduced (see 57. Indirect Questions in Formal Writing).

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2. Uses

The uses of indirect speech expressed with a parenthetical statement are broadly the same as those of indirect speech formed in the ordinary way. The common reporting use is illustrated in sentence (b), a report of something said or thought by everyone. In sentence (a), on the other hand, where one could argue refers to the writer, there is no report – the main message is being expressed for the first time. Instead, the indirect speech is characterising the message as an opinion (see 127. When to Use Indirect Speech).

In the following example, there is again no report:

(c) Whereabouts, could you tell me, is the library?

Here, indirect speech is chosen for the sake of politeness (see 57. Indirect Questions in Formal Writing).

Indirect speech created by a parenthetical statement is probably not as common as the ordinary kind. I would suggest the following reasons for preferring it.

A major special use seems to be to give more prominence to the indirect speech – to focus on it rather than its reporting. This is suggested by the different grammatical form of the indirect speech compared to the ordinary kind. Ordinary indirect speech is what grammarians call “subordinated”: forming a part of a statement made by the words around it – usually the object (see 153. Conjunction Uses of “that”). The subordination is indicated by special link words (“subordinators”): that with statements, question words like whether with questions, and infinitive verbs with commands. For more on the link between subordination and message importance, see 37. Subordination and 156. Mentioning what the Reader Knows Already.

Indirect speech signalled by a parenthetical statement, on the other hand, is not subordinated – no subordinators are visible or understood. Moreover, although the parenthetical statement may also not be subordinated, it sometimes is, usually by means of the conjunction as. This word could be added in (a), but not in (b) or (c), perhaps because they are indirect questions. However, even where the parenthesis lacks a subordinator, the absence of one with the indirect speech still makes that much more prominent than it would be in the ordinary form.

A second possible reason for preferring to signal indirect speech with a parenthetical statement is to remind the reader of a previously-reported speaker. The way this might happen is illustrated by the following:

(d) Jones (2017, p. 62) argues for higher taxes.  A remorseless, decades-long push for lower taxes has, Jones writes, brought the current level of taxation to an unacceptably low level.

Thirdly, a parenthetical statement might be useful when a speaker has begun a statement without making it indirect and then realises that an indirect form might be more advisable. Parenthetical statements are useful in this situation because of their ability to be added late in a sentence. They would be particularly utilised in speech – e.g. (c) above – where unplanned word ordering is more usual.

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3. Role of “as”

Clear explanations of when and why as might be suitable with a parenthetical statement are hard to find. There seems no doubt, though, that the indirect speech must be a report, most likely in statement form. One possible use – perhaps applicable in (d) above – might be to associate a reported statement as much with the writer as with its originator, suggesting “I say/ask this just as X does”. Another possible use – reporting data sources rather than published writers – is described in detail in the Guinlist post 104. Naming Data Sources with “As”.

A common grammar error to avoid with this kind of as is using it alongside that rather than instead (see 79. Grammar Problems in Quotation Writing and 133. Confusions of Similar Structures 1, #4).

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4. Form Variation

Parenthetical verbs often follow I, we or you – undesirable words in formal writing (see 46. How to Avoid “I”, “We” and “You”). They can be avoided with one or it. Sentence (a) above illustrates one used instead of I think. To use it, the verb must normally be passive, e.g. it can be argued… in (a) (see 107. The Language of Opinions). However, some verbs rule out the passive. How might it be used in the following?

(e) Nobody else, we believe, has tried this method before.

One could here use it seems likely or the indications are or just the parenthetical adverb apparently.

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OTHER PARENTHETICAL STATEMENTS

Where parenthetical statements do not signal indirect speech, the verb usually expresses speaking or thinking by the author of the sentence, and has the -ing (participle) form:

(f) Speaking as economists, we have to disagree.

Verbs used like this will often lack an object noun. Common alternatives to speaking are arguing, reasoning, thinking and writing.

Parenthetical participles at the start of a sentence can seem very similar to most other participles (i.e. those whose implied subject is not I/we) in the same position. However, they seem more able to combine with a main verb possessing a different subject from theirs, as in the following:

(g) Speaking honestly, inflation has to be controlled.

For details of the normal constraints on using a participle at the start of a sentence, see 75. How to Avoid “Dangling” Participles.

