MODAL VERBS: MAY/MIGHT-CAN/COULD

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Lately I have noticed that some grammar topics need some refreshing, that is why I thought it would be useful to inaugurate a series of posts regarding such issues and I’m starting with the two most common Modal Verbs, more will follow, hoping to be of help especially to whom is studying English as a Foreign Language.

MODAL VERBS

The Modal Verbs, also known as Anomalous Finites, are verbs that lack specific characteristics typical of most English verbs, yet they are not considered Irregular Verbs. The following are the peculiarities of such verbs:

  1. Unlike most English Verbs these do not take the “s” at the end of the 3rd person singular in the Present Simple Tense;
  2. They are not followed by “TO” but only by the base form of any verb in the Infinitive form;
  3. They are not provided by the “TO” of the Infinitive themselves, they cannot be used in the Gerund or in any compound verb form, meaning a verb that requires an auxiliary such as the future or the past tenses;
  4. They are themselves auxiliary verbs and as such they behave.

The issue will be clearer as we proceed, the first two most common Modal Verbs are:

  1. CAN/COULD (TO BE ABLE TO) and
  2. MAY/MIGHT (TO BE ALLOWED TO).

In today’s spoken language, and very often in writing too, these two verbs may be used alternatively as if they were synonyms, but in fact they are not. As we can see by the verbs used to replace them, when necessary, the two different meanings are quite evident. If CAN conveys the idea of the actual ability to do something, i.e. She can swim, meaning that she is capable of doing so. MAY, on the other hand, refers to requesting the permission to do so, or the possibility/opportunity, that is why MAY can also be replaced, if need be, by TO BE LIKELY TO along with TO BE ALLOWED TO, i.e. He may swim if the water is not too cold. In other words the subject is perfectly capable of swimming yet he will not do so if the water is not of the requested/desired temperature. Let’s take a closer look at them:

MAY – MIGHT / TO BE ALLOWED / TO BE LIKELY

USES:

1. To request permission to do something = TO BE ALLOWED TO:

May I go out?                                             May I open the window?

2. To express the idea that an action or state is likely to be or take place = TO BE LIKELY:

She may still be at home;                            The office may be closed by now.

The train may be late;                                  Jim may pass by later;

3. When the speaker is supposing something or conceding something, only MAY  can be employed in this case:

James may not be back tonight as it is already late.

4. To wish someonge good or bad fortune:

May you have all the luck in the world!                                May God punish them! 

5. To express a request, an advice/suggestion or to reprimand someone for something inappropriate, only MIGHT can be used in this case:

If you don’t find anything to your liking there you might try at the shop around the        corner.

  You might come straight home!

In all the above cases the verbs are all used in the present tense, MIGHT however, can be used in the conditional (present and past) and to express the idea of probability. Therefore, in order to express the same ideas in the various past tenses or in the future tenses MAY is replaced by TO BE ALLOWED/TO BE LIKELY.

She wasn’t allowed to take the car as she was grounded.

He will likely succeed at the final exams, he studied all year for them.

The PAST CONDITIONAL is built as follows: MIGHT HAVE + PAST PARTICIPLE.

He might have taken a taxi.

CAN – COULD / TO BE ABLE TO

CAN/COULD is used in all those cases in which MAY/MIGHT cannot be used.

USES:

1. To express the possibility to do something:

I will call you back as soon as I can.         I could not do anything to prevent the crash.

2. To express ability:

Can you play football?                              She cannot ride a bike.

3. It is also used to express a negative assumption:

That can’t be possible!

4. It is expresses the idea of being in the capacity of doing (or not doing) something:

She was so surprised that she couldn’t say a word.

    I had such a soar throat that I couldn’t speak for days.

As for MAY/MIGHT even CAN/COULD can be employed only in the present simple or conditional forms. For all the tenses that cannot be conjugated with the modal verbs, in general, such as the Future, Gerund, Infinitive and all the compound tenses CAN/COULD are replaced by TO BE ABLE (its negative is: Not to be able to, or to be unable):

George hasn’t been able to speak to Joan at all.

We had been so busy at work that we had not been able to stop even for a quick lunch.

Finally, TO BE ABLE TO can also be used to express more emphasis, as for instance:

Try as I might, I just was not able to give her the news!

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