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Talking About Mysteries and the Unknown – Video

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In this lesson, you can learn to talk about mysteries and things we can’t explain.

Do you like a good mystery? Perhaps you read a book, saw a film, or watched a documentary about something which can’t be explained?

Think about the last mystery that had you wondering… what happened there?!

In this lesson, you’ll learn about describing, responding to and speculating about mysteries.

QUIZ: Talking About Mysteries and the Unknown

Test your understanding of the vocabulary you saw in this lesson!

The quiz has 20 questions, and you’ll see your score at the end.

1. An Unsolved Mystery

Talking about the mystery of Dan Cooper - airplane interior

Molly: Ever heard of Dan Cooper? An unknown criminal who hijacked an airplane in the 70s?

Martin: No, never heard of him.

Molly: I just watched a fascinating documentary about him on YouTube. His crime is still one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in US history!

Martin: Okay, so what happened?

Molly: Well, the story of Dan Cooper is an intriguing one. So this guy, Dan Cooper, hijacked a plane full of passengers flying over the U.S. No one knows who he was and the case has baffled the FBI for over 50 years.

Martin: Why did he do it? Terrorism?

Molly: For money! During the flight, Cooper said he had a bomb in his briefcase and demanded parachutes and $200,000. The plane landed in Seattle and the passengers were exchanged for the money. Now, this is where the story gets really interesting!

Martin: Go on.

Molly: The plane took off again for Mexico with instructions from Cooper to fly at 10,000 feet. At some point during the flight, they think Cooper jumped out of the plane with all the cash.

Martin: Okay, so this guy escaped with the money?!

Molly: Well, that’s still unexplained. There are theories about what happened to him but the case remains a mystery to this day.

Martin: So that’s it? They must know more about what happened?

Molly: Well…

You’ll hear more about what happened to Dan Cooper later, in part three of the lesson.

But now, let’s look at the useful language you heard in the dialogue to talk about mysteries in English.

A great way to introduce a mystery you want to talk about is to say: ‘Ever heard of…?’ or ‘Have you heard about…?’

These mean you’re going to tell the listener something of interest.

When you introduce a mystery, you might also use phrases like ‘no one knows’ or ‘no one knows for sure’.

For example:

  • No one knows for sure who Jack the Ripper really was.
  • No one knows where Cleopatra’s tomb is.

Can you think of anything else ‘no one knows’ the answer to?

Next, you heard some adjectives beginning with U-N in the conversation which described the mystery of Dan Cooper.

Can you remember them? There were three; what were they?

You heard ‘unknown’, ‘unsolved’ and ‘unexplained’. You can use these words to talk about situations we can’t explain.

Continue practicing with adjectives with our lesson on Using Adjectives.

One of these words is commonly used together with the word ‘mystery’ to make a collocation. Do you know which one?

‘Unsolved mystery’ is a common collocation. For example, the Dan Cooper incident is an ‘unsolved mystery’, because we still don’t know what happened.

Correct use of collocations is a great way to expand your communication skills and express yourself more clearly. There are other useful collocations with the word ‘mystery’.

For example, to describe a situation where there are unexplainable elements, you can say: ‘There is an air of mystery to it’, or, ‘The situation is shrouded in mystery’.

If a mystery has been solved, then you can say the mystery has been ‘cleared up’.

If it looks like the mystery will stay unsolved, you can say it will ‘remain a mystery’.

Get more practice with this Oxford Online English lesson: Collocations in English.

Let’s look at other adjectives from the conversation.

‘Fascinating’ means that something is extremely interesting. What was the last unsolved mystery you thought was fascinating?

‘Intriguing’ has a similar meaning to ‘fascinating’; if something is intriguing, it’s interesting and it makes you feel curious. You want to know more about it.

‘Mysterious’ describes something you find hard to explain. You can use it with many different words: a mysterious noise, a mysterious stranger, a mysterious disappearance, and so on.

Finally, you heard the speaker say:

‘The case has baffled the FBI for 50 years’.

‘Baffled’ means extremely confused about something.

Got it? Don’t forget that you can review any part of the lesson which you find difficult! Let’s move on to our point in talking about mysteries in English.

2. A Ghost Ship?

Talking about the ghost ship mystery in English - ghost ship image

Martin: Have you heard of the Mary Celeste? The ghost ship?

Molly: Ghost ship? No. What is that?

Martin: It was a ship, found drifting in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, totally empty.

Molly: Sounds interesting! Tell me more!

Martin: Well, this has baffled historians for over one hundred years. The ship left New York in December 1872, sailing for Italy. They found it a month later with all the crew missing!

Molly: Hmmm… Okay, so something happened on board, and everyone abandoned the ship?

Martin: Well, it’s not that straightforward. When they found the ship, there was nothing wrong with it. What’s more, there were plenty of supplies and all the crew’s possessions were still on board.

Molly: How could that be?

Martin: No one knows for sure, but there are some interesting theories as to what might have happened.

Molly: Such as?

Martin: Some people believe pirates killed the crew. Others suspect that two of the crewmen killed the rest of the crew because their possessions weren’t found.

Molly: The passengers were murdered? This is giving me the creeps.

Martin: Other theories suggest mother nature, a storm maybe, caused the crew to abandon ship, but that doesn’t explain why they left everything behind.

Molly: Yeah, that’s so weird.

Martin: Some people believe there must be a supernatural explanation, and the crew were taken by aliens, ghosts or some other type of creature from the deep!

Molly: Creatures from the deep? Surely not! Anyway, I’ve heard enough. Monsters from the ocean freak me out.

A great way to show interest in a mystery story is to tell the person you’re interested. Can you remember how I did this?

