English Modal Verbs: Understanding the use of 'Can', 'Could', 'May', and 'Might' in sentences

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10 Questions

Which modal verb is used to indicate ability, permission, or possibility?


In which tense is 'can' often used?

Present continuous tense

What does 'could' refer to?

Past possibilities

Which modal verb is used to indicate permission?


What does 'might' primarily show?


'Could' is often used with which tense?

Past perfect tense

'Can't' is the negative form of which modal verb?


'May' is often used to indicate...

... permission.

'Might' suggests...

... possibility.

What type of role do modal verbs play in a sentence?

Auxiliary verbs

Study Notes

English Modals - An Informal Guide

This guide will explain what English modal verbs are, their basic uses, and how they differ from each other, specifically focusing on the modal verbs 'can', 'could', 'may', and 'might'. We'll also touch upon some examples of these modal verbs in sentences.

What Are English Modal Verbs?

Modal verbs are auxiliary verbs which change the meaning of the main verb by showing possibility or degrees of certainty. They do not show action, like regular verbs such as 'run' or 'eat'; rather, they express attitudes towards the actions described. They play a crucial role in forming questions and indicating ability or permission.


The word 'can' is used to indicate ability, permission, or possibility. It is often used in present simple and present continuous tenses. For example:

  • I can eat this pizza because it's my favorite.
  • She can't visit her friends today; she has work.


The word 'could' is similar to 'can' but refers to things we know were true before, or things that could have been done in the past. It doesn't talk about the present but about the past possibilities, so it is often used with the past perfect tense:

  • If you had studied harder, you could have passed your exam.
  • He couldn't leave his job because he was the manager.


The word 'may' is used to indicate permission or possibility. It is mostly used in the first conditional sentence structure where we discuss hypothetical situations and their outcomes:

  • If you study hard, you may pass your exam.
  • We can go out tonight if the weather is nice.


The word 'might' is also used to indicate possibility but more tentatively than 'may'. Similar to 'may', it is usually found in conditional structures, but it is often used when an outcome seems unlikely:

  • If I win the lottery, I might buy a yacht.
  • She didn't answer, so she might be busy.

In summary, while all these modal verbs express possibility or permissions, 'can' is generally for current situations, 'could' deals with past conditions, 'may' indicates permission or possibility in hypothetical situations, and 'might' suggests a possible outcome that is uncertain.

Learn about English modal verbs like 'can', 'could', 'may', and 'might' with this informal guide. Discover their uses in sentences

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