Speak Better English with Modal Verbs: Possibility

We’re returning today to speaking better English with modal verbs!

You’ll remember from our last post that modal verbs can be very powerful tools to help us speak English fluently.  They can modify the verbs we use, in effect giving us a dozen or more meanings from just a single verb.  For example, each of these three sentences has a totally different meaning, but only one word (the modal) has changed:

I can swim…. (so if our boat sinks, I’ll be ok!)
I should swim…. (because I hear it is good exercise.)
I might swim…… (because my friends want to go to the beach.)
I would swim……. (but it’s too cold, so I’ll just go to the gym instead.)

Last time, we discussed modals of ABILITY – words like “can” and “could” that show that someone has the ability to do something.  For example:

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This is an example of something you have the ABILITY to do, just like you CAN brush your teeth, or you CAN read a book.

So what else do modals do?

Modals can show that something MIGHT happen, or MIGHT not.  They can let us talk about “Maybe….”.  These are called modals of possibility.

The modals of possibility are:

  • – can          – could
  • – may       – might

You’ll notice that we see “can” and “could” again here, just like we did for ability.  You’ll be able to see the difference in meaning in each sentence. For example:

I can write your name in English!
vs
I can come home at 3pm today if you need me to.

In the first sentence, the speaker is writing is saying that they have the ABILITY to write in English. In the second sentence, the speaker is saying that it’s POSSIBLE for them to come home, if necessary.

“Can”, “could”, “may”, and “might” all work in the same way, and you can use them interchangeably.  For example:

I might go to the movies tonight.
I may go to the movies tonight.
I could go to the movies tonight.
I can go to the movies tonight.

A note about negatives: “may”and “might” can be made into negative possibilities by adding the particle “not”, so that “I may/might go to the movies tonight, or I may/might not.” However, “can” and “could” are NOT negatives of possibility.  Saying “I can not go to the movies” turns “can” back into a modal of ability, so that you don’t have the ability to go to the movies, not just the possibility.

Finally, remember that after modal verbs, all main verbs stay the same.
You will never need to say “She might goes“, because “She might go” is already correct.  Don’t you love how easy modals are? They make it so much easier to speak English fluently.

Let’s try a few examples:

What are you plans for the evening?
I don’t know, …
a) I might do my homework, but I want to go to the movies.
b) I couldn’t do my homework, but I want to go to the movies.
c) I might does my homework, but I want to go to the movies.

 

 

 

She’s always late for class!  What do you think is the problem this time?
Well, …
a) she may be stuck in traffic, or she cannot be coming.
b) she may be stuck in traffic, or she might not be coming.
c) she may is stuck in traffic, or she might not is coming.

 

 

Do you think the teacher will remember that he forgot to give us the exam?
I don’t know, …
a) he could remembers, but I hope not!
b) he might remembers, but I hope not!
c) he may remember, but I hope not!

 

 

Your answers should be A, B, and C.

 

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