Level: beginner

Possibility

We use may, might and could to say that something is possible, but not certain:

They may come by car. (= Maybe they will come by car.)
They might be at home. (= Maybe they are at home.)
If we don't hurry, we could be late. (= Maybe we will be late.)

We use can to make general statements about what is possible:

It can be very cold here in winter. (= It is sometimes very cold here in winter.)
You can easily get lost in this town. (= People often get lost in this town.)

Be careful!

We do not use can to talk about specific events:

A: Where's John?
B: I'm not sure. He may/might/could be 
(NOT can) in his office.

Notice the difference in meaning between can and may/might/could:

That dog can be dangerous.
(= Sometimes that dog is dangerous. I know.)

That dog may/might/could be dangerous.
(= Perhaps that dog is dangerous. I don't know.)

can and may/might/could

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Level: intermediate

We use may have, might have or could have to make guesses about the past:

I haven't received your letter. It may have got lost in the post.
It's ten o'clock. They might have arrived by now.
Where are they? They could have got lost.

We use could to make general statements about the past:

It could be very cold there in winter. (= It was sometimes very cold there in winter.)
You could easily get lost in that town. (= People often got lost in that town.)

could and could have

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Impossibility

Level: beginner

We use can't or cannot to say that something is impossible:

That can't be true.
You cannot be serious.

Level: intermediate

We use can't have or couldn't have to say that a past event was impossible:

They know the way here. They can't have got lost!
If Jones was at work until six, he couldn't have done the murder.

Certainty

Level: beginner

We use must to show we are sure something is true and we have reasons for our belief:

It's getting dark. It must be quite late.
You haven’t eaten all day. You must be hungry.

We use should to suggest something is true and we have reasons for our suggestion:

Ask Miranda. She should know.
It's nearly six o'clock. They should arrive soon.

Level: intermediate

We use must have and should have for the past:

They hadn't eaten all day. They must have been hungry.
You look happy. You must have heard the good news.
It's nearly eleven o'clock. They should have arrived by now.

Probability 1

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Probability 2

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Probability 3

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Probability 4

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Probability 5

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Comments

Hi,
1.How could you do that to me? Here, in this sentence 'could' is used for ability or possibility? and which time does this sentence refer(present/past/future)?
2. What is the difference between possibility and probability?

Hi jitu_jaga,

It's difficult to say for sure without context, but it looks to me as if 'could' is being used to express past, or perhaps hypothetical, ability in the sentence you ask about. If I found out that a close friend of mine planned to borrow my car without asking my permission, for example, I might say something like this. The idea is that a good friend wouldn't be able to hurt me in that way.

'possibility' refers to whether something could happen or not; 'probability' refers to how likely it is that it could happen -- it's like the level of possibility of something. The lottery is a classic example -- it's not probable that you win the lottery, but it is possible.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you Kirk. Have a nice day.

Hi,
They could come by car
They might come by car
They may come by car

Can you please explain me which of the above sentence is correct/more accurate or can be used interchangeably?

Hello QaaZee,

All of these are grammatically correct and they can all mean that there is a chance that they will come by car. Other meanings are possible for some of the examples. 'May' could refer to permission, for example, as in it is OK for them to come by car, but that would depend on the context.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks Peter,
Could you please provide an example with context for 'May' to further elaborate its use for permission.
Thank you once again.

Hi,
Look at the sentence 'I consoled myself with the thought that things could be much worse'.
In this sentence how can we know 'could' is used either as past form of 'can' or 'could' is used for past possibility. we use 'can' for general possibility and 'could' for possibility in a single occasion. So when we want to say this in a past sentence like above, how can we know it is a general possibility or a possibility in a single situation. In the past sentences we use preterite form of 'can'. So I get confused it is a general possibility or a possibility in a single situation.

Hello jitu_jaga,

The modal verb does not carry a marker for this within it so we use the context to inform us. If the context is not clear then it is ambiguous, but this would rarely matter.

For example, the meaning of your sentence is quite clear, I think. The speaker is looking at a bad situation and consoling themselves with the thought that something worse is possible. It may or may not be obvious from the context whether the worse possibility is something specific (my car is not working but it could be worse - my car could have exploded) or general (my car is not working but it could be worse - I could have lost my job, got sick or suffered some family tragedy). It really does not matter, however; what is important is the idea that things are not as bad as they could be, and that the person's ill-fortune is not so terrible when considered in the right way.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you Peter. You always provide good explanations. Have a nice day.

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