Another characteristic of parenthetical statements made with a participle is their close resemblance to certain adverbs of the “sentence” variety, which say something about all of their sentence’s message, rather than just some (see 121. Sentence-Spanning Adverbs #2). Indeed, some of the adverbs that speaking or its equivalents can combine with – e.g. bluntly, clearly, frankly, honestly, plainly – are actually also usable alone to the same effect.

In a few cases, the verb in a parenthetical statement like (f) and (g) is in the infinitive form (with to), and not a participle:

(h) Modern sport is, to put it mildly, all about money.

It seems to be the choice of verb that determines whether or not to can be used. PUT IT can have either to or -ing (and can even be a “past” participle without IT – put mildly above). Other verbs commonly used with to include BE, MENTION, and STATE. After to be, various adjectives are common, especially blunt, critical, exact, fair, frank, honest, plain, precise, sure and truthful.

Some other verbs are used with to only in fixed expressions, notably to say the least, to name but a few and to tell the truth.

182. Structures with a Double Meaning 2

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Some grammar structures are able to be understood in more than one way, just like some words

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THE NATURE AND IMPORTANCE OF DOUBLE-MEANING STRUCTURES

Language structures are the result of combining meaningful parts of a message together according to grammatical rules. They can exist in single words, but this post, like the earlier one 124. Structures with a Double Meaning 1, is about multi-word ones. Those that can be understood in two or more different ways are relatively rare, but they are useful to know about for both reading and writing. They may be illustrated by the combination of BE and an -ing verb (e.g. is considering), which could be taken as a use of either the present continuous tense or as a form of BE with a noun-like complement (see 69. How Computers Get Grammar Wrong 2 and 71. Gerund and Participle Uses of “-ing”).

The aim of this post is to offer a further list of fairly common multi-word structures with variable meanings. Some of them are also mentioned in other posts, but having them all together in one place seems worthwhile. Guinlist posts on individual words with multiple meanings include 3. Multi-Use Words,  7. Metaphorical Meanings,  11. Homonyms and Homographs121. Sentence-Spanning Adverbs and 176. Ways of Using GO.
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LIST  OF DOUBLE-MEANING STRUCTURES

1. “Going to…”

Most English courses have plenty to say about the use of BE GOING TO for expressing the future, especially how it differs in meaning from will (for one aspect of this question within these pages, see 147. Types of Future Meaning, #1). However, not all uses of BE GOING TO express a simple future. Consider this:

(a) Many people travelled to holy places. Most were going to pray.

One way of understanding were going to here is in the expected way as a subtle alternative to would, the past equivalent of will. In this interpretation, the second sentence is just a statement of future destiny. However, one could also interpret were going as an ordinary use of GO, similar in meaning to were travelling. The subsequent to would then be understood as purpose-showing, helping to say why the travelling was taking place (see 35. “to do” versus “to doing” and 60. Purpose Sentences with “for”).

There are two conditions for the existence of this double meaning. One is the suggestion of a destination – made here in the sentence before – in order to open up the possibility of going to meaning “travelling”. The possible involvement of a destination after going in (a) can be “proved” by the fact that there could be added to represent it. The other condition for the double meaning is that the meaning of the to verb could logically be a purpose in the sentence in question.

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2. “A belief that…”

The potential for double meanings here results from the ability of that to be understood either as a relative pronoun meaning “which” or as a conjunction introducing indirect speech (see 153. Conjunction Uses of “that”). Consider this:

(b) There is a belief that nothing changes.

If that is a relative pronoun here, it is the object of changes, so that the sentence tells us not what is believed but that nothing changes the indicated belief. On the other hand, if that is a conjunction, we are being told what is believed, namely the absence of change.

Two conditions must be met for this kind of double meaning to be understood. Firstly, the noun before that must be the kind that allows a conjunction use of this word as well as a relative pronoun one. Many nouns do not. Those that do often express ways of speaking or thinking – rather like verbs before indirect speech (see 150. Verbs with Indirect Speech). Belief, for example, is a way of thinking, related to the verb BELIEVE. Other examples are advice, idea, impression, message, statement and thought.

