Advanced Grammar for IELTS: Modal verbs (1): can, could, may, might, be able to

Advanced Grammar for IELTS: Modal verbs (1): can, could, may, might, be able to – Diagnose Test, Grammar Explanation & Practice Exercises

A         DIAGNOSTIC TEST: Modal verbs (1): can, could, may, might, be able to

Fifteen of the sentences below contain mistakes with modal verbs. Tick (✓) the correct sentences, then find and correct the mistakes.

Examples:

We took an exam yesterday and I couldn’t answer any of the questions.      ✓    

I could be promoted last year but I preferred to stay on the shop floor.  ==> could have been

1          When I finish the course next year I can speak perfect French

2          You’ll have to call a cab. I can’t have been able to drive since I broke my arm last June.

3          This computer is so simple that it is able to be operated by anyone.

4          The job interview was a disaster; I could only answer half the questions!

5          When she was riding in the woods last week, Helen fell off her horse but luckily she could get back on and ride home.

6          It’s really annoying. Surely you knew they didn’t accept traveller’s cheques at that hotel. You could warn me before I left!

7          These days she is rather slow but as a child she could run like the wind.

8          What an excellent choice of restaurant. I can’t have chosen better if I’d made the reservation myself!

9          There can be life on Saturn.

10        My father could be a star in the 1980s, it’s a pity that he never really tried.

11        Watching TV soaps can become very addictive

12        Jane’s late. She can be stuck in a traffic jam.

13        A new car! What can she be thinking of!

14        I heard your sales results were excellent. May you get a bonus this year?

15        Don’t get too anxious; there may well be a simple explanation for it.

16        Don’t bother replying as I may have changed address by the time you read this.

17        Steve couldn’t steal it. I’m sure he was at home all week.

18        Elizabeth can get better results if she paid more attention to her homework.

19        I’ll be able to meet you after the lesson.

20        I’m not sure about tomorrow night. I may be on call.

21        Excuse me. Am I able to use your phone?

22        Well, don’t worry. You could always try again tomorrow.

23        I could leave work early yesterday – my boss gave me permission.

24        You might get me some bin liners if it’s not too much trouble.

25        People might not smoke on British Airways flights; it’s forbidden.

B       GRAMMAR EXPLANATION: Modal verbs (1): can, could, may, might, be able to

Modal verbs can be confusing for learners because individual modal forms can be used to express a number of different meanings. This unit looks at the modals we use to describe ability and possibility, to make deductions, arrangements, suggestions and offers, and to ask for and give permission.

  1. ABILITY

1A. Present and future

We use can to describe an ability and cannot or can’t to describe a lack of ability in the present: She can speak Spanish but she can’t speak Italian.

If the present ability is surprising or involves overcoming some difficulty, we can also use is / are able to:

Despite his handicap he is able to drive a car.

Note: We cannot usually use be able to with a passive:

X  This book is able to be used by complete beginners.

  This book can be used by complete beginners.

To emphasise the difficulty or to suggest a great effort (in the present, past or future) we use manage to. In more formal English we can also use succeed in + -ing form:

Do you think she’ll manage to get a visa?

The army succeeded in defeating their enemy.

To describe a future ability we use will be able to, not can:

X  Can I speak fluently by the end of the course?

Will I be able to speak fluently by the end of the course?

We also use be able to where can/could is grammatically impossible, for example:

I haven’t been able to drive since I dislocated my wrist. (with the perfect aspect)

We love being able to talk the local language. (with -ing forms and infinitives)

Another form for not be able to is be unable to. It is more common in formal English:

The lawyer was unable to persuade the jury of her client’s innocence.

We use can (present) and could (past) before sense verbs.

I think I can smell something burning in the kitchen.

1B. Past

We use could to describe the possession of an ability in the past:

Past Mozart could play the piano at the age of five.

Note: To describe the successful use of an ability on a specific occasion we do not use could, we use a past tense or was / were able to:

X  Mike’s car broke down but fortunately he could repair it.

Mike’s car broke down but fortunately he was able to repair it.

But we can use could in questions, and in sentences with limiting adverbs such as only or hardly:

Could you fix the computer yourself?’ ‘No, I could only back up the key files.’

She was so exhausted she could hardly speak. 

We use couldn’t or was / were not able to to describe a lack of ability or success:

Mozart couldn’t speak French.

Despite being a mechanic, Mike couldn’t fix his car when it broke down yesterday.

We use could/ might have + past participle to describe a past ability which wasn’t used or a past opportunity which wasn’t taken. The meaning is similar to ‘would have been able to

She could have paid by credit card but she preferred to use cash. (= She had the ability to pay by credit card but she didn’t use it.)

I might have gone to university after leaving school but I chose to get a job instead. (= I had the opportunity to go, but I didn’t take it.)

We often use these forms to make a criticism:

You might/ could have told me about the party! (= You had the chance to tell me but you didn’t.)

We can use couldn’t have + past participle + comparative adjective when we want to emphasise a past action or feeling:

They couldn’t have tried harder to make me feel welcome. (= They tried very hard.)

I couldn’t have been more pleased when I heard about your results – congratulations! (= I was very pleased.)

  1. POSSIBILITY, DEDUCTION AND SPECULATION

2A. Present

We use can to describe things which are generally possible (we know they sometimes happen):

Drinks in restaurants can be very expensive. (= Drinks are sometimes expensive.)

In scientific and academic English we use may in the same way:

Over-prescribing of antibiotics may lead to the rapid development of resistant strains.

To talk about specific possibilities we use may, might and could (but not can). The meaning is similar to ’perhaps’ or ’maybe’:

X  There can be life on Mars.

There may be life on Mars. (= Perhaps there is life on Mars.)

The rash could be a symptom of something more serious. (= Maybe it is a symptom …)

We use the same forms when we are making a deduction based on evidence or on our experience:

He always wears smart suits. He could be a businessman.

‘Why isn’t she here yet?’ ‘1 don’t know. The train may be running late. ’

We can use well after may, might and could if we think the possibility is quite strong. (If we are very certain of the possibility, we use must)

Don’t worry, the contract could well be in the post. (= It is probably in the post.)

To describe possibilities which depend on certain conditions we use could or might:

She could learn much more quickly if she paid attention. (= She would be able to learn more quickly if she paid attention.)

We use can or could (but not may) to talk about specific possibilities in wh- questions or with adverbs such as only or hardly.

X  Who may that be at this time of night?

Who can/could that be at this time of night?

Where can/could that noise be coming from?

It can/could hardly be the postman, he only comes in the morning.

It can/could only be Steve. He’s the only one with a key. 

We use might for a more tentative (less direct) question:

Might the losses be due to currency fluctuations?

We use can’t or couldn’t for things which we know are impossible and to make negative deductions:

You can’t get blood out of a stone. (I’m sure about this, it’s impossible.)

He couldn’t be a doctor, he isn’t wearing a white coat. (I’m certain he isn’t …)

We also use this form to say that something is impossible because we are unwilling to do it:

I couldn’t pick up a spider; they terrify me.

When we think that something is possibly not the case we use might not or may not:

The shops may not/ might not be open today; it’s a bank holiday. (Perhaps they are not open.)

Note: In spoken English we often contract might not to mightn’t. We don’t usually contract may not.

2B. Past

We use could to talk about general possibility in the past (things which sometimes happened):

Teachers could be very strict at my old school. (Sometimes they were strict.)

In scientific and academic English we use might in the same way:

Wealthy Victorian families might keep as many as a dozen indoor servants.

We use could/might have for a specific past possibility:

She might have done it; she had the opportunity and the motive. (Perhaps she did it …)

John could have posted the letter. (I’m not sure whether he did or not.)

We also use might have for a past opportunity which we know was not taken .

I might have gone to drama school, but my parents wouldn’t let me. (I had the opportunity but I didn’t go.)

We express a negative deduction about the past with can’t have or couldn’t have:

She can’t have fixed the computer, it’s still not working properly. (I’m sure she didn’t fix it.)

When we are less certain we use may not have or might not have.

We’d better phone them, they might not have heard the news. (Perhaps they haven’t heard the news yet.)

