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Understanding and Using Modal Verbs (#14), by Dennis Oliver

 

Modal Verbs #14:
Individual Modal Verbs

 

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

In this Hint, we'll continue with more information on could.


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Could #4:
Possibility
(present / future time)

 

Thus far, we have seen that the modal auxiliary could is used
in several very different ways: (1) as an "artificial" past form
that occurs when sentences with
can are used in indirect
(reported) speech and the main verb is past; (2) in making
polite requests in present or future time; and (3) in showing
ability (but not permission) in the past.

A fourth way to use could is showing possibilities in present
or future time. (The degree of possibility shown by
could is
less than the degree of possibility shown by
may.)

Examples:

Aren't you going to answer the phone? It could be
an important call!

(It's possible, though not likely, that the call is
an important one.)

__________________________________________


A:

B:

 

Why can't I access my e-mail?

I don't know. There could be a problem with
the server, I guess.


(It's possible, though not likely, that there is a problem
with the e-mail server.)

__________________________________________


It was cooler today and there were a few dark clouds.
We
could have some rain tomorrow.

(It's possible, though not likely, that there is going to be
rain tomorrow.)


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Special Notes:


1.

Could is sometimes used in with affirmative ( + )
comparatives to give a special meaning. When
could
is used in this way, the meaning is something like
not very:

I could be better. =
I'm
not very well.

This soup could be hotter. =
This soup
isn't very hot.

My house could be cleaner. =
My house
isn't very clean.

     
2.  

Could is also used iwith negative ( - ) comparatives
to give a special meaning, but the meaning is quite
from the meaning with affirmative comparatives.
In this situation,
could means something like
as ___ as it's possible to be (or very ___ ):

I couldn't be better. =
I'm as well as it's possibile to be
(in other words, very well).

This soup couldn't be hotter. =
The soup is as hot as it's possible to be
(in other words, very hot).

My house couldn't be cleaner. =
My house is as clean as it's possible to be
(in other words, very clean).

     
3.  

Couldn't is also used in present or future time
to indicate that something seems
impossible:

A:

B:

 

Did you know that Frank is in England?

He couldn't be in England! I saw him
just a few minutes ago!


A:

B:

 

Do you realize that it's almost midnight?

It couldn't be that late! The last time
I looked at the clock, it was only 8:00 PM!


A:

B:

 

Fred's daughter is going to be 16 tomorrow.

She couldn't be that old! I saw her only
a few years ago, and she was just a baby!


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Next: more on modal verbs

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