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0921 Describing Chance and Probability

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Welcome to English as a Second Language Podcast number 921 – Describing Chance and Probability.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast episode 920. I'm your host, Dr. Jeff McQuillan, coming to you from the Center for Educational Development in beautiful Los Angeles, California.

This episode, like all of our episodes, has a Learning Guide. You can download it at ESLPod.com.

This episode is a dialogue that’s going to give us some of the vocabulary we use in talking about taking a chance or how likely something is – what we call “probability.” Let’s get started.

[start of dialogue]

Raul: What are the chances that Rob will be here on time?

Tiffany: I’d say it’s fifty-fifty. You never know. He might surprise us and be early.

Raul: Fat chance of that happening. I’ve known him for three years, and if I had to stake my life on whether he’ll arrive early or not, I’d be in big trouble.

Tiffany: Don’t exaggerate. Rob isn’t completely irresponsible. I’d say there’s a pretty good probability that he’ll be here when he said he would, especially after he promised.

Raul: His intentions are good, but he loses track of time and doesn’t know what day it is half the time.

Tiffany: He told me that he’s trying to change.

Raul: Well, as I said, his intentions are good. He just needs to work on his follow-through.

Tiffany: Come on, he could be on his way right now.

Raul: Don’t hold your breath. I’ll believe his promises when hell freezes over.

Tiffany: Aren’t you being just a wee bit cynical?

Raul: And aren’t you just indulging in wishful thinking?

Tiffany: Hey, I think that’s him coming down the road! I think you’d better eat your words.

Raul: And I think you’d better get glasses.

[end of dialogue]

Raul says to Tiffany, “What are the chances that Rob will be here on time?” “What are the chances” means “How likely is it?” What is the probability that Rob will be here on time? Normally, when we talk about the chances or the probability, people give a percentage – how likely something is to happen. For example, the people who try to forecast the weather, who try to say whether it’s going to rain tomorrow or not, usually give the chance of rain in a percentage. “There’s a 50 percent chance it will rain tomorrow,” or “There’s an 80 percent chance that it will rain tomorrow.” Tiffany says – in talking about the chances of Rob being here on time, she says – “I’d say it’s 50-50.” “50-50” means it could be that he shows up on time or not. There’s an equal probability.

Tiffany says, “You never know. He might surprise us and be early.” Raul doesn’t believe this, however. He says, “Fat chance of that happening.” The expression “fat (fat) chance” is an informal one which means something is very unlikely, almost impossible. It’s a very informal expression. It has nothing to do with someone being fat, someone being overweight. It just means that there is not a very good chance. In fact, it’s almost impossible. If my friend says to me, “I’m going to walk over to that woman and ask for her phone number.” And I say to him, “Fat chance,” which means she is not going to give you her phone number, maybe her email address. I guess people give out email addresses now. I don’t know.

Anyway, Raul says, “I’ve known him” – I’ve known Rob” – “for three years, and if I had to stake my life on whether he’ll arrive early or not, I’d be in big trouble.” The expression “to stake (stake) your life on something” means to be completely sure of something, so sure that you would die if you were wrong. That’s how sure you are. You’re saying, “You can kill me if I’m not correct,” in a way. “I’ll stake my life on something” means “I’m absolutely sure that this is true.” Raul, however, is saying that “If I had to stake my life on this fact – that Rob will arrive early – I would be in big trouble. If that situation were true, I would be in a lot of trouble. I would be in big trouble. I would have a lot of problems.”
Tiffany says, “Don’t exaggerate.” “To exaggerate” means to make something seem more important, or larger, or worse than it really is. Raul is saying that there is no chance that Rob will arrive early. Tiffany says, “Don’t exaggerate. Rob isn’t completely irresponsible.” “To be irresponsible” means to be not responsible, to not worry about the negative consequences of your actions. That would be “irresponsible.” “Rob is not completely irresponsible,” Tiffany says. “I’d say there’s a pretty good probability” – a pretty good chance – “that he’ll be here when he said he would, especially after he promised,” or especially because he promised to be here on time.

Raul says, “His intentions are good.” Rob’s “intentions” are the things that he plans on doing. Your “intentions” are your plans – what you want to do, what you are planning on doing. Raul says, “His intentions are good.” He wants to do the right thing. “But he loses track of time and doesn’t know what day it is half the time.” The expression “to lose track (track) of” something means to not be paying attention and then not to know where something is. Normally we use this expression with time, to mean to not know what time it is, to be so involved in some activity that you don’t realize what the time is and often are late for things that you should not be late for. “To lose track of time,” then, means not to know what time it is because you’re so busy doing other things.

Raul says that’s what happens to Rob. “He loses track of time and doesn’t know what day it is.” He doesn’t know if today is Monday or Tuesday or Wednesday. He “doesn’t know what day it is half the time.” The expression “half the time” doesn’t really refer specifically to what time it is. It’s a general expression meaning “usually,” or at least 50 percent of the time. Half the time, I don’t know where my dog is. That means I usually don’t know where he is. Fifty percent of the time, I don’t know where he is. Of course, it would be very difficult for me to lose track of my dog because I don’t own a dog, but if I did own a dog, I probably wouldn’t know where he was half the time.

Tiffany says, “He told me that he’s trying to change.” Raul said, “Well, as I said,” – as I already mentioned – “his intentions are good. He just needs to work on” – to work harder on – “his follow-through.” “Follow-through” (through) means doing what you promised to do. Tiffany says, “Come on. He could be on his way right now.” The expression “come on” here is used to indicate that Tiffany disagrees with Raul. Tiffany thinks Raul is being unreasonable or is exaggerating. Tiffany says, “Rob could be on his way right now.” “To be on your way,” means you are moving in a certain direction. You are travelling in a certain direction.

Raul doesn’t believe, however, that Rob is on his way. He says, “Don’t hold your breath.” This expression, “don’t hold your breath,” means don’t wait for something to happen, because it probably won’t happen. We use this expression, “don’t hold your breath,” when we are saying to someone, “I don’t think you should expect that. I don’t think you should get your hopes up. I don’t think you should be anticipating that happening, because it probably won’t happen.” “To hold your breath,” of course, means not to breathe. So, if you hold your breath for a long time, you will possibly die. So, “don’t hold your breath” means don’t hold your breath until this happens, because it will be a very long time before it does, and then you’ll be dead.

Raul doesn’t believe Rob will be here on time. In fact, he says, “I’ll believe his promises when hell freezes over.” This is an old expression, “when hell freezes over,” that is used to show that you don’t believe this will ever happen. “Hell” is, according to some traditions, a place where you go after you die if you have been evil or bad during your life. “Hell” is very hot. So, for hell to freeze over – for water to freeze in hell – would be basically impossible, because hell is supposed to be a very hot place full of fire and that sort of thing.

There’s a related expression, “a snowball’s chance in hell.” A “snowball” is a round ball made of snow. “A snowball’s chance in hell” would not be very good. In other words, because hell is so hot, the snowball will melt. It doesn’t have a chance. It won’t survive. That’s what it means. Both of these expressions are very informal. You wouldn’t use them in a formal business situation.

Tiffany says, “Aren’t you being just a wee bit cynical?” A “wee (wee) bit (bit)” is an old expression that means a little bit, a tiny amount. It’s often used sarcastically. It’s often used jokingly when someone is actually doing something in a much larger amount or in a much larger way. Tiffany is saying that Raul is being a “wee bit cynical.” What she really means is he’s being very cynical. “To be cynical” (cynical) means not to believe something, especially not to believe that other people are good or have good intentions.

Raul says, “And aren’t you just indulging in wishful thinking?” “To indulge (indulge) in wishful thinking” means to pretend that everything is good, that everything is happy, even when it is not. We do this sometimes so that we don’t get depressed – so that we don’t feel unhappy – but it’s not realistic. It’s not what is actually happening in the world.

Tiffany says, “Hey, I think that’s him coming down the road!” Tiffany thinks she sees Rob walking down the street. Tiffany says, “I think you’d better eat your words.” “To eat your words” is a somewhat odd expression. It means to be forced to admit that you are wrong. This is often used when it’s an embarrassing situation for the person to admit that they’ve made a mistake, that they’re wrong.

