Modal Verbs for Possibility

Business English
STRUCTURE

Modal Verb                             +         Base Verb
May/Might/Could/Must      +         Base Verb

Examples:
  • I may eat dinner at 7:00pm.
  • She might work late tonight.
  • They must be tired.


May
May shows possibility in the present or the future.

Present:        Where are my keys?  They may be in the car.
Future:          I may go to the party tonight.

May is formal and is often found in writing.
  • Side effects of this medication may include upset stomach
    and fever.


Might
Might shows possibility in the present or future.
  • Where are my keys?  They might be in the car.
  • I might go to the party tonight.

Might is less formal than may, and is more common in
conversation


Could
Could shows that something is possible in the present or
future.

Present:        Where are my keys?  They could be in the car.
Future:          We could go to the party tonight.

Could shows options, or possibility.


Must
Must shows certainty, or the belief of certainty, from the
speaker.

Certain:     
  • Everyone is wearing a jacket.  It must be cold.     

Belief of certainty:       
  • He was running for 2 hours.  He must be tired.
    (Although it seems obvious, it is not a fact that the runner
    is tired.)


Have to
Have to shows certainty, or the belief of certainty, from
the speaker.

Certain:  
  • Everyone is wearing a jacket.  It has to be cold.     

Belief of certainty:    
  • He was running for 2 hours.  He has to be tired.
    (Although it seems obvious, it is not a fact that the runner
    is tired.)

Have to is much less formal than must, and is common in
conversation.


Past Possibility

May, Might, and Could are all used to show possibility in the
past.

Modal Verb + Have + Past Participle

  • He might have brought the cake.
  • She may have gone home early.
  • They could have worked late.

Must can be used in the same way to show certainty in the
past.

  • He must have won the game.


Might Not vs. Could Not

Although Might and Could express possibility in a similar way,
the negative forms of Might and Could are different.

Might not shows that something probably is not true.
  • These books might not be the teachers.

Might not shows that something probably will not
happen in the future.
  • I might not go to the party tonight.

Could not shows that something is impossible.
  • This could not be the only book available.
  • She could not know who my friend is.  They have
  • never met.


Would you like to practice your understanding of modal verbs
for possibility?  Try the tests below:

Modal Verbs for Possibility Test
Modal Verbs for Possibility Test 2
Modal Verbs for Possibility Test 3
modal verbs
Modal Verbs Tests
There are several modal
verbs used to show
possibility.  They
are
Might, May, Could, and
Must.  All of these are
different
ways to say maybe.

You can see how to use
modal verbs for permission
with the lesson below.
modal verbs
Would you like to practice more modal verbs?  Try these
lessons and tests: