Modal Verbs - Ability and Possibility
Writing
Modal Verbs Exercises for IELTS on Ability and Possibility

Hi everyone! Today I want to talk about modal verbs, this is the first of two posts that I am writing on this topic so keep an eye out for the next one in the coming weeks. I will start with a brief overview of modal verbs and then focus on ability and possibility. Don’t forget to complete the activities as you read. Overview Modal verbs are auxiliary verbs that give information about ability, possibility, necessity, obligation and suggestions. They are used in both spoken and written English, a lot!   Quick Facts Modal verbs are followed by the infinitive without to. A modal verb always appears before the main verb. Modal verbs don’t take the -s ending in the third-person singular. To make modal verbs negative add not between the modal verb and the main verb. ‘Could’ and ‘would’ are the only modal verbs that can be used as past tenses of their present versions. Ability We use the following modal verbs to talk about ability: (Click to enlarge) Be able to is used instead of can/can’t and could/couldn’t to express ability in the perfect tenses or future: Have you been able to finish the report yet? Parents will be able to send their children to extra clubs after school. In more formal written English, we often use be able to instead of can or could, although both are possible: The hotels on the island are able to accommodate hundreds of visitors. (more formal) The hotels on the island can accommodate hundreds of visitors. (less formal) Watch out! When we are talking about ability on a specific occasion in the past, we use be able to instead of could: Firefighters were able to (not could) rescue all residents of the building before it collapsed. (Click to enlarge) Possibility We use modal verbs when there is some evidence, information or belief that something is probably or possibly true or not true. The modal verb we choose depends on the strength of the evidence we have to support our ideas. (Click to enlarge) Watch out! May not and might not do not express the same probability as couldn’t. The supermarket may/might not be open today because it’s a national holiday. (not the supermarket couldn’t be open today)  So how do we talk about possibility in the present, the past and the future? Present We use may (not), might (not), could(n’t), must, can’t + infinitive without to to talk about possibility in the present: The government may have a new scheme. (= it is possible the government has a new scheme) It couldn’t be easier to do. (= it is very unlikely that it is difficult) Past We use may (not), might (not), could(n’t), must, can’t + have + past participle to talk about possibility in the past: The journalists must have asked everyone. (= there is strong evidence they asked a lot of people) Some people might not have received the letter. (= this is a possible situation) They can’t have heard the alarm. (= there is strong evidence they didn’t hear it)   Future We use may (not), might (not), could (not) + infinitive without to to talk about possibility in the future: He could make a total recovery one day. We might find life on another planet one day. (Click to enlarge) Modal verbs are important in your IELTS Writing in Task 2 because they help to ‘soften’ the message and show that you are expressing your opinion, not reporting proven facts.   Compare: a)     People are unkind to others because they feel insecure. b)     People can be unkind to others, this might be because they feel insecure.   a)     Banning cars with a high fuel consumption is a good idea as it will result in less pollution. b)     Banning cars with a high fuel consumption may be a good idea as it could result in less pollution. In both pairs of sentences, we can see that option a) is very bold and makes claims that the writer is not able to prove. Option b), on the other hand, shows us that these are the opinions of the writer, not facts. (Click to enlarge) As you practise for your IELTS test try to soften your opinions by using modal verbs, especially in Writing Task 2 and Speaking Part 3. Using modals correctly in these parts of the test shows the examiner that you have a deeper understanding of English grammar. Look out for my second blog post on modals coming soon. I will be looking at how we use modals to show obligation, necessity and make suggestions and give advice. Bye for now, Emma

Emma Cosgrave

19 May, 2021

Modal Verbs Exercises for IELTS on Ability and Possibility

Modal Verbs - Ability and Possibility

Hi everyone! Today I want to talk about modal verbs, this is the first of two posts that I am writing on this topic so keep an eye out for the next one in the coming weeks. I will start with a brief overview of modal verbs and then focus on ability and possibility. Don’t forget to complete the activities as you read.

