Modal verbs. Modal verbs of probability, present and future




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UNIT 12

GRAMMAR

Modal verbs.


  1. Modal verbs of probability, present and future.


The main modal verbs that express probability are described here in order of certainty. Will is the most certain, and might/could are the least certain.

  1. Will.

  1. Will and won’t are used to predict a future action. The truth or certainty of what is asserted is more or less taken for granted.

e.g. His latest book will be out next month.

b) Will and won’t are also used to express what we believe or guess to be true about the present. They indicate an assumption based on our knowledge of people and things, their routines, character and qualities.

e.g. Leave the meat in the oven. It won’t be cooked yet.

It’s Monday morning, so I guess right now Sarah will be taking the children to school.

  1. Must and can’t.

  1. Must is used to assert what we infer or conclude to be the most logical or rational interpretation of the situation. We do not have all the facts, so it is less certain than will. Must in this meaning is not used to speak about the future.

e.g. You say he walked across the Sahara Desert! He must be mad!

You must be joking! I simply don’t believe you!

  1. The negative of this use is can’t.

e.g. She can’t have a ten-year-old daughter! She’s only twenty-one herself!

3) Should.

a) Should expresses what may reasonably be expected to happen. Expectation means believing that things are or will be as we want them to be. This use of should has the idea of if everything has gone according to plan.

e.g. Our guests should be here soon (if they haven’t got lost).

This homework shouldn’t take you too long (if you’ve understood what you have to do).

We should be moving into our new house soon (as long as nothing goes wrong).

b) Should in this use has the idea that we want the action to happen. It is not used to express negative or unpleasant ideas.

e.g. You should pass the exam. You’ve worked hard (NOT You should fail the exam).

4) May, might and could.

a) May expresses the possibility that an event will happen or is happening.

e.g. We may go to Greece this year. We haven’t decided yet.

Where’s Ann?” “She may be having a bath, I don’t know”.

b) Might and could are slightly more tentative and slightly less certain than may.

e.g. It might rain. Take your umbrella.

You could be right. I’m not sure.

  1. Couldn’t is not used to express a future possibility. The negative of could in this use is might not.

e.g. You might not be right.

d) Couldn’t has a similar meaning to can’t above, only slightly weaker.

e.g. She couldn’t have a ten-year-old daughter! She’s only twenty-one herself!


  1. Modal verbs of probability in the past.


All the modal verbs above can be used with the perfect infinitive to speak about probability in the past. They express the same varying degrees of certainty. Again, will have done is the most certain, and might/ could have done is the least certain.

e.g. “I met a tall girl at your party. Very attractive.” “That’ll have been my sister, Patsy.”

It must have been a good party. Everyone stayed till dawn.

The music can’t have been any good. Nobody danced.

Where’s Pete? He should’ve been here ages ago.

He may have got lost.

He might have decided not to come.

He could have had an accident.


  1. Other uses of modal verbs.




  1. Obligation and advice.

  1. Must expresses strong obligation. Other verb forms are provided by have to.

e.g. You must try harder.

You’ll have to do this exercise again.

I hate having to get up early.

  1. Must expresses the opinion of the speaker.

e.g. I must get my hair cut.

You must do this again. (Teacher to student)

Have to expresses a general obligation based on a law or rule, or based on the authority of another person.

e.g. Children have to go to school until they’re sixteen.

Mum says you have to tidy you room.

  1. Mustn’t expresses negative obligation. Don’t have to expresses the absence of obligation.

e.g. You mustn’t steal. It’s very naughty.

You don’t have to go to England if you want to learn English.

  1. Should and ought to express mild obligation or advice. Should is much more common. Ought to is not used in questions.

e.g. You should go to bed. You look very tired.

You ought to take things easier.

  1. Should (ought to) + the perfect infinitive is used to refer to a desirable action in the past that didn’t happen.

e.g. You should’ve listened to my advice. I was right all the time.

Shouldn’t (oughtn’t to) + the perfect infinitive is used to refer to an undesirable action in the past that did happen.

e.g. You shouldn’t have told him he was a loser. It was callous.

f) Need is a modal verb, with no 3rd person form. It is used mainly in questions and negatives. The meaning is similar to have to.

e.g. Need you ask? The Prime Minister need not worry.

Need to is a normal verb.

e.g. Sarah needs to be more careful. You don't need to worry. Do I need to fill in this form?

g) Didn't need to describes a past situation, where something was not necessary, so it was not done.
e.g. Kate looked after the children, so we didn't need to take them to the nursery.

Needn't have done describes a past situation, where something happened or was done, but it was not necessary.

e.g. I needn't have gone so early to the office. The meeting was cancelled.

2) Permission.

a) May, can and could are used to ask for permission.

e.g. May I use your phone?

Can/could I go home?

  1. May is used to give permission, but it sounds very formal. Can and can’t are more common.

e.g. You can use a dictionary in this exam.

You can’t stay up till midnight.