Raul, however, at the end of the dialogue still doesn’t believe he’s wrong. He says, “I think you’d better get glasses,” meaning Tiffany is not seeing what she thinks she sees. She needs glasses so that she can see better, and if she had glasses, she would see that it was not Rob who is walking down the road.

Now let’s listen to the dialogue, this time at a normal speed.

[start of dialogue]

Raul: What are the chances that Rob will be here on time?

Tiffany: I’d say it’s fifty-fifty. You never know. He might surprise us and be early.

Raul: Fat chance of that happening. I’ve known him for three years, and if I had to stake my life on whether he’ll arrive early or not, I’d be in big trouble.

Tiffany: Don’t exaggerate. Rob isn’t completely irresponsible. I’d say there’s a pretty good probability that he’ll be here when he said he would, especially after he promised.

Raul: His intentions are good, but he loses track of time and doesn’t know what day it is half the time.

Tiffany: He told me that he’s trying to change.

Raul: Well, as I said, his intentions are good. He just needs to work on his follow-through.

Tiffany: Come on, he could be on his way right now.

Raul: Don’t hold your breath. I’ll believe his promises when hell freezes over.

Tiffany: Aren’t you being just a wee bit cynical?

Raul: And aren’t you just indulging in wishful thinking?

Tiffany: Hey, I think that’s him coming down the road! I think you’d better eat your words.

Raul: And I think you’d better get glasses.

[end of dialogue]

There’s a 99 percent probability that you will learn new vocabulary if you listen to the scripts written by our wonderful scriptwriter, Dr. Lucy Tse.

From Los Angeles, California, I'm Jeff McQuillan. Thank you for listening. Come back and listen to us again right here on ESL Podcast.

English as a Second Language Podcast was written and produced by Dr. Lucy Tse, hosted by Dr. Jeff McQuillan. Copyright 2013 by the Center for Educational Development.

Glossary
chance – probability; likelihood; a measure of how likely it is that something will happen

* What are the chances that they’ll have another girl when they already have four daughters?

fifty-fifty – with two possible outcomes that are equally likely; equally likely to have either result

* The weather reporter said there’s a fifty-fifty chance of rain tomorrow.

fat chance – an informal phrase used to mean that something is very unlikely, almost impossible

* Fat chance that Drake will apologize. He still thinks he did nothing wrong.

to stake (one’s) life on (something) – to be completely sure about something; to so strong believe that something will happen that one is willing to die if one is not right

* I believe she’ll will the election. In fact, I’d stake my life on it.

to exaggerate – to make something seem more extreme that it really is, especially to make something seem bigger or worse than it really is

* Gerald said he has 10 sports cars, but I think he was just exaggerating.

irresponsible – not responsible or accountable; careless and not worried about the negative consequences of one’s actions

* Olga is an irresponsible driver. I would never let her drive my car.

probability – likelihood; odds; a measure of how likely it is that something will happen

* If you fill a hat with seven yellow balls and four blue balls, and then close your eyes and take out one ball, what’s the probability that you’ll pick a blue ball?

intention – what one meant to do or what one planned to do, but not necessarily what actually happened

* Our intention was to help, not to make the situation even worse.

to lose track of time – to not pay attention to what time it is and not realize how much time has already passed, especially when one has an obligation or commitment at a particular time

* Heather and her girlfriends were having so much fun that they lost track of time and didn’t get home until almost 4:30 a.m.

follow-through – an attempt to do what one has promised to do or what one is expected to do

* Yuki has a lot of great ideas, but I won’t get too excited until I see her follow-through during implementation.

on (one’s) way – en route; coming or going to a particular destination, but not yet having arrived

* Please don’t start the meeting without me. I’m on my way and I should be there in just a few minutes.

to not hold (one’s) breath – to not stop breathing while waiting for something to happen, meaning that something will not happen for a long time, if it ever happens at all

* We all hope the economy will start to improve, but we aren’t holding our breath.

when hell freezes over – an expression used to show that one does not believe something will ever happen

* Sure, he’ll pay back the money when hell freezes over.