We often use can’t have or couldn’t have to express surprise or disbelief:

She couldn’t have done it; she’s such a nice woman.

2C. Future

If we are certain that something will be possible or impossible in the future we can use will / won’t be able to:

We ‘ll be able to travel to the moon, but we won’t be able to travel to Mars.

For predictions which are less certain we use may, might or could. Could usually describes a weaker possibility than may or might:

The directors may call a stockholders’ meeting. (Perhaps they will call a meeting.)

You never know, she could meet someone suitable tomorrow. (It’s possible, but unlikely.)

We sometimes use may/might have + past participle to talk about a possible completed action by a time in the future :

Call me next Tuesday; I might have finished the project by then.

  1. ARRANGEMENTS, SUGGESTIONS, OFFERS, ETC.

3A. Arrangements

We use can, could or be able to to describe possible arrangements for a time in the future:

The doctor could see you at six; he can’t see you before then as he’s too busy.

I’ll be able to see you after the lesson.

If the arrangement is uncertain we use may or might:

The dentist might be free to see you immediately after lunch; I’ll have to check the diary.

I’m not sure if I’m available; I may be working that weekend.

3B. Suggestions, offers and requests

The choice of modal verb for suggestions, offers and requests depends on the formality of the situation. May and might tend to be more formal and tentative than can and could:

 
Less formal

 

 

More formal

Offers

Can I help you?

We could do that for you.

May I help you?

Might I be of some assistance?

Requests

Can you close the window?

Could you pass me the salt?

You might get me some milk while you’re there.

Suggestions

We can try that new cafe.

You could lose some weight.

You might give John a ring.

We use can/ could always for an alternative or more tentative suggestion:

We could always go to the Italian place.

When we want to make a suggestion with the meaning ‘there is no better choice available’, we can use the phrase might as well:

Now the children have left we might as well sell the house and get something smaller.

  1. ASKING FOR AND GIVING /REFUSING PERMISSION

4A. Present / Future

We use can/can‘t for permission granted or refused by the person being asked and for permission subject to some external authority such as the law:

‘Can I use your phone?’ ‘Yes, of course you can./ No. I’m afraid you can’t.’ (I give/refuse permission.)

You can’t smoke on the underground. (The law doesn’t allow you to do this.)

In more formal situations we can use may and may not in the same way:

May I interrupt?

Candidates may not bring calculators into the examination room.

We use could or might to ask for permission in a more tentative way (might is very formal):

Excuse me, could I leave my coat here?

Might I ask the court for an adjournment at this point?

4B. Past

To describe general permission in the past we use could/couldn’t:

In the 1950s British children could leave school at the age of fourteen.

But to talk about permission on a specific occasion in the past, we do not use could, we use was /were allowed to:

X   I could leave early yesterday.

 I was allowed to leave early yesterday.

 C      PRACTICE EXERCISE

Q 1.

Choose a suitable form of can, could, be able to, manage to or succeed in to complete the sentences below.

1          The manager of the shop was a bit reluctant but in the end I____________ get a refund.

2          It was really annoying; I___________ get on to any of the websites you recommended.

3          What’s her phone number? I___________ remember it.

4          Although Stephanie is deaf and mute she__________ communicate with the aid of a special computer.

5          They finish the new motorway next month so we__________ get to the coast much more quickly.

6          Most of the big hotels were full, but we__________ find a room in one of those small guesthouses near the station.

7          Would you speak more slowly? I__________ follow what you’re saying.

8          I really appreciate __________ speak to you so frankly about this.

9          After I move to the country I’m not going to__________ visit you so often.

10        Over the last few months the government’s fuel tax levy__________ generating over a billion pounds in revenue.

11        This new mobile phone is fantastic. It__________ be used anywhere in the world.

12        The shopping channel is a real boon for Liz; she adores__________ buy clothes at any time of day or night!

13        I__________ walk properly since I had that skiing accident.

14        Sadly, many of the indigenous people__________ resist the diseases brought by the European settlers.

15        The non-fiction section__________ be found on the third floor of the library.

Q 2.

Match the situations (A-D) with the sentences (1-4).

A Samantha is going to work at a ticket agency next year.

B Judy went to the theatre yesterday and told the box office clerk that she was a theatre critic.

C Liz went to the theatre yesterday to buy some tickets. They didn’t tell her about the special ‘free ticket’ offer.

D Carol works at a ticket agency.

  1. She was able to get free tickets.
  2. She can get free tickets.
  3. She will be able to get free tickets.
  4. She could have got free tickets.

Q 3.

Match the two parts (1-4 and A-D) to form sentences.

1. He could do it

2. He couldn’t do it

3. He might have done it

4. He can’t have done it

A he had plenty of opportunity.

B he wasn’t even in the country.

C he seems a very capable person.

D he doesn’t look old enough.

Q 4.

Finish each of the following sentences in such a way that it is as similar as possible in meaning to the sentence printed before it. You must use a suitable form of can, could, may or might in each sentence. The exercise begins with an example (0).

0   I was absolutely thrilled when I heard about your engagement.

==> I couldn’t have been more thrilled when I heard about your engagement.

  1. I’m very angry with you – you knew I was having problems with the car and you didn’t bother to help me!

You ………………………………………………………………………………………………………

  1. Twenty years ago my neighbour offered me his apartment for $30,000 but I didn’t buy it.

Twenty years ago I ………………………………………………………………………………………………………

  1. It would be possible for us to issue the tickets today if you gave us your credit card number.

We ………………………………………………………………………………………………………

  1. The service in British restaurants is sometimes quite surly.

The service ………………………………………………………………………………………………………

  1. Might the disparity in the figures be due to a computer error?

Is it ………………………………………………………………………………………………………

  1. Don’t worry, they’ll probably be on the next train.

They ………………………………………………………………………………………………………

  1. I’m certain he isn’t responsible for the error; he looks too experienced.

He ………………………………………………………………………………………………………

  1. Perhaps the shuttle bus isn’t working at the moment – it is the low season.

The shuttle bus ………………………………………………………………………………………………………

  1. It’s so annoying. You knew their phone number but you didn’t give it to me!

You ………………………………………………………………………………………………………

  1. I’m afraid it isn’t possible to grow bananas in the British climate.

Unfortunately, you …………………………………………………………………………………………………….

  1. Given some luck, our team has a good chance of winning the championship next month.

With any luck ………………………………………………………………………………………………………

  1. Perhaps Jim took it; he was in the office all day yesterday.

Jim ………………………………………………………………………………………………………

  1. It’s possible that the results will have arrived by tomorrow lunchtime.

The results ………………………………………………………………………………………………………

  1. Who do you think is making all that noise next door?

Who ………………………………………………………………………………………………………

  1. Perhaps there are other intelligent life-forms in the universe.

There ………………………………………………………………………………………………………

  1. Thanks to satellite technology, it is now possible to predict hurricanes quite accurately.

We ………………………………………………………………………………………………………

  1. The lights are off so maybe he isn’t at home.

He ………………………………………………………………………………………………………

  1. With a little bit of luck my sister has the potential to be a huge star.

My sister ………………………………………………………………………………………………………

  1. They offered Carrie a job in New York, but she didn’t want to work there.

Carrie  ………………………………………………………………………………………………………

  1. I would never be able to live in a house without a garden.

I ………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Q 5.

Complete the following article by writing the missing words. Use no more than two words for each space. The exercise begins with an example (0).

The worst experience of my life? I (0) ….can…. remember it as if it were yesterday.

I was staying at a beautiful hotel on the coast. My room was on the second floor. It was about two o’clock on my first night when I suddenly woke up. There was a very strong smell of burning but I (1)…….. tell where it was coming from. I jumped out of bed, ran to the door and opened it. I (2) …….. see smoke coming from the staircase. I suppose I (3) …….. tried to run down the stairs, but I knew I wouldn’t have made it. It was impossible, the smoke was too dense, I (4) …….. got further than the first landing before choking.

I went back into my room, slammed the door behind me and ran to the window. I had to escape. I (5) …….. jumped out of the window but I felt too scared. It was too high, I needed something to climb down. Suddenly I had a brainwave and ran over to the bed. By tying the bedsheets together I (6) …….. make a kind of ladder. I tied one end of the sheets to the foot of the bed and I threw the other end out of the opened window. Despite my fear of heights I (7) …….. climb out onto the window ledge. A small group of people had gathered on the ground and were shouting encouragement to me.

‘Come on,’ they said, ‘you (8) …….. do it!’ I was shaking with fear, but by refusing to look down and concentrating on the rope in my hands I eventually (9) …….. lowering myself from the ledge. Very slowly, putting one hand below the other, I (10) …….. climb down the bedsheet rope to safety.

Q 6.

Choose the correct description, A or B.

  1. They allowed me to bring my dog.

A They usually allow dogs.

B They don’t usually allow dogs.

  1. The doctor could see you at eleven.

A I’m not sure if she’s free at eleven.

B I’m suggesting a time for an appointment.

  1. Might I borrow your calculator for a moment?

A Talking to your best friend.

B Talking to a clerk at the bank.

  1. Well, we could always go on the bus.

A I don’t really mind how we get there.

B I really want to go on the bus.

  1. I could wear anything I liked.

A When I worked as a secretary.

B On the day I took my secretarial exams.

  1. We can have a look at the shops.

A I’m making a suggestion.

B I’m describing a future ability.

  1. May I interrupt?

A At a formal business meeting.

B At a family lunch.

  1. You may not bring drinks into the auditorium during the performance.

A It’s up to you to decide.

B It’s forbidden.

  1. I might see you after the show.

A I probably will see you.

B I’m not sure if I’ll see you or not.

  1. We might as well go straight home.

A There’s nothing better to do.

B I really want to go home.

Q 7.

Fill the gaps in the dialogue using a suitable form of can, could, may, might, be able to, manage to or succeed in and a form of the verb in brackets. The exercise begins with an example (0).

MIKE So how are the wedding arrangements going, Jane?

JANE Not too bad. We’re seeing the vicar tomorrow so Harry and I (0) will be able to ask ( ask) him about hiring the church hall for the reception.

MIKE It would be great if you (1)………….. (get) that place, it’s an ideal venue.

JANE  Yes, I know. Although it (2) ………….. (be) a bit too small if all our friends turn up!

MIKE It holds about a hundred people, doesn’t it?

JANE  Well, in fact it (3) ………….. (accommodate) up to a hundred and twenty-five, apparently. But there are about a hundred and forty on our guest list. It’s a bit of a Catch-22 situation because I (4)    (not/invite) people until the reception is organised, but I (5) ………….. (not/organise) a venue until I know how many people are coming!

MIKE Some of Harry’s cousins live in the States, don’t they?

JANE Yes. I’m not sure if they’re coming. It’s quite an expensive trip so they (6) ………….. (not/make) it over here. But I’m hoping at least some of them will come.

MIKE They (7) ………….. (always/get) one of those cheap charter flights. I’ve seen a lot of them advertised on the Internet recently.

JANE  Oh, I think Harry (8) ………….. (tell) them about that already. He said he’d sent them some Internet links.

MIKE What about catering? Have you made any plans yet?

JANE  I’ve arranged something with Quality Caterers in the High Street.

MIKE Oh, I wish I’d known that before! I (9) ………….. (speak) to Liz Brown for you when I saw her last Tuesday. She’s the manager there and she goes to the same tennis club as me. You never know, I (10) ………….. (even/get) you a discount!

JANE That’s a pity. Still, they’ve given us a pretty good deal. By the way, Mike, there is one favour I wanted to ask you.

MIKE Sure. What is it?

JANE (11) ………….. (we/borrow) your video camera?

MIKE Of course. You (12) ………….. (have) the tripod as well, if you like.

JANE Harry dropped his camera when we were in Tenerife. And since we’ve been back he (13) ………….. (not/find) anyone around here to fix it.

MIKE What about music at the reception? Are you going to get a band?

JANE No, we (14) ………….. (not/have) live music at the church hall, it doesn’t have a licence. But we (15) ………….. (have) a disco.