Look at some phrases you heard. Can you complete them?

  • ________ interesting.
  • ________ not!
  • Really? I’m ________ now.
  • That’s so ________

Pause the video and think about your answers. If you want, you can also go back, listen to the dialogue again, and find the missing words.

Did you get all four? Let’s check.

  • Sounds interesting.
  • Surely not!
  • Really? I’m intrigued now.
  • That’s so weird.

Continue practicing with this OOE lesson: Natural English Conversation Responses.

The listener also responded to ‘pirates killed the crew’ and ‘crewmen killed the crew’ by echoing this with a question: the passengers were murdered?

These phrases show the speaker that you are listening and interested in what they are saying.

Let’s do some practice. We’re going to use the conversation from part one. If you haven’t watched part one, that’s okay. You can still complete this task.

Imagine: someone is telling you a story about a mystery.

See if you can respond show more interest using the language you’ve just seen.

Read and repeat the responses that you see on the screen. Then, to make it more difficult for yourself, you can rewind, close your eyes, and try and respond without looking.

Ready? Here we go.

His crime is still one of the greatest unexplained mysteries in US history.

  • Response: Sounds interesting. Tell me more!

The case has baffled the FBI for over 50 years!

  • Response: Really!? I’m intrigued now!

They think Cooper parachuted out of the plane with all the cash.

  • Response: Jumped out with all the cash? Surely not!

Nice job! Now try it again but this time don’t read the responses. Also: focus on your intonation. Intonation is essential to express interest. If you say [robotic voice] ‘Really. I’m intrigued now’, you won’t sound interested. You need intonation: ‘Really? I’m intrigued now!’

Learning how to respond to mysteries and stories with interest will help you in your everyday conversations too. Now to our final point in talking about mysteries in English.

3. He Must Have Jumped

Talking about the mystery of Dan Cooper - people jumping out of plane

Next, you will learn how to speculate about a mystery in English. You speculate when you talk about something you don’t know about; maybe you have an idea, or you want to guess about what happened.

Using past modal verbs is a good way to do this: you can use the modal verbs ‘must’, ‘might’, ‘may’, ‘could’ and ‘can’t’ to speculate about the past. Get a review in this lesson: Modal Verbs to Express Possibility.

So, let’s go back to the story about the mysterious Dan Cooper.

While you listen to this conversation, think about these two things.

What are the speakers sure about?

And, what are the speakers unsure about?

Got it? Let’s listen.

Martin: They must know more about what happened?

Molly: Well… for starters, they know so little about the man that Dan Cooper might *not* ‘ve been his real name.

Martin: Okay. So did they figure anything out?

Molly: So many things are uncertain. As the plane was flying over the Washington mountains at night, he probably parachuted out. They’re not completely sure.

Martin: You mean he *could*’ve hidden on the plane and escaped later?

Molly: Possibly, but police searched the plane and didn’t find him.

Martin: So he must’ve jumped out! But he can’t’ve survived the jump from 10,000 feet into the mountains! Did they find his body?

Molly: No body or parachute was ever found. They did find a bag containing $6000 in a river. It may have belonged to Cooper but even that wasn’t certain.

Martin: Wow. Great story! I wonder what really happened to him? Maybe he’s sitting on a beach in Mexico right now laughing at all of us?

Molly: Haha! Maybe.

So, the speakers gave their ideas about what happened to Dan Cooper.

What were they sure about and what were they unsure about?

If you are unsure yourself, go back and listen to the conversation again.

Firstly, let’s look at the things they were *sure* about and how they used past modals to communicate that.

Can you fill in the blanks with the modal verbs you heard?

  • So, he _____ have jumped out!
  • He _____ have survived the jump from 10,000 feet…

He must have jumped out!

This means the speaker is certain that Cooper did jump out of the airplane.

He can’t have survived the jump.

This means the speaker is certain that Cooper didn’t survive the jump.

Why is the speaker so sure Cooper jumped out of the airplane?

Because the police didn’t find Cooper when they searched the plane.

Why is the speaker so sure that Cooper can’t have survived the jump?

Because the speaker assumes it’s impossible to survive a jump into the mountains.

You can use ‘must have’ or ‘can’t have’ to talk about things in the past where you don’t know for a fact, but you’re sure about what happened. You use logical deduction to reach a conclusion.

Now, let’s look at the things the speakers were *unsure* about.

They said:

  • Dan Cooper might not have been his real name.
  • He could’ve hidden on the plane.
  • It may have belonged to Cooper.

The speakers in these cases are not sure. You can use ‘might have’ ‘could have’ or ‘may have’ to talk about something in the past which you think is possible, but you’re not sure.

So, if you say ‘He could have hidden on the plane’, you mean that it’s possible, but not certain, and either way you don’t know.

What do you think happened to Dan Cooper? Pause the video and make two sentences you are sure of and two sentences you are unsure of.

Now, listen to me say these sentences again and repeat after me.

  • He must’ve jumped out.
  • He could’ve hidden on the plane.

Which words are stressed? And, which sounds are missing? Listen more than once if you need to.

The modal verbs ‘must’ and ‘could’ are stressed.

For past modals of deduction, the modal verb is usually stressed. This is because the speaker wants to emphasize their logical conclusion or guess. Do you want more practice with emphasis in your speaking? Watch this lesson: Adding Emphasis in English Speaking.

The missing sound was the ‘h’ sound in have.

The ‘have’ is pronounced in its weak form so you shouldn’t make the ‘h’ sound.

We hope you learned useful phrases for talking about mysteries and the unknown in English. Thanks for watching!

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