wee bit – a little bit or a tiny amount, especially when used sarcastically because someone is actually talking about a large amount

* The contractors said the project was a wee bit over budget, but it’s actually more than seven million dollars over budget!

cynical – doubtful; not believing something, especially not believing in the goodness of other people

* When the government does bad things like that, it makes people cynical about politicians and their promises.

to indulge in wishful thinking – to make oneself feel happy or content with optimistic thoughts, assuming that only good things will happen; believing that something will happen as one wants it to happen

* Adam is convinced his business will succeed, but given how many of his competitors have failed, it seems like he’s indulging in wishful thinking.

to eat (one’s) words – to be forced to admit (say) that one was wrong about something, especially when doing so is embarrassing

* Justin never believed his sister would be able to lose the weight, but she did, and now he has to eat his words.

Comprehension Questions
1. Why does Raul say, “Fat chance of that happening”?
a) Because he thinks Rob is too overweight to arrive quickly.
b) Because he doesn’t think Rob will arrive on time.
c) Because he thinks Tiffany is far too cheerful.

2. Why does Raul say, “Don’t hold your breath”?
a) Because Tiffany is speaking too loudly.
b) Because he thinks Tiffany has bad breath.
c) Because he doesn’t think Rob will come soon.

Answers at bottom.

What Else Does It Mean?
on (one’s) way

The phrase “on (one’s) way,” in this podcast, means en route, or coming or going to a particular destination, but not yet having arrived: “If you’re going to arrive late, at least call the doctor’s office and tell the receptionist you’re on your way.” The phrase “out of (one’s) way” means not in the same direction one is going: “If it isn’t out of your way, could you please give me a ride home after work today?” The phrase “in no way” means absolutely not, or under no conditions or circumstances: “Our willingness to give you a few extra days to pay your rent this month in no way means that you’ll be allowed to do so again next month.” Finally, the phrase “make way” means to make room for someone or something to pass by: “Step behind the line and make way for the parade!”

to eat (one’s) words

In this podcast, the phrase “to eat (one’s) words” means to be forced to admit (say) that one was wrong about something, especially when doing so is embarrassing: “At the beginning of the semester, Tina bragged that she’d be able to pass all the tests without studying, but then she got an F on her exam and now she’s having to eat her words.” The phrase “to eat (someone) alive” means to be very angry with someone or to be beaten easily in some type of competition: “When the boss hears the news, she’s going to be in a very bad mood. Stay away from her or she’ll eat you alive!” Or, “If you challenge Ashley to a tennis game, she’ll eat you alive!” Finally, the phrase “to eat (someone) out of house and home” is used humorously to talk about eating a lot of food so that someone doesn’t have anything left: “Their five teenage boys are eating them out of house and home!”

Culture Note
Coin Tosses

In a “coin toss,” a “coin” (a metal piece of money) is “tossed” (thrown gently) into the air so that it “flips” (changes between positions of which side is up) back down and lands with either “heads” (the side of the coin with an image of a famous person) or “tails” (the other side of the coin) showing. While the coin is in the air, one person “calls it” (says whether he or she believes heads or tails will be showing). The person who calls it correctly wins. If the person calls it incorrect, the other person wins.

Because a coin is equally likely to land as heads or tails, a coin toss is considered a “fair” (just; not favoring one person over another) way to make decisions when people disagree on two different “outcomes” (possible results). Many American sports, including football and volleyball, use a coin toss to decide which team will play at which end of the “field” (the flat area where a game is played) or which team gets the ball first. The “NFL” (National Football League) “mints” (creates or prints money) a special coin for each game, and those coins are later sold to “collectors” (people who like to gather objects for sentimental value or for profit).

Some parents and schools encourage children to “resolve disputes” (end arguments) by flipping a coin. On the playground, children often find it easier and faster to accept the results of an “arbitrary” (based on chance) coin toss and go on playing than to resolve a dispute through discussion.

Sometimes adults flip coins for unimportant decisions. For example, if two people share a meal at a restaurant and each offers to pay for the bill, they might flip a coin to determine who actually pays.

Comprehension Answers
1 - b

2 - c