English Modal Verbs – May, Might, Could, Can – Talking About Possibilities


The English modal verbs ‘can’, ‘could’, ‘may’ and ‘might’ are used to talk about possibilities. This English modal verbs lesson will help you learn how to use may, might, could, and can correctly. Have a question about these modal verbs? Chat with a teacher now:

For example:

– He can be really mean sometimes
– It could take us a few hours to finish this
– They might have missed the train

These sentences all express possibilities: things which are possible, but not certain. We often use these modal verbs to talk about things we are not sure about, or to give our opinions.

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In this lesson, you can learn:

1) How to use ‘can’ to talk about general possibilities in the present or the future.
2) How to use ‘could’, ‘may’ and ‘might’ to talk about specific possibilities.
3) The difference between general and specific possibilities, and when you need to use ‘can’ or ‘could/may/might’.
4) Talking about possibilities in the past using ‘could have’, ‘may have’ or ‘might have’.
5) The two different meanings of ‘could have’—’could have’ can be used in two different ways to talk about possibilities in the past, depending on whether you know what happened or not.

1. How to Express Possibility in the Present or Future 0:34
2. How to Talk about General and Specific Possibilities 3:57
3. How to Talk about Possibilities in the Past 7:53
4. Past Possibilities: Two Meanings of ‘Could Have’ 9:58

We use the modal verb ‘can’ to talk about general possibilities—things which can be true at different times, or for different people. For example: “It can take two hours to get there by train.” This means that it can take two hours every time, not just once.

You can use the verbs ‘could’, ‘may’ or ‘might’ to talk about specific possibilities—things which are only possible at one time. For example: “It could take you two hours to get there by train.” This means it could take -you- two hours, not someone else. It’s specific. In this sentence you could use any of the three modal verbs ‘could’, ‘may’ or ‘might’—there’s no difference in meaning.

To talk about possibilities in the past, use the modal verbs ‘could’, ‘may’, or ‘might’, plus ‘have’ plus a past participle. For example: “I don’t know where they are—they could have missed the train.” In this sentence, you can use any of the verbs ‘may’, ‘might’ or ‘could’, as before.

Watch this lesson for an introduction to English modal verbs:

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  1. The only thing I would distinguish is that "could" and "might" might have different meanings – for example, "They could be brothers; they look so alike!" (they COULD be, but I know they aren't) or "They might be brothers; they look so alike!" (I think they really might be).

  2. It can be very wet here in the winter, ,it means sometimes wet and sometimes is not ,, it's like a continual action.

  3. I am just getting a bit confused. Does MUST + MAVE + PARTICIPLE VERB (for making deduction in the past) and MIGHT, MAY, COULD + HAVE + PARTICIPLE VERB (to talk about possibility in the past) have the same meaning?

    *Could you explain it with examples please..

  4. Hello sir, so does it mean "Could have" has three distinct different meanings.
    1) use "could have + pp" when you don't know what happened (i.e guess)
    2) use "could have + pp" when you know what happened.
    3) use "could have + pp" in third conditional sentences.

    or 2 use and 3 use is same.
    Thanks in advance.

  5. Hundred million of likes for this lesson. Now I've known how to use these modal verbs correctly. Continue to give us these wonderfull classes.

  6. “The rain might have stopped by now.” (pls clear my doubts about this sentence) I understood it like, I am at home, someone said to me at present that rain possibly is gone now. Or it means that, Rain could have stopped by now if something special had happened to it.

  7. I don't know if I might see Julia at 3 p.m. or not. I may have to finish my assignment first.
    Is this sentence correct or incorrect?


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