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How modal verbs of possibility and probability can help you speak and write better

This is a quick lesson on using better grammar in IELTS writing and speaking when you are talking about probability and possibility by using modal verbs. The idea is not just to remind you of some important words/structures, but to show you how that you can make life easier for yourself in the exam by using them. Grammar in use!

What you will find below is:

  • when you should use this language
  • how this language can help you
  • a quick and dirty explanation of modal verbs with some exercises
  • one or two links to other places online you can learn about this language – this is not a complete explanation

Test yourself a little first

To see what you know, you may want to try this test first. The pass mark is 100%.

modals quiz

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What are modal verbs?

What are modal verbs? They are  verbs like “may”,”might”, “could” and “will” that you use with other verbs. The great thing about using them is that their grammar tends to be nice and easy.

When do you need modal verbs?

Let’s start by thinking about when you might want to use modal verbs. It’s language you can use in both speaking and writing and is useful whenever you are talking about events in the future, the present or the past. The basic idea is that you use these modals when are uncertain about something. They’re an alternative to “is”, “will” and “was”. They are useful for discussing probability and possibility.

Future possibilities

Look at these questions:

Do you think e-books will replace traditional books in the future? (speaking part 3)

Some people predict that credit cards will replace cash transactions. What is your opinion? (writing task 2)

In both cases you should see that you can use possibility/probability words such as “may” and “might” and you do not have to use the “will” in the question.

Present Possibilities

Look at these questions:

Do you think that people are reading less nowadays? (speaking part 3)

Some people believe that human activities are responsible for climate change. To what extent do you agree or disagree with this view? (writing task 2)

Again, you should see that you can say that people “might” be reading less or that human activities “might” be responsible for climate change.

Possibilities in the past

You are also likely to be asked about events in the past. If you are uncertain, then you can use this language there too. Look at these questions:

“What do you think was the most significant invention of the 20th century” (speaking part 3)

“Most experts now believe that human activity is responsible for climate change. What do you think caused this and what solutions can you suggest to reverse this change? (writing task 2)

Why should you use modal verbs of possibility and probability? – It gives you something else to say

The next step is to show you how you can help yourself by using this language. The general idea is that if you use “may”, then you automatically have something else to say “may not”! That’s a good thing, as extending your ideas is important both in writing and speaking. You don’t understand? See this example, if you start:

I’d say that it is possible that e-books may replace books one day….

then you automatically have a way of continuing by saying

but the opposite is also true and it’s also possible that traditional might survive

This way you have twice as much to write or say than if you just used “will”. You can talk about two things and not just one.

Avoid some common mistakes

Here are some ways to not make mistakes using modal verbs of possibility and probability:

Don’t put an “s” on in the third person singular

Wrong: it may disappears

Right: it may disappear

Use “not” to make them negative

It may not disappear

Don’t use the “to form” of the verb

Wrong: Books might to become less popular

Right: Books might become less popular

Only add “be” if the verb is “to be”

Wrong: Books may be become more popular

Right: Books may become more popular

Right: It may be the case that books become more popular (note here “may be” is two words)

Don’t add “will” to a modal to make it future

Wrong: Books will may become more popular

Right: Books may become more popular

What modal verbs can use for probability and possibility in the present?

The basic model is modal + verb for simple tenses

Here are the basic variations:

present modals

What modal verbs can you use for probability and possibility in the future?

The basic model is modal + verb for simple tenses

Here are the basic variations:

basic modals

note on should

It is also to use should in this way too sometimes.

People should use the internet much more in the future

This one is slightly different: with “should” you are making a suggestion of what you think might be true in the future and also suggesting that you have a reason for believing that. It is more like an opinion.

note on will (yes this is a modal too)

You may be surprised to see “will”in this list. It is in fact a modal – which is one reason why you shouldn’t say “will can” or “will must”. We don’t use modal verbs together.

What about modals of probability in the past?

The basic form here is modal + have + the past participle for simple tenses.

Here are the basic variations.

past modals

What happens if you are certain?

Sometimes you are certain about something. Then it doesn’t make sense to use modals such as “may” and “might”. Here the words you want are “must” and “can’t”.

can't modals

Using modals in the continuous form

It is also possible to use these verbs in the continuous form. The models here are slightly more complex

modal + be + verbING in the present and future

modal + has/have been + verbING in the past

continuous modals

You want more? Try these online resources

These are some other places I recommend for learning about using modal verbs of possibility and probability

Get more grammar, spelling and punctuation


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