Can / Could or May / Might?

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Spoken English can be confusing especially if you do not know the types of verbs. Can, could, may and might are called Modal Verbs. Modal Verbs are a type of Helping Verbs which are used to show the speaker’s opinion about the situation or show the possibility of the situation. They can also be used to seek, give or deny permission. Learning about modal verbs will help you learn English better. Each modal verb is used for a different purpose which is listed below:

1) Can

  • Can is used to expresses ability to perform a task. For example: Can he walk after his accident? This implies his ability to use his legs for the purpose of walking.
  • Can is also used to offer help. For example: Can I get a coffee for you?
  • Can is used to ask for permission. For example: Can I come in?
  • Can is also used to give permission. For example: You can come in now.
  • The negative form of can is can’t. It is used to talk about situations that are impossible. For example: It is sunny today. It can’t rain.


2) Could

Could is sometimes used as the past form of can. For example: When I was in Canada, I could drive.

  • Could is also used as the future form of can. For example: We could go for a drive today.
  • Could is more formal and is used to make requests. For example: Could you pass that bottle of water?
  • Could is most commonly used with words like see, hear, smell, taste, feel, remember, understand. For example: I could see the ocean from my hotel room.

3) May

  • May is used to refer to a weak possibility in the future. For example: I may go out today. (I am not very sure if I will go out today.)
  • May is also used to ask for permission. For example: May I come in?
  • May can be used to give permission too. For example: Yes, you may.
  • May not can be used to refuse permission. For example: No, you may not.
  • May is also used to express wishes for the future. For example: May god bless you!


4) Might

  • Might can be used as the past form of May. For example: She asked me if she might borrow my pen.
  • Might is also used to ask for permission in the most polite manner. For example: Might I suggest you try our signature cocktails?
  • Might is used to ask for information in a formal manner. For example: Who might that be?
  • Might can be used to make a polite suggestion. You might try calling the Assistant Manager if you do not reach her.

Here is a comparison of all the 4 modal verbs:

Can/ Could May/ Might
More common Less common
Informal Formal
General possibility (I can live anywhere.) Chances (I may take an off tomorrow.)

Why should you learn about Modal Verbs?

You can enhance your English conversations by using modal verbs. Model verbs shape the tone of the sentence. You can come across as derogatory if your drop modal verbs. For example:

Can you check your account, does it have a contact support option? (Rude and direct)


Could you please check your account? Could you tell me if you see a contact support option? (Polite and Indirect)


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