We just might learn something!
There are many modals in English modals of ability, possibility, necessity/obligation, and advice, to name the most common—and students can get confused by all the different functions and meanings. Some modals can be used for more than one purpose (such as could for past ability or present/future possibility), so it’s no wonder they sometimes struggle! Presenting modals by function can help English language learners keep them all straight. Today, let’s focus on modals of possibility.
May, Might & Could
In English, there are three main modals of possibility: may, might, and could.
Modal + Base Verb
Remind lower-level students that a base verb is one with no endings (no -ing, -ed, -s, etc.). The modal always comes before the base verb.
- We might go to the party tomorrow night.
- She could decide to join us.
We use these modals to describe a possible action. Because of the uncertainty, these modals are often used to talk about the future, though sometimes we want to express possibility in the present.
- I may go traveling next year. (future possibility)
- My keys might be in the car. (present possibility)
- They might attend the awards ceremony tomorrow night.
- He could call you back tonight.
- We could choose a new color of paint for the bedroom.
- I might join you if I finish early.
- The results of the study may shed some light on this condition.
4. Differences in Meaning
When it comes to the meaning of may, might, and could for possibility, I would argue that, at least in North American English, there is no difference in meaning except formality. Whatever you do, please remind students that may is quite formal! Textbooks always present the three modals together, and students might use may in everyday speech unless we point out that it’s not common to do so. Emphasize that they might see and use may in formal writing, but in speaking and informal writing, they should stick to might and could. (Note that this is the preference in North America, but I believe that may is quite common in speaking and writing in British English.)
Some people have argued for slight differences in meaning, and this might be an interesting discussion for higher‑level students. But for most students, the difference is irrelevant and these words are interchangeable.
Remind students that could is also used for past ability. There is usually a reference to the past in the sentence or context, which helps learners recognize when could is referring to ability. Note the differences:
- He could finish his project tonight. (possibility)
- He could swim when he was a child. (past ability)