# Probability

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:

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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Submitted by jitu_jaga on Tue, 03/07/2018 - 23:12

Hi, A-do you remember me? B-how could I forget you? In the second sentence 'could' is used for ability or possibility and which time it refers (present/past/future). Please explain?

Submitted by Peter M. on Wed, 04/07/2018 - 07:14

Hi jitu_jaga,

I think we've already provided a lot of explanations on this point and can't really continue explaining the same point with yet more examples. Why don't you tell us what you think the meaning is here and we will comment on your idea?

The important thing is not which label (possibility/ability etc) you put on a word, but rather that you understand how it is used in communication.

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by jitu_jaga on Mon, 25/06/2018 - 11:53

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?

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Mon, 25/06/2018 - 16:01

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

Submitted by QaaZee on Sun, 24/06/2018 - 22:52

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?

Submitted by Peter M. on Mon, 25/06/2018 - 07:04

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.

Submitted by jitu_jaga on Wed, 20/06/2018 - 13:48

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.

Submitted by Peter M. on Thu, 21/06/2018 - 07:25

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.

Submitted by jitu_jaga on Mon, 18/06/2018 - 04:27

Hi, We use may/might/could for possibility and may/might/could have for past possibility. But we don't use 'would' for possibility. But sometimes, I find sentence like ' You would know, Sachin Tendulkar is a great batsman'. I think here 'would' is used for speculation if I am not wrong. In this sense, if we write sentences like It may/might/could rain tomorrow, could we write 'It would rain tomorrow' or 'I would marry next month'?. If not then what would be its meaning? I don't understand how to use use 'would' for future and past speculation.Could you Please explain it clearly.

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Wed, 20/06/2018 - 14:18

Hello jitu_jaga,

The sentence about Sachin Tendulkar you mention doesn't sound right to me, at least out of context. In other words, perhaps in a specific context it would make sense, but out of context it does not.

Your other sentences with 'would' to talk about possibility (rain or getting married) are also not standard. At least in British or American English, 'would' isn't used to speak about possibility in this way. It can be used within a conditional structure to speak about a possibility, but that is a different structure, which is clearly indicated in most cases with an 'if' clause.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by SonuKumar on Sat, 31/03/2018 - 08:09

Sir, As We use must+have+ed form of verbs to talk about deduction and probability in the past and use could or can+not+have+third of verbs to talk about the same in negative in the past right ? But is there a structure in English like this must+not+have+ed form of verbs to talk about past negative deduction and probability or to talk about something else?

Hi SonuKumar,

'She must have gone home' means the speaker has good reasons to believe she went home, or that it is the only logical explanation they have at hand to explain a situation.

'She can't have gone home' means the speaker has reasons to believe that it is impossible that she went home.

'She must not have gone home' is not as strong. It means the speaker is making a supposition -- they think she probably did not go home, but don't have strong evidence for this.

I hope that makes it clear.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by TJ on Sun, 25/03/2018 - 07:34

Hi sir, In this sentence 'You could lose your way in the dark. ' , I can't get the aspect. Could you please explain the context . Because I can't understand the usage of could in the past possibility. Thanks

Submitted by Peter M. on Sun, 25/03/2018 - 08:32

Hi TJ,

It's important to remember that modal verbs have multiple uses. One use of 'could' is as the past form of 'can' to describe possibility. It's helpful to compare the two:

When it is foggy people can easily get lost on their way home.

I lived in Scotland as a child and it was often foggy, so people could easily get lost on their way home.

The first sentence describes something that is generally possible (getting lost) in certain situations (when it is foggy). The second sentence describes something that was generally possible (getting lost) in certain situations (when it was foggy).

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by TJ on Sun, 25/03/2018 - 10:12

In reply to by Peter M.

got it, clear. Thanks for the quick reply. cheers

Submitted by Hamdy Ali on Wed, 10/01/2018 - 19:16

Hi If I am sure that I did well in exams ,can I say :"I am sure I passed" ? or something else

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Thu, 11/01/2018 - 07:35

In reply to by Hamdy Ali