Meanings Of The Modal Verbs I.

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Meanings Of The Modal Verbs I.

Meanings Of The Modal Verbs I

Modality is the manner in which the meaning of a clause is qualified so as to reflect the speakers judgement of the likeelihood of the proposition it expresses being true. There are constraining factors of meaning which can be divided into two types:

  1. Those such as permission, obligation, and volition which involve some kind of intristic human control over events.
  2. Those such as possibility , necessity, and prediction, which do not primarily involve human control of events but judgement of what is or is not likely to happen.

INTRINSIC and EXTRINSIC uses of modal verbs

Each one of the modals has both the intrinsic and the extrinsic uses:

May has the meaning of permission(intrinsic) and possibility(extrinsic) For inst. SHOULD and WOULD is interchangeable in the meaning obligation and tentative inference.

  1. Certain modals such as CAN and WILL are extremely common, but others such as should and ought to are rare.
  2. Most of them have the past form as well, but in terms of meaning, their past form does not always stand for the past.(can/could)
  3. Their use differ in British English (BrE) and American English (AmE). For inst. the use of those above mentioned rare modals are rarer in AmE.

Can/could: Three major meaning of the modals can be distinguished.

  1. Possibility: mostly in questions and negatives: Even expert drivers can make mistakes. In this case CAN is paraphrasable by IT IS POSSIBLE followed by an infinitive clause. Sometimes can indicates a future possibility.
  2. Ability: Can you remember. Can be paraphrased by BE ABLE TO or BE CAPABLE OF. or be possible for me to… can/could is due to some skill or capability on the part of the subject referent.
  3. Permission: In these cases can is less formal than may. Can we borrow or Are we allowed to borrow.


  1. Possibility:
    You may be right. It is different from the possibility sense of CAN. To paraphrase we use IT IS POSSIBLE followed by a that clause or we simply use (it may be that or perhaps) This meaning of MAY is termed Epistemic Possibility: it denotes the possibility of a given proposition’s being or becoming true. Might can be used as an alternetive to may. Might is more tentative. It is often preferred to may as a modal of epistemic possibility. When may/might is used in the same possibility sense as can/could than it is a sense of Root possibility: During the autumn, many rare birds may be observed. Here may is a more formal substitute for can.
  2. Permission:
    You may borrow my bicycle. As a permission auxiliary may is more formal and less common than can.
    May is associated with permission given by the speaker.

In interogatives and in auxiliary negation may in the sense of epistemic possibility is normally replaced by can.
She may not be serious/She cant be serious.


There are rare use of may
with subject -operator inversion in volitional sentences.
May the best man win=Let the best man win.

In subordinate clauses of concession or purpose:
Strange as it may seem. (this is formal and has an archaic sense.)

Use of may in concessive adverbial clauses:
We may have our differences from time to time, but we trust each other.

Idiomatic expression may/might as well.
is to make reluctant or sardonic (erőltetett) recommendation:
You may as well stay here.

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