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Grammar 50 - Modals - Expressing Possibility
"I could see the stars twinkling." - 'Could' is a modal verb expressing ability.

Grammar 50 - Modals - Expressing Possibility

This is the second of five High English grammar quizzes on the topic of modals. This quiz focusses in particular on modal verbs expressing possibility.

In the previous quiz we looked at the grammar of modals describing attitudes and functions, and we employed almost all the modals in forming sentences. We found that ‘may’ is a modal that is often used to describe possibility. In addition to ‘may’, ‘could’, ‘might’ and ‘must’ are also used in expressing possibility. For instance, if we were watching a trapeze artist perform in a circus we could use some different modals to describe the action. Here are some examples of how we might voice our thoughts and concerns using four different modal verbs:

‘He could fall any time.’
‘He may fall any time.’
‘He might fall any time.’
‘This time he must fall.’

These four examples have used the four modals that denote possibility. In all of the examples there is no certainty that the artist will fall. However, all of them denote a possibility that the artist may fall.

It is difficult to say clearly when we must use a particular modal but here are some guidelines:

The use of ‘could’ is for meeting a condition.
The use of ‘may’ is for situations where a simple probability exists or when permission is required.
The use of ‘might’ is also for meeting a condition.
The use of ‘must’ connotes some compulsion, order, or advice.

Besides denoting possibility each of the modals denote other functions. ‘Could’ is the past form of ‘can’ and ‘might’ is the past form of ‘may.’ The use of ‘could’ is for denoting ability just as with ‘can.’ The use of ‘can’ is for denoting ability in the present and future whereas ‘could’ is for denoting ability in the past.

The use of a particular modal is not as straightforward as that of other verbs and it can be a matter of choice. However, some amount of practice would definitely help. Take the grammar quiz that follows and learn more about modal verbs expressing possibility.

1.
Choose the sentence that uses the modal to denote possibility.
As Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh could institute proceedings against his ministers.
I could see the stars twinkling at night.
The manager could see the worker sweating furiously on being questioned.
Since you missed the flight you could always stay at our house.
This sentence denotes possibility because there are other alternatives like staying in a hotel. Staying at our house is only one possibility. In the other options, 'could' is used to denote ability
2.
Choose the sentence that uses the modal to denote something formally required or necessary.
I must complete the assignment by 10 PM today.
The Prime Minister's Swatch Bharat programme's motto is 'Everyone must participate to keep the country clean.'
The building must have a fire escape. So say the rules.
All of the above are correct.
Remember that some modals can be used for purposes other than possibility. 'Must' is also used to give advice or orders
3.
"When I was in Class 4 I _____ recite all the nursery rhymes."
Fill the blank by choosing the appropriate modal from the following options.
could
can
might
was
Remember, 'could' is the past form of 'can' and it is used to express something done in the past. Options 2 and 3 are used either for the present or for the future. Option 4 is a main verb
4.
Choose the sentence that uses the modal to denote possibility.
The managing director may come to the regional office if time permits.
May I borrow your car please?
Mustaq could recite the Quran when he was six years old.
Son, you may help me to clean the car.
This sentence indicates a possibility that the managing director may visit and the visit is conditional upon time. In option 2, the modal is used to seek permission. In option 3, the modal is used to express ability in the past. In option 4, the modal is used to grant permission or extend an invitation
5.
"Sir, could you help me please. ___ you tell me the shortest route to the Qutab Minar please?"
Fill the blank by choosing the appropriate modal from the following options.
may
can
should
must
'Can' is the appropriate modal because it presupposes that the person being asked may or may not know the shortest route to the Qutab Minar. Therefore, we must first test his ability, which is expressed by 'can'
6.
"I doubt if the Chief Minister will halt in our town but he said he _____ do so."
Fill the blank by choosing the appropriate modal from the following options.
may
must
could
might
'Might' is used to suggest a lesser possibility than 'may' does. Since the Chief Minister is a busy person, the chances of his halting at the town are remote. 'Must' is inappropriate because we cannot force a Chief Minister to halt. 'Could' could be used as a request or could be used to express his desire to halt
7.
Choose the sentence that uses the modal to denote distinct possibility.
The distance between Bangalore and Chennai may be about 320 kilometres.
The distance between Bangalore and Chennai can be about 320 kilometres.
Albert Einstein must have been a genius.
The distance between Bangalore and Chennai could be about 320 kilometres.
The modal is appropriate because we are talking about a person who was considered a genius and 'must' is used to show that something was very likely. In the other options, there is no possibility other than the exact distance between Bangalore and Chennai
8.
Choose the sentence that uses the modal to denote possibility.
Students who can afford to pay should not apply for scholarships.
The CBI could file a charge sheet after collecting enough evidence.
Despite the coach's strict regimen, the soccer team can not perform consistently.
Could I get you dessert after your main course?
In this sentence, 'could' could be used for both ability and possibility. It is possible that the CBI could file a charge sheet. It is also the fact that the CBI has the ability to file charge sheet. Not everyone can file a charge sheet. Options 1 and 3 indicate ability. Option 4 indicates an offer of assistance
9.
"You should enter the Reader's Digest sweepstakes. You _____ be lucky, who knows!"
Fill the blank by choosing the appropriate modal from the following options.
can
should
could
would
'Could' is the appropriate modal as it denotes possibility. 'Can' is inappropriate because it deals with ability and there is no ability in winning a sweepstakes, only pure chance. 'Would' and 'should' both point to certainty, which is not the case with sweepstakes
10.
"My newspaper was not delivered today. ___ I borrow yours please?"
Fill the blank by choosing the appropriate modal from the following options.
would
must
can
may
'May' is the appropriate modal because it has the feature of seeking permission and there is a possibility that the person seeking permission may get the newspaper. In the context of the sentences, the other options are not appropriate
Author:  V T Narendra

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