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Understanding and Using Modal Verbs (#3), by Dennis Oliver


Modal Verbs #3:
Individual Modal Verbs


The English modal verbs are often challenging for learners
of English. This happens for many reasons, including both
grammar and meaning.

This Hint continues with information on may. We've already
seen how
may is used in present or future time, so let's take
a look now at its very different "behavior" in past time.


May #2:
Past Time


For past time, the modal verb may is used in quite differently
in direct speech and in indirect speech.

Direct Speech

In direct speech, may is used only to give information about
possibility--not both possibility and permission.

To show possibility in the past, use may + have + the past
participle (third form) of the verb.

Examples: may = possibility in the past


  Where's George?

I don't know. He
may have gone home.
(It's possible that George went home.)

  Was Lily at the party?

I'm not sure. She
may have been there.
(It's possible that she was there.)

  Why aren't Joe and his girlfriend speaking
to each other?

I'm not sure. They
may have had a disagreement
about something. (It's possible that they had
a disagreement about something.)



Indirect Speech

In indirect (quoted or reported) speech, may often changes
might if the main verb is in a past tense.

may -----> might (because of the tense of the main verb):

Bob: "May I go with you?" (direct speech)
Bob asked if he
might go with us. (indirect speech)
Ted: "Yes, you may borrow my car." (direct speech)
Ted told me that I
might borrow his car. (indirect speech)
Sheila: "I may be late." (direct speech)
Sheila stated that she
might be late. (indirect speech)


Special Notes:


maybe and may have

Maybe can also be used to give information
about possibilities in the past.


He may have gone home. /
Maybe he went home.

She may have been there. /
Maybe she was there.

I may have met him. I don't remember. /
Maybe I met him. I don't remember.


  Was Bob angry?

I don't know.
Maybe. /
may have been.

  Did Sheila forget about our meeting?

I don't know.
Maybe. /
may have.


May have does not refer to permission in the past.


"He may have left the room" means "Maybe he
left the room" or "It's possible that he left the room."
It does
not mean "He had permission to leave
the room."

"She may have borrowed your car" means "It's
possible that she borrowed your car" or "Maybe
she borrowed your car." It does
not mean "She
had permission to borrow your car."


Next: more modal verbs
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