MIKE You (16) ………….. (always/ask) Jackie Branson, she’s got one of those mobile disco things.

JANE  I didn’t know that! I (17) ………….. (speak) to her about it yesterday – she was at my aerobics class. I thought she’d given up disc-jockeying ages ago.

MIKE Well. I suppose she (18) ………….. (give/it/up)when the kids were very young, but I’m pretty sure she’s back doing it now.

JANE I expect she’ll be at the aerobics class next week; so I (19) ………….. (ask) her about it then. Oh, that reminds me. Harry wondered why you weren’t at football practice on Wednesday.

MIKE It’s that awful car of mine – it just wouldn’t start on Wednesday. Luckily, Jim down the road (20) ………….. (fix) it, although it took him two hours!

D        ANSWER KEY FOR DIAGNOSTIC TEST

1          can ==> will be able to

2          can’t  have been able  ==> haven’t been able

3          is able to be ==> can be

4          ✓

5          could ==> was able to

6          could warn ==> could have warned

7          ✓

8          can’t ==> couldn’t

9          can ==> may/might/could

10        could be ==> could have been

11        ✓

12        can ==> could/may/might

13        ✓

14        May you get ==> Could/Might you get/ Is it possible you will get

15        ✓

16        ✓

17        couldn’t steal ==> couldn’t have stolen

18        can ==>could/might

19        ✓

20        ✓

21        Am I able to use ==> Can/Could/May/Might I use

22        ✓

23        could  ==> was able to

24        ✓

25        might not ==> may not/can’t

E         ANSWER KEY FOR PRACTICE EXERCISE

Q 1.

 
1 managed to

2 couldn’t/ wasn’t able to

3 can’t

4 is able to/can

5 will be able to

 

6 were able to/managed to

7 can’t

8 being able to

9 be able to

10 has succeeded in

11 can

12 being able to

13 haven’t been able to

14 were unable to/ weren’t able to/ didn’t manage to

l5 can

 

Q 2.

A 3     B 1      C 4         D 2

Q 3.

1 C     2 D       3 A      4 B

Q 4.

1 You could/might have helped me (with the car)!

2 Twenty years ago I could/might have bought that apartment for $30,000.

3 We could issue the tickets today if you gave us your credit card number.

4 The service in British restaurants can be quite surly.

5 Is it possible that the disparity in the figures is due to a computer error?

6 They could/might/may (well) be on the next train.

7 He can’t/couldn’t be responsible for the error; he looks too experienced.

8 The shuttle bus might/may not be working at the moment …

9 You could/might have given me their phone number!

10 Unfortunately, you can’t grow bananas in the British climate.

11 With any luck our team could/might win the championship next year.

12 Jim might/could have taken it…

13 The results may/might have arrived by tomorrow lunchtime.

14 Who can/could be making all that noise next door?

15 There may/could/might be other intelligent life-forms in the universe.

16 We can now/are now able to predict hurricanes quite accurately thanks to satellite technology.

17 He may/might not be at home; the lights are off.

18 My sister could/might be a huge star with a little bit of luck.

19 Carrie could/might have worked in New York …

20 I couldn’t/could never live in a house without a garden.

Q 5.

1 couldn’t

2 could

3 could have/might have

4 couldn’t have/wouldn’t have

5 could have/might have/may have

6 was able to/managed to

7 was able to/managed to

8 can

9 succeeded in

10 managed to/was able to

Q 6.

1 B      2 B       3 B        4 A       5 A

6 A       7 A         8 B         9 B         10 A

Q 7.

 
1 could get/were able to get/managed to get

2 might be/may be/could be

3 can accommodate

4 can’t invite

5 can’t organise

6 might/may not make

7 could always get

8 might/may have told

9 could have spoken

10 might even have got

11 Could/Can we borrow

12 can/could have

13 hasn’t been able to find

14 can’t have

15 can have

16 could always ask

17 could have spoken

18 might/could have given it up

19 will be able to ask/can ask/could ask

20 was able to fix/managed to fix

 

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Advanced Grammar for IELTS: Modal verbs (1): can, could, may, might, be able to
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