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Modals A – may/might (Permission, Possibility)

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The authorities must do something about the traffic congestion.
John’s not here yet. He must be stuck in traffic.

To understand the difference in meaning of these two examples it’s best to look at modal verbs using the words intrinsic and extrinsic which are often used to describe modal verbs.

Intrinsic meanings are meanings which give the idea that people have some control over the actions or events. These meanings can be put into groups like permission, necessity and willingness.

Extrinsic meanings are meanings where people express their ideas or thoughts about what is or isn’t going to happen. These meanings can be put into groups like possibility or prediction.

So, ‘The authorities must do something about the traffic congestion’. The meaning of ‘must’ is intrinsic and describes a necessity.
And ‘John’s not here yet. He must be stuck in traffic.’ The meaning of ‘must’ here is extrinsic and describes certainty or a real possibility.

May and Might – possibility

The verbs ‘may’ and ‘might’ are used to say that something is possibly true:
I think I might be coming down with the flu.
That may be a better solution.

In informal situations ‘might’ is more common than ‘may’ when we want to talk about what someone will do in the future:
They might move to London.
I might go out tonight.

‘May’ is more commonly used in formal situations:
The price of the property may go up in the future.

‘May’ is not usually used in questions asking about how true something could possibly be:

How possible is it for you to come first? Are you likely to win? And not “May you win?”

‘May’ and ‘might’ – permission
Usually ‘may’ is used to talk about permission in formal situations:
Laptops and tablets may not be used during the test.
Only hotel guests may use the facilities.

‘May’ is used for formal requests:
May I ask a question?
May I come in?

Part 2 - Modals B – must/have to (Necessity – Deduction)

Part 3 - Modals C – should/ought to (Obligation and Probability)

Lesson by Tristan, English teacher at EC Malta English school

Decide if these sentences denote Permission, Possibility

  • 1) I might have the right dress you could wear for the party. Would you like to see it?

  • 2) That’s the door bell. It might be Peter. He said he would call round.

  • 3) Might I ask whether it would be a problem to resume the discussion at a later date?

  • 4) It might be better if we waited for a few minutes before calling the police.

  • 5) There might be an extra charge for transfers from and to the airport.

  • 6) He might have to stay the night because of the bad weather.

  • 7) How may I help you?

  • 8) May I say that that was an excellent performance? Well done.