Overview

Modal verbs are auxiliary verbs that give information about ability, possibility, necessity, obligation and suggestions. They are used in both spoken and written English, a lot!

 

Quick Facts

  • Modal verbs are followed by the infinitive without to.
  • A modal verb always appears before the main verb.
  • Modal verbs don’t take the -s ending in the third-person singular.
  • To make modal verbs negative add not between the modal verb and the main verb.
  • ‘Could’ and ‘would’ are the only modal verbs that can be used as past tenses of their present versions.

Ability

We use the following modal verbs to talk about ability:

Modal Verbs to talk about ability

(Click to enlarge)

Be able to is used instead of can/can’t and could/couldn’t to express ability in the perfect tenses or future:

  • Have you been able to finish the report yet?
  • Parents will be able to send their children to extra clubs after school.

In more formal written English, we often use be able to instead of can or could, although both are possible:

  • The hotels on the island are able to accommodate hundreds of visitors. (more formal)
  • The hotels on the island can accommodate hundreds of visitors. (less formal)

Watch out! When we are talking about ability on a specific occasion in the past, we use be able to instead of could:

  • Firefighters were able to (not could) rescue all residents of the building before it collapsed.
Activity adapted from Page 111 of Cambridge Grammar for IELTS

(Click to enlarge)

Possibility

We use modal verbs when there is some evidence, information or belief that something is probably or possibly true or not true. The modal verb we choose depends on the strength of the evidence we have to support our ideas.

Modal Verbs to talk about possibility

(Click to enlarge)

Watch out! May not and might not do not express the same probability as couldn’t.

The supermarket may/might not be open today because it’s a national holiday. (not the supermarket couldn’t be open today)

So how do we talk about possibility in the present, the past and the future?

Present

We use may (not), might (not), could(n’t), must, can’t + infinitive without to to talk about possibility in the present:

  • The government may have a new scheme. (= it is possible the government has a new scheme)
  • It couldn’t be easier to do. (= it is very unlikely that it is difficult)

Past

We use may (not), might (not), could(n’t), must, can’t + have + past participle to talk about possibility in the past:

  • The journalists must have asked everyone. (= there is strong evidence they asked a lot of people)
  • Some people might not have received the letter. (= this is a possible situation)
  • They can’t have heard the alarm. (= there is strong evidence they didn’t hear it)

Future

We use may (not), might (not), could (not) + infinitive without to to talk about possibility in the future:

  • He could make a total recovery one day.
  • We might find life on another planet one day.
Activity 2 adapted from Page 111 from Cambridge Grammar for IELTS

(Click to enlarge)

Modal verbs are important in your IELTS Writing in Task 2 because they help to ‘soften’ the message and show that you are expressing your opinion, not reporting proven facts.  

Compare:

a) People are unkind to others because they feel insecure.

b) People can be unkind to others, this might be because they feel insecure.

 

a) Banning cars with a high fuel consumption is a good idea as it will result in less pollution.

b) Banning cars with a high fuel consumption may be a good idea as it could result in less pollution.

In both pairs of sentences, we can see that option a) is very bold and makes claims that the writer is not able to prove. Option b), on the other hand, shows us that these are the opinions of the writer, not facts.

Activity 3 from Page 112 of Cambridge Grammar for IELTS

(Click to enlarge)

As you practise for your IELTS test try to soften your opinions by using modal verbs, especially in Writing Task 2 and Speaking Part 3. Using modals correctly in these parts of the test shows the examiner that you have a deeper understanding of English grammar.

Look out for my second blog post on modals coming soon. I will be looking at how we use modals to show obligation, necessity and make suggestions and give advice.

Bye for now,

Emma

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MODAL VERBS: can, could, may, might, must, will, would, shall, should

Emma Cosgrave

Emma has been teaching IELTS for 20 years. She enjoys helping people to develop both their language skills and confidence.

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