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English Modal Verbs: Could and Might

written by: Heather Marie Kosur • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 1/17/2012

Modal verbs are auxiliaries that express modality, subjective attitudes about possibility, necessity, and contingency. This article offers the most frequent definitions of the modals could and might with examples to illustrate use. A printable reference sheet of the definitions is also provided.

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    Could

    The Oxford English Dictionary offers the following definitions of the modal verb could:

    1. Formerly past tense of can.
    2. To be able; to have the power, ability, or capacity.
    3. Expressing a possible contingency: To be allowed to, to be given permission to.
    4. Expressing possibility: To be permitted or enabled by the conditions of the case.
    5. Expressing an inclination in a conditional form.

    The modal verb could firstly expresses ability, specifically past ability. For example:

    • He could eat thirty pickles in a minute. (He used to be able to eat thirty pickles in a minute.)
    • My grandfather could fly a plane. (My grandfather used to be able to fly a plane.)
    • The teacher could not grade all the papers last night. (The teacher was not able to grade all the papers last night.)

    The modal verb could secondly expresses permission. For example:

    • You could borrow my sweater. (It is permissible for you to borrow my sweater.)
    • She could have taken the car. (It was permissible for her to take the car.)
    • You could turn the assignment in tomorrow morning instead of today. (It is permissible for you to wait until tomorrow to turn in the assignment.)

    The modal verb could thirdly expresses suggestions. Note that the express of suggestions overlaps with the expression of permission. For example:

    • You could borrow my sweater. (I am suggesting that you borrow my sweater.)
    • They could take the back roads. (It is suggested that they take the back roads.)
    • He could go to the museum. (It is suggested that he go to the museum.)

    The modal verb could fourthly expresses possibility and to a lesser extent probability. For example:

    • The child could not have gotten far. (It is not possible for the child to have gotten far.)
    • The ship could sink. (It is possible for the ship to sink.)
    • The entire building could explode. (It is probable that the entire building will explode.)

    The modal verb could fifthly expresses requests. Note that requests made with could are often more polite than requests made through the imperative mood or commands. For example:

    • Could you pass the tequila? (I am requesting that you pass the tequila.)
    • Could you shut the door? (I am requesting that you shut the door.)
    • Could you stop your whining? (I am requesting that you stop your whining.)

    Note that, like with other modals, there is overlap in the meanings of the modal verb could. For example, the expression of suggestions not only overlaps with the expression of permission but also with the expression of possibility: You could borrow my sweater expresses a suggestion as well as permission and possibility.

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    Might

    The Oxford English Dictionary offers the following definitions of the modal verb might:

    1. Formerly past tense of may.
    2. Expressing objective possibility, opportunity, or absence of prohibitive conditions; have the potentiality to, be at liberty to, be permitted by circumstances to.
    3. Expressing permission or sanction: was allowed (to do something) by authority, law, rule, morality, reason, etc.
    4. Expressing objective possibility, opportunity, or absence of prohibitive conditions; have the potentiality to, be at liberty to, be permitted by circumstances to.
    5. Expressing subjective possibility with reference to the past.
    6. Used in a question, with the effect of rendering the tone less abrupt or pointed.

    The modal verb might firstly expresses possibility. For example:

    • Those plates might fall off the cabinet. (It is possible for those plates to fall off the cabinet.)
    • You might get hurt. (It is possible for you to get hurt.)
    • The soufflé might be burnt. (It is possible for the soufflé to be burnt.)

    The modal verb might secondly expresses suggestions. For example:

    • You might bring chocolate cupcakes instead of vanilla. (It is suggested that you bring chocolate cupcakes instead of vanilla.)
    • You might wash your hands more often. (It is suggested that you wash your hands more often.)
    • You might add raisins to the cookies. (It is suggested that you add raisins to the cookies.)

    The modal verb might thirdly expresses commands. Note that the expression of commands overlaps with the expression of suggestions. For example:

    • You might wash your hands more often. (It is commanded that you wash your hands more often.)
    • You might be quiet while I am on the phone. (It is commanded that you be quiet while I am on the phone.)
    • You might be more polite to customers. (It is commanded that you be more polite to customers.)

    Note that many of the meanings of the modal verb might overlap with the meanings of the modal verbs could and may.

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    Printable Download

    For a printable reference sheet of the definitions of the modal verbs might and could, please download English Modal Verbs Definitions Reference Sheet.

References

Semantics and Pragmatics of English Modal Verbs

Modal verbs are difficult to define because of the because of the wide range of pragmatic uses of modal auxiliaries. This series provides some of the most frequent meanings of the nine English modals—can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, and would—through definitions and examples.
  1. English Modal Verbs: Can, Could, May, Might, Must, Shall, Should, Will, and Would
  2. English Modal Verbs: Can and May
  3. English Modal Verbs: Will and Shall
  4. English Modal Verbs: Could and Might
  5. English Modal Verbs: Would
  6. English Modal Verbs: Must and Should