  1. To talk about permission generally, or permission in the past, we use can, could or be able to.

e.g. Children can (are allowed) to do what they want these days.

3) Ability.

a) Can expresses ability. The past is expressed by could. Other forms are provided by be able to.

e.g. I can speak three languages.

I could swim when I was three.

I’ve never been able to understand her.

b) To express a fulfilled ability on one particular occasion in the past, could is not used. Instead we use was able to or managed to.

e.g. She was able to survive by clinging onto the wrecked boat.

The prisoner managed to escape by climbing onto the roof.

c) Could + the perfect infinitive is used to speak about an unrealized past ability. Someone was able to do something in the past, but didn’t try to.

e.g. I could have gone to university, but I didn’t want to.

d) Could (and might) can be used to criticize people for not doing things.

e.g. You could (might) have helped me instead of just sitting there!

4) Request.

Several modal verbs express a request.

e.g. Can/could/will/would you help me?

5) Willingness and refusal.

a) Will expresses willingness. Won’t expresses a refusal by either people or things.

e.g. I’ll help you.

She says she won’t get up until she’s had breakfast in bed.

The car won’t start.

b) The past is expressed by wouldn’t.

e.g. My mum said she wouldn’t give me any more money.

I. Modal verbs of probability.


1. Choose the best continuation a to i for sentences 1 to 9.


1 You must have met some fascinating people

  1. You must know Tokyo is expensive

  2. You can't have lived in Tunisia for ten years

  3. You can't be tired

  4. You must be exhausted

  5. You may find it difficult to settle down

  6. You couldn't have gone on holiday

  7. You might think about going to Spain

  8. You could take a taxi



a after all your hard work.

b after touring the world for years.

с if you've lived there.

d during your trip to Africa.

e when you've just had a holiday.

f without learning some Arabic.

g to the airport tomorrow.

h because you had a broken leg.

i for your next holiday.


2. Choose the best continuation a to j for sentences 1 to 10.


1 I'm still waiting for the money the bank is supposed to have sent me.

2 There's still no sign of Alex.

3 It's getting rather late to deal with this now.

4 I wish you wouldn't leave your bag near the door like that.

5 You'd better take your umbrella with you.

6 This piece is the right shape, but it doesn't fit.

7 There should be a filling station here.

8 It's a very long book.

9 Oh sorry, yes, these are your keys.

10 Leave yourself plenty of time for the journey.


  1. You're bound to need it if you don't.

  2. Surely you can't have finished it already!

  3. It should have got here by now.

  4. It can take quite a long time in the rush hour.

  5. It can't be the right one after all.

  6. That's strange! I can't see one anywhere!

  7. You could always come back tomorrow.

  8. He may have missed the train I suppose.

  9. I must have picked them up by mistake.

  10. Someone could easily fall over it and hurt themselves.


3. Choose the correct alternative.


  1. You must be / can't be very proud of your son winning so many prizes.

  1. We thought our cousins would visit us when they were in town last week, but they didn't even phone. I suppose they must be / must have been too busy.

  1. The film's been such a big success. I guess it must be / can't be easy to get tickets to see it.

  2. I'm sure you could mend this if you really tried. You must be using / can't be using the right tools.

  1. I've just rung the garage to check whether they've fixed my car, but I can't get an answer. I suppose they may have / may be having a tea-break out in the yard.

  2. I don't know why you wanted to stay at that party. You might have enjoyed / can't have enjoyed talking to all those boring people.

  3. I can't go out this morning. We're getting a new sofa and the store may be delivering / must be delivering it today.

  4. Please check these figures again. They're not accurate. You might have been concentrating / can't have been concentrating when you added them up.

  1. You must be / must have been thirsty after carrying those heavy boxes. Shall I make some tea?


4. Choose the correct form. А, В or C, to complete the sentence.


1 Why don't you phone Katie now? She … yet.

2 Take some sun-block and wear a hat, as it … get very hot in the middle of the day.

3 There's no point waiting here any longer. We … go and have something to eat.

4 Lucky you managed to hang on to that tree. You …down the cliff.

5 'What am I going to do about a present for Carol?' 'You … some flowers.'

6 I don't know what time I'll be home. I … be quite late, I'm afraid.

7 Don't worry about your driving test. You … to pass.

8 There's no sign of the dog anywhere. Someone … it out.

9 Why don't you ask Nick about it? He … know the answer, I suppose.

10There must be some kind of technical problem. The film … by now.


1 A can't have left В must have left С might have left

2 A must В can С could have

3 A can hardly В are bound to С might as well

4 A could have fallen В must have fallen С may have fallen

5 A might have sent her В must have sent her С could always send her

6 A must В can С may

7 A may В must С are bound to

8 A is bound to have let В must have let С can let

9 A can В may as well С might

10A should have started В must have started С might have started


5. Complete the email with the words below.


may be seeing may have left could be coming

may not have done couldn't have left may have found

could have fallen may be visiting


^ From: Robin Nicholas

To: Helena Shakespeare
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