Other nouns that allow a conjunction use of that are hard to characterise in a general way. Examples are advantage, problem and possibility. For more see the post on that.

The second condition for a double meaning is that the verb after that (changes above) must be of the special kind usable both with and without an object (see 4. Verbs that don’t have to be Passive). CHANGE is a verb of this kind because we can say that education either changes lives or simply changes (= undergoes change to itself). Similar verbs include DEVELOP, END, INCREASE and MOVE.

The reason why the verb after that must be like this is that one of the two meanings (“unchangeable belief”) involves recognising an object and the other (“belief in no change”) does not. If we recognise an object, it is that used as a pronoun (representing the earlier noun belief); if we do not, that has its conjunction use.

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3. “More difficult decisions”

This double meaning results from the multi-use nature of more. We can understand more as going either with decisions, indicating “more decisions of a difficult kind”, or with difficult, indicating “decisions of a more difficult kind”. These alternative interpretations are likely to exist whenever more accompanies an adjective whose comparative form is made with it rather than with -er, and the next word is a plural or uncountable noun.

The technical grammar explanation is that more is usable as different kinds of word, including as an adverb, associated with a following adjective like difficult, and like an adjective, associated with a following uncountable or plural noun. If you place more before both an adjective and an uncountable or plural noun, then the two uses are hard to separate. Note that before a singular countable noun no such problem exists: in a more difficult decision, for example, more can only be making the comparative form of difficult.

Unlike many double-meaning structures, this one seems to frequently resist the ability of context to make the intended meaning clear. As a result I personally quite often rephrase it altogether in order to prevent confusion. When more links with the following noun, I find additional a useful alternative. When the link is with an adjective, I might seek an adjective synonym that allows an -er comparative, or use the paraphrase NOUN of a more ADJ kind.

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4. “Make people tools”

This could mean either “cause people to be tools” or “manufacture tools for people”. In the first case, people is the object of make, and tools describes them. Grammatically tools is an “object complement” – a noun that make establishes as a description of its object (see 92. Complement-Showing “as”).

In the second case, tools is the object of make, and people is an “indirect” object – the beneficiary or recipient of the object with the implied preposition for (see 126. Verbs with an Indirect Object).

The double meaning is made possible by the fact that MAKE, unlike most verbs, can be used with two directly-following nouns in both object-complement and indirect-object sentences (see 141. Ways of Using MAKE). However, not all instances of MAKE with two nouns have a double meaning; this only happens when specific types of noun are involved. The first one must usually represent something living (in order to allow the indirect object meaning); the second must have the alternative meanings of either something one has or something one is.

The word tools can very obviously mean something one has, but it can also metaphorically mean something one is: people are said to be tools when they are manipulated by other people. Such metaphorical usage is common in expressions like the one in question, but not inevitable: it seems to be absent, for example, in make their friends enemies, which means either “cause their friends to be their enemies” or “create some enemies for their friends”.

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5. “a need to meet”

The double meaning here concerns what is met: a need or other people. In the first case, need is the object of meet and the phrase means “a need that has to be met”. In the second the object of meet is an implicit “someone”, so we understand “a need to meet someone”.

The structure essentially comprises a noun (here need) followed directly by a to verb. It commonly follows have, though a few other verbs, especially there is, are also found. The first meaning, with the noun the object of the to verb, is the default: most nouns can be followed by a to verb of which they are the object. Other examples are work to do, bills to pay and problems to solve (see 116. Rarer Uses of HAVE, final paragraph).

The second meaning becomes possible when the noun is a special one that can directly precede a to verb of which it is not the object. Besides need, such nouns include command, duty, refusal, time, way and wish. However, even with nouns like this, the to verb will often have a visible separate object, as in a need to meet some friends, so that the double meaning is ruled out.

Where this does not happen is when the verb is “object-dropping” like MEET, DRIVE (a vehicle), EAT (food), LOSE (a contest), READ (a book), SMOKE (tobacco) or WRITE (script) (see 8. Object-Dropping Errors). Other double-meaning expressions that these can make include no time to lose (“no time that can be lost” vs. “not enough time for defeat to happen”), a way to follow (“a way that has to be followed” vs. “a way of following something”), a command to read and a wish to write.

