For VOA Learning English, this is Everyday Grammar.
This week's Everyday Grammar looks at how to usethe modals may, must, and might.
Modal verbs (called modals for short) are auxiliary verbs that express a speaker’s attitude and thestrength of that attitude. There are about 17 modals inEnglish. They have multiple meanings and sometimesoverlap in ways that are confusing to English learners. Today we will look athow we use these modals to express how certain, or sure, you are ofsomething.
Degrees of certainty in the present and past
Grammar expert Betty Azar explains that these modals tell us how surespeakers are about what they are saying. A person who is 100% sure usesthe verb be as in "I am sick." If they are mostly sure, say 95%, they will use themodal must, as in "I must be sick." When speakers are about 50% sure, theywill use the modals may, might, or could; as in "I may be sick. I might be sick. I could be sick."
Might as the past tense of may
Might is used as the past form of may. For example:
"I may take more pictures." (This is a direct quote)
She said she might take more pictures. (This is reported speech)
Notice how may changed to might. Modals change to a past form in reported speech.
Yesterday we had a staff meeting. I looked around the room and noticed myco-worker Anna was not there. I asked, "Where's Anna?" and got threeanswers from my co-workers.
Jonathan answered, "Oh, she may be making a video in the studio."
Kelly said, "She might have stayed home today."
Adam told us, "She called me to say she was doing an interview at theCapitol this morning. So she must still be working over there."
In this conversation, you can see a change from may to might. May showsthe speaker is not sure in the present moment: "She may be making a video."May changes to might to express a possible state in the past: "She mighthave stayed home." Finally, must expresses a strong certainty: "She must beworking there."
People today do not always follow these rules about present and past tensefor may and might. You will hear both words to express the same degree ofcertainty. English speakers still express strong certainty in phrases like, "Itmust be love."
Listen for the word might in this song by The Cars.
You might think it's foolish
or maybe it's untrue
You might think I'm crazy
but all I want is you
By using might, the singer is expressing about 50% certainty.
Degrees of uncertainty in the future
Now let's look at how we express certainty about the future.
My friend Andy has a test next week. He has studied very hard for months. Itold him, "You will do well on the test. Don't worry." I believe with 100%certainty that Andy will pass the test.
On the other hand, Carrie, who has to take the same test, just began studyinglast week. I warned her, "You might not do well on the test. You should studymore this weekend." I am not so sure that Carrie will pass. In fact, I doubt it. Iexpress that future possibility with might.
May is sometimes used to express hope
The idea of possible future events lets English speakers use may to talk abouthopes. You will see may on greeting cards and in prayers or religiouswritings.
A quick look at Google Ngrams shows that few people are using may in thisway. Now, it is much more common to hear "I hope that."
The group Celtic Woman sings of their wishes in May it Be:
May it be an evening star,
Shines down upon you.
May it be when darkness falls,
Your heart will be true.
Traditional poems and prayers also use may toexpress positive sentiments. This is part of an old Irish blessing:
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face.
With that in mind, the Everyday Grammar team says, "May you find ourarticles useful."
I’m Jill Robbins.
And I'm Adam Brock.
Dr. Jill Robbins wrote this story for Learning English. Adam Brock was theeditor.
Words in This Story
certain- adj. not having any doubt about something; convinced or sure
positive - adj. thinking that a good result will happen: hopeful or optimistic
modal verb- a verb (such as can, could, shall, should, ought to, will, or would) that is usually used with another verb to express ideas such as possibility,necessity, and permission
auxiliary verb- a verb (such as have, be, may, do, shall, will, can, or must) that is used with another verb to show the verb's tense, to form a question,etc.