Modal Verbs / Can-Could-May-Might (Easy English grammar)

English modal verbs

Learn all about English modal verbs in my post. Use the verbs Can, Could, May and Might like a native speaker.

can      

  • We use the modal verb can to say that something is possible, allowed or somebody/something has the ability to do something.

could    

  • 1) Could is sometimes used as the past tense of can.
  • 2) We use could to talk about ability, things that were possible.

may/ might

  • May and might have the meaning. They are used to show that something is possible. (Similar to the second use of Could)

Read on for clear explanations and lots of examples!

The English modal verb “Can”

We use the modal verb CAN to say that something is possible, allowed or somebody/something has the ability to do something.

Can grammar

The modal verb CAN is uses with the infinitive form of a verb.

[Infinitive is the basic form of a verb – to go – without to. The infinitive form of the verb TO GO is go.]

“I can go to Disney tomorrow! My boss said I can take the day off.” [Go and take are both in the infinitive form.]

  • “I can see Mt. Fuji from the 3rd floor window on a clear day.”
  • Can you drive a motorcycle?”
  • “My new rice cooker can cook perfect rice in only 20 minutes. It’s amazing!”
  • “Eric said he can meet us at the restaurant if he doesn’t work late.”

The negative form of can is cannot. We usually use the contraction can’t. [Can not becomes can’t]

  • “Eric said he can’t meet us tonight because he has to work late.”

One use of CAN is to have the ability to do something. We can sometimes say is able to instead of can but it is much less common.

“My new rice cooker is able to cook perfect rice in only 20 minutes. It’s amazing!” This grammar is fine but using can is more natural in conversation.

The modal verb can only has two tenses: present and past – can and could. This means there are times when we need to use (be) able to. For example:

Sentences with may/might or must

  • “Jim might be able to come with us to Disney tomorrow, but he’s not sure yet.”
  • “Jim may be able to come with us to Disney tomorrow, but he’s not sure yet.”
    It is possible that Jim can come with us tomorrow.
  • “You must be able to cook Italian food if you want to work at this restaurant.”
    If you can’t cook Italian food you can’t work at this restaurant.

Check out my Perfect tense post HERE

“Mike hasn’t been able to ski this winter because it hasn’t snowed very much.

The English modal verb “Could”

As I mentioned above could is sometimes used as the past tense of can.

  • “From the 3rd floor window of the high school I used to teach at you could see Mt. Fuji on a clear day.”
  • “When I was 10 my family lived very close to my school. I could walk there in just 5 minutes.”
Could is sometimes used as the past tense of can. Modal verbs.

Couldn’t can be used to talk about someone or something that had the ability to do something or was allowed to do something.

  • “When I was in high school, I could run a kilometer in 3.5 minutes.”
  • “They say that famous magician Harry Houdini could hold his breath for over 3 minutes!”
  • (link)
  • “My old rice cooker could also make cakes, oatmeal, bread and more. It was really awesome!”
  • “At my family’s old cottage there were no other homes within 5 kilometers. We could play music as loud as we wanted.”

The negative form of could is could not. This is often spoken as the contraction couldn’t.

“If it was cloudy you couldn’t see Mt. Fuji.”

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Could pt. 2

We use could to talk about ability, things that were possible.
“We could play music as loud as we wanted.” This was generally true whenever we went to the cottage.

BUT

When we talk about one specific past situation was able to is a better choice.

“We all thought Diane would be late, but she was able to make it on time.”

“Yesterday I was finally able to beat my brother at chess. It was the first time in 8 years!”

*The negative contraction couldn’t (could not) is okay for both general and specific sentences.

“We couldn’t see Mt. Fuji if it was cloudy.”

“I beat my brother at chess yesterday so I was feeling confident. I challenged my Dad but I couldn’t beat him. He is a great chess player.”

Could pt. 3

Could is also used to talk about actions that are possible. We often use it to suggest possible future actions.

A: “What would you like to do tonight?”
B: “We could go and see a movie.”
A: “That sounds great. We could have dinner before the movie at the new restaurant beside the theater. I heard it’s really good.”

