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Last updated at 19:09 GMT, Tuesday, 02 November 2010


A couple in bed

It was unlikely that Sarah knew that her boyfriend was a criminal when she first met him

A question from Daniela in Italy:
In English there are many verbs to express possibility or probability, such as may, might, and could. I am very uncertain how to use the form "to be likely to". Which degree of probability does it express?

Gareth Rees answers:

Click below to hear the answer:

Hello Daniela. Thank you for your question concerning the use of the phrase 'to be likely to'.

As you say, we use this phrase to talk about the possibility of something happening, and we often use it to refer to possible future events. For example:

  • 'The American swimmer is likely to win the race tomorrow.'
  • 'They are likely to ask you about your knowledge of computers in the interview, so you should prepare for that.'

When we use this phrase, we are saying that we are confident that something will happen, but of course we are not one hundred percent certain. We think something is very possible, but we also know that we can't be totally sure.

The opposite of likely is unlikely, and I think that this phrase, 'to be unlikely to', is used more often, perhaps because people are rather pessimistic about the future. For example:

  • 'I think it is unlikely that England will win the football World Cup.'
  • 'I am unlikely to pass my exams this year.'

In these examples, the speaker is nearly certain that something won't happen.

Finally, I have talked about future events, but the phrase 'to be likely' or 'unlikely to' can be used to refer to past and present time. You simply need to change the form of the verb 'to be'. For example:

  • 'It was unlikely that Sarah knew that her boyfriend was a criminal when she first met him.'

I hope that has answered your question. While you continue to study English, you are likely to have other questions. If so, please write to us at BBC Learning English again for help. Good luck.

About Gareth Rees

Gareth Rees

Gareth Rees has a BA (hons) in History and Philosophy of Science, CTEFLA, and DELTA. He has taught EFL, EAP and Business English in China, Spain and England, and he is the co-author of the Language Leader Elementary and Pre-Intermediate English language course books (Pearson Longman). He currently teaches English in the Language Centre at the University of the Arts, London.


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