181. Expressing Possibility

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The word “possible” hides a variety of sub-meanings that other words may express more precisely

THE HIDDEN COMPLEXITY OF POSSIBILITY IN ENGLISH

At first sight, there does not seem to be much of a problem with expressing the idea of possibility in English: it is a seemingly single idea with numerous linguistic realizations to choose from. The problem, however, is that these realizations are not all interchangeable: different situations require different choices to be made.

In most cases, it appears that this difference between forms is one of meaning – that the idea of “possibility” actually covers a range of sub-meanings, rather like various other common grammar terms analysed within this blog, such as “necessity”“existence”, “joining” and “conditional”. The result is that, in order to make the right linguistic choice in the expression of possibility, one must know and understand the various sub-meanings that it can convey.

In this post I wish to explore what these sub-meanings might be, along with the typical ways of expressing them. The outcome, I hope, will be a fairly complete overview of how and why the expression of possibility can vary in English. The first sections below deal with meanings and uses of the words possible and possibility, while the last examines some of their synonyms.

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USES OF “POSSIBLE”

The fundamental meaning of the adjective possible is “able to happen” or “able to exist”. When this adjective is used in the ordinary way to describe a nearby noun, various sub-meanings are common. Consider the following:

(a) The dollar is one possible currency; the yen is another.

(b) Time travel is possible.

(c) Snow is possible (today).

In (a), possible does not mean much more than “alternative”, suggesting the idea of choice. It may describe both abstract alternatives (actions, beliefs, outcomes etc.) and concrete ones (e.g. books).

Sentence (b) asserts that something (time travel) has the potential to be done or exist, but says nothing about when. It is a statement of absolute possibility.

Sentence (c) is also about potential to exist, but at a particular future time (the absolute possibility of snow is taken for granted). Since a potential for non-existence at this time is also indicated, the overall meaning can be summed up as likelihood. The implied strength of the likelihood is not great – more like that of perhaps than of probably. This use of possible and its related adverb possibly is common in predictions and opinions (see 96. Hedging 2: Lists & Predictions107. The Language of Opinions,  121. Sentence-Spanning Adverbs [#3] and 147. Types of Future Meaning).

In addition to these simple uses, possible has some more complex ones involving various specific following words. One such word is the to of infinitive verbs, e.g.:

(d) It is possible to travel in time.

Starting with it like this seems a common way of making a possible to sentence (for some likely reasons, see 103. Postponed Subjects in “It” Sentences). The possibility in (d) is an absolute one like in (b), but elsewhere possible to might indicate an alternative like in (a).

Quite often, before an infinitive like to travel one finds for and a subject noun. Possible to then acquires new meaning. Compare the following with (d):

(e) It is possible for most birds to fly.

(f) It is possible for graduates to undertake further study.

For here says that the possibility is not absolute, but is associated only with the someone or something that is mentioned next: most birds in (e) and graduates in (f).

Associating a possibility with someone or something specific like this seems to cause other sub-meanings of possibility to be understood. Sentence (e) illustrates the sub-meaning of ability – it is easily paraphrasable with the words have the ability to. Sentence (f), on the other hand, illustrates the sub-meaning of opportunity or even permission. Unlike (e), it could be paraphrased with have the opportunity to or are allowed to.

I see the difference between ability and opportunity/permission to lie in the source of the possibility. Ability is possibility sourced from within – the person or thing associated with the possibility is also its source. For example, the ability of birds to fly comes from something that is part of them – their wings. Opportunity and permission, on the other hand, are possibility sourced from outside – the source is not in the person or thing associated with the possibility. For example, the opportunity of graduates to undertake further study comes from other people’s rules. Possessing a degree is necessary but not sufficient.

Sometimes possible is followed by for without a subsequent to verb. The to-verb meaning is then usually expressed by the subject of the sentence, as in these rephrasings of (e) and (f):

(g) Flight is possible for most birds.

(h) Further study is possible for graduates.

Sentences like these seem to keep the same sub-meanings as (e) and (f).

Another common word after possible is that (see 153. Conjunction Uses of “that”). Again, there is often a starting it:

(i) It is possible that life exists on other planets.