We can use could for situations that are not real. This is used to exaggerate a feeling or an idea.

“I love this ice cream! I could eat 50 bowls right now!”
I couldn’t really eat 50 bowls of this ice cream, but I want to show how much I love it.

We wouldn’t say –

“I love this ice cream! I can eat 50 bowls right now!”

I could eat 50 bowls right now!
English modal verb could

Could pt. 4

Could can also be used to say that something is possible now or in the future. (This is like how we use May and Might)

“You’d better bring your umbrella. It could rain tonight.” = It’s possible that it will rain tonight.
“Mike said the boss will be out today, but he could be lying.” = It’s possible that Mike is lying.

We use could with the perfect tense (have + past participle) to talk about the past.

“From the 3rd floor window of the high school I used to teach at you could see Mt. Fuji on a clear day.”
“We could have seen Mt. Fuji if it wasn’t so cloudy yesterday.” (Seen is the past participle of the verb to see.)

“Things are bad, but they could be worse.”
“Things were bad, but they could’ve been worse.” (Been is the past participle of the verb to be.)

“Did you walk home in the rain? If you called me, I could have given you a ride.” (Given is the past participle of the verb to give.) – This example means it was possible for me to give you a ride.

The English modal verbs “May/Might”

The English modal verbs "May/Might" grammar

May and might have the meaning. They are used to show that something is possible. (Similar to Could pt.3)

It may rain tonight.
It might rain tonight.
It could rain tonight.

The grammar pattern for these modal verbs looks like this:

    be + adjective – true, late, free
(Subject) may/might be + verb ~ing – working, coming, studying
    verb – move, like, want
  • That story might be true, but it’s hard to believe.
  • Scott may be late.
  • I might be working on Saturday.
  • It will be a fun party. I heard that Kevin might be coming.
  • Helen got a promotion. She might move to a bigger office now.
  • Helen may want to stay in her current office. She likes it.

To make the negative form we just need to add not after may/might.

  • That story might not be true.
  • I heard that Kevin might not be coming to the party. That’s too bad, I like Kevin.
  • Even though Helen got a promotion she might not move to a bigger office. She likes her current office. It has a big window.

*Could, May and Might can have the same meaning but the negative Could not and May not/Might not do not mean the same thing. Compare these examples:

Couldn’t means it’s not possible.

A: Did your brother like his birthday present?
B: I don’t know. He couldn’t have received it yet, I just mailed it yesterday. (Received is the past participle of TO RECEIVE)
*It’s not possible that he has his gift yet.

May/Might not means it’s possible, but I’m not sure.

A: Did your brother get his birthday present yet?
B: I don’t know. I sent it 3 weeks ago but he might not have got it yet. I haven’t talked to him recently. (Got is the past participle of TO GET)
*Maybe he has his gift already and maybe he doesn’t. Both are possible.

May/Might past tense

To use the modal verbs MAY and MIGHT in the past tense we use the same grammar as COULD. (have + past participle)

been + adjective / at a place
(Subject) may/might have been + verb ~ing
past participle

* Been is the past participle of TO BE

  • I called Ian but he didn’t answer. He may have been asleep. (Been + the adjective asleep)
  • Laurie didn’t play well at today’s game. She might have been tired. (Been + the adjective tired)
  • We didn’t see Scott on the bus this morning. He might have been at baseball practice.
  • A: The field is wet. Did it rain?
    B: I don’t think so. They may have beenusing the sprinkler.
  • Peter didn’t reply yet. He might have beeneating dinner when I texted.
  • Dillon can’t find his sunglasses. He might have left them at the office. (Left is the past participle of TO LEAVE)
  • Grace is late. She may not have heard that we moved up the meeting start time. (Heard is the past participle of TO HEAR)
He might have left his sunglasses at the office. 
English modal verbs

May / Might FUTURE TENSE

When May/Might describe a future possibility we will use them with be + verb ~ing form.
See my FUTURE TENSE grammar post HERE

  • My family might be going to California for summer vacation.
  • William is trying to get seats for tomorrow night’s concert. We might be watching the show live!

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