In this kind of sentence, the ideas of ability and opportunity are not present; and of the other possibility meanings, that of likelihood seems predominant, even though no particular time is being referred to – (i) is more like (c) than (b). This implies a possible grammar rule: to express absolute possibility alone, use the structure …is possible, or It is possible to…; but to express some likelihood of an absolute possibility, use it is possible that….

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USES OF “POSSIBILITY”

Like possible, the noun possibility can be used either by itself or with a typical following word (explicit or implicit). It is often used by itself within the phrase is a possibility:

(j) Time travel (or Snow or The dollar) is a possibility.

As the alternative subjects show, the meanings of absolute possibility, likelihood and alternative are all possible. One of these – alternative – can also be used as the subject of BE, like this:

(k) One possibility is the dollar.

The typical following words of possibility are of and that (never to – see 78. Infinitive versus Preposition after Nouns). With these, possibility can occupy any of the normal noun positions in a sentence, but is especially common after There is:

(l) There is a possibility of snow/time travel.

(m) There is a possibility that it will snow.

As these suggest, adding of can express either absolute possibility or likelihood, while adding that expresses only likelihood. Sentence (m) is very similar to (i) – indeed, it could be paraphrased with a starting It is possible…. More on the similarity of It and There sentences is in 161. Special Uses of “There” Sentences.

The sub-meanings of ability and opportunity or permission are less common with possibility than possible. This is because the verb HAVE, the natural choice for linking these meanings with their possessor, typically does so with other nouns than possibility as its object: ability or opportunity/chance or permission. Thus, paraphrasing sentence (e) with have requires the object the ability to fly, not *the possibility of flying; and (f) would probably say have the chance to undertake….

Perhaps the most acceptable use of possibility after HAVE is to express likelihood, e.g.:

(n) The hypothesis has a possibility of being correct.

However, even here chance seems equally if not more natural.

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OTHER POSSIBILITY WORDS

1. Synonyms of “Possible” and “Possibility”

Many adjectives express the idea of possibility through the suffix -able (or -ible). For example, acceptable means that accepting is possible, divisible that dividing is. Usually, the part without the suffix corresponds to a passive verb. For more examples, see 27. How to Avoid Passive Verbs and 106. Word-Like Suffixes.

Although it is normally only the suffix that expresses possibility in such words, there are a few instances where the whole word is a synonym of possible. The following adjectives seem at least sometimes able to express one or other of its meanings.

ALTERNATIVE: available, usable

LIKELY TO SOME DEGREE: feasible, potential

ABSOLUTELY POSSIBLE: achievable, conceivable, feasible, imaginable, real, viable

ABLE TO BE DONE BY SB/STH: achievable, viable

EXISTING AS AN OPPORTUNITY: achievable, available, open

ALLOWED: allowed, permitted

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On the other hand, possibility has at least the following noun synonyms:

ALTERNATIVE: an alternative, choice, option

LIKELIHOOD: a potential (+ for)

ABSOLUTE POSSIBILITY: a reality

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2. Modal Verbs

Can and/or may seem able to express all of the above meanings. The possibilities are:

ALTERNATIVE: can (Cars can go left or right)

LIKELY TO SOME DEGREE: may (It may snow)

ABSOLUTELY POSSIBLE: can (Mars can be reached)

ABLE TO BE DONE BY SB/STH: can (Most birds can fly)

EXISTING AS AN OPPORTUNITY: can (Travellers can learn languages)

ALLOWED: can, may (Only members can/may enter)

Can and may can express other meanings too, but these are arguably not types of possibility. For example, can occasionally means “sometimes”, e.g. Cold can kill (see 95. Hedging 1, under “Hedging the Broadness of Generalizations”).

May is not the only modal verb that can express likelihood: others are more precise about its degree. Could and might express a small (< 50%) degree, will perhaps a 50% one, and may well or will probably a large one.

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3. Other Verbs

When “possibility” means “ability”, “opportunity” or “permission”, various other verbs are alternatives to can and may. BE ABLE TO and BE CAPABLE OF can directly replace ability-showing can.

Verbs like ALLOW, ENABLE, FACILITATE, LET and PERMIT need to be passive to have the holder of the possibility as their subject (Cars are permitted to…), but can also make it the object of their active form (The law permits cars to…). For full details of their usage, see 65. Verbs that Mean “Must” or “Can”.