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The “potential” of can

Auxiliary verbs are used with a main verb to form tenses, negatives, questions and so on. They combine with present or past participles or with infinitives. They are also called auxiliaries.

e.g. I am coming.

He has finished.

I didn’t see them.



Principal auxiliaries are : be, have, do.

Modal auxiliaries , also referred to as modal verbs or modals , simple modals , modal operators, are mainly used to indicate your attitude towards what you are saying or when you are concerned about the effect of what you are saying on the person you are speaking or writing to.


Language is not always used to exchange information by making simple statements and asking questions. Sometimes we want to make requests, offers or suggestions or to express our wishes or intentions. We may want to be polite or tactful or to indicate our feelings about what we are saying.


Modals are used to talk about the possibility of something happening or being done, to express different degrees of certainty about past, present or future situations and events.


We use modals interacting with other people in order to get someone to behave in a particular way. For example, you may want someone to take a particular action, to accept an offer, or to give their permission for something to be done.


Sometimes you introduce what you are going to say by using a modal followed by a verb such as ask, say, which refers to the act of saying something.




When you are giving information, you sometimes use modals to indicate how certain you are that what you are saying is true or correct.

For example, if you say “ Mr Wilkins is the oldest person in the village” you are giving a definite statement or a fact. If you say “Mr Wilkins must be the oldest person in the village” the modal ‘must ‘ indicates that you think Mr Wilkins is the oldest person because you cannot think of anyone in the village who is older than Mr Wilkins. If you say “Mr Wilkins might be the oldest person in the village” the modal ‘might’ indicates that you think it is possible that Mr Wilkins is the oldest person because he is very old. ( attitude to information)


You can use modals to indicate your attitude towards the things you intend to do. For example, if you say “I won’t go without Simon”, you are expressing strong unwillingness to do something. If you say “ I can’t go without Simon”, you are expressing unwillingness, but at the same time you are indicating that there is a special reason for your unwillingness. If you say “ I couldn’t go without Simon”, you are indicating that you are unwilling to go without Simon, because to do so would be unfair or morally wrong. ( attitude to intentions )


When you use your language, you are affecting and responding to a particular person or audience. Modals are often used to produce a particular effect, and the modal you choose depends on several factors, such as the relationship you have with your listener, the formality or informality of the situation, and the importance of what you are saying.

For example, it would normally be rude to say to a stranger “ Open the door”, although you might say it to a close friend or to a child. Normally, you would say to a stranger “ Will you open the door?”, “ Would you open the door?” or “ Could you open the door?”, depending on how polite you want to be. (attitude to people).



The ten modal auxiliaries are:






Ought to






It is important to note that grammarians disagree on the number of modals that exist in English. Some of them recognize only nine as they exclude ought to because of its form, while others include it in the list of simple modals. It's also worth mentioning that as always the situation with regard to definitions is in a state of flux, which means in a state of constant change, particularly when it comes to could, would, might, should, which have historically been accepted as past forms of can , will, may and shall. These are now increasingly being regarded as modals in their own right, as they are developing uses which are distinct from the historical present forms



The simple modals are normally characterized as a set on the basis of their distinct grammatical features in English. They are very different from main verbs



Special features and basic characteristics of modals.


1. Modals come before the base form of a verb without “to” (except ought to) A modal cannot be followed by another modal.

I must leave soon.

Modals never occur together in sequence!


2. There’s no aspectual form of the simple modal. Sometimes a modal is followed by the continuous or perfect form of a verb.

When a modal is followed by be and a present participle, this indicates that you are talking about the present or the future


People may be watching.

The play will be starting soon.


When a modal is followed by have and a past participle, this indicates that you are talking about the past.


She may have gone already.

In passive structures a modal is followed by be or have been and a past participle.

The name of the winner will be announced.

They ought to be treated fairly.


3. Modals never inflect ( change form)


There is nothing I can do about that.

I am sure he can do this

I must leave soon.

She insisted that he must leave.


4. Modals never use do when forming questions and negatives. To form a negative we use not after the modals and before the verb.


You must not worry so much.

Questions are formed by putting the modal in front of the subject.


Could you give me an example?


5. Modals are used in short answers and question tags.


You will apply for the job, will you? – Well, I might.


6. In spoken English when will and would are used after a pronoun they are often shortened to ‘ll and added to the pronoun.


I hope you’ll agree.

But they can’t be shortened like this when they are used without a following verb.


7. You sometimes use a modal on its own, without a following verb. You do this when you are repeating a modal:


I expect Margaret will come tonight – I hope she will.

You can also omit the verb following a modal verb when this verb has just been used without a modal or with a different modal.


I love him and I always will.

But you cannot omit the verb “be” after a modal when you have just used it without a modal:


Is he a teacher? – I think he might be.


8. Modals do not usually indicate whether you are talking about the past, the present or the future. Usually you indicate this in other ways, for example by putting an auxiliary verb and a participle after the modal.

Sometimes the general context makes it clear whether you are talking about a past, present or future event or situation.

Shallis an exceptions to this. Shall always indicates that you are talking about a future event or situation.


I shall do as you suggested.



9. The same modal can express different meanings or perform different functions.


You must phone me as soon as you get back (giving orders)

He is not here . He must have left (deduction)



Different modals can express similar meanings.


Shall I carry that for you? (willingness)

Would you like me to carry that for you? (willingness)


The exact meaning can change according to context or intonation.


Would you open the window for me please? ( polite request)

Would you stop making that noise immediately? ( order)


Even a whole sentence can have two possible meanings according to the way it is spoken, or the knowledge people have of the situation.


You might have told me

- perhaps you did, I can’t remember

- why didn’t you? You should have.


10. Modals can affect the level of formality and politeness.


May I leave early today?

Could I possibly use your phone?

I wonder if I might have your attention for a moment?



English modals usually convey some indication of the speaker’s perspective or attitude with respect to the situation or state of affairs being described. That perspective can be based on what is known or what is socially determined in the situation. The use of modals to indicate what is known is called epistemic modality. The use of modals to indicate what is socially determined is described as root ( or sometimes “deontic”)modality



Epistemic uses often sound like deductions or conclusions made by the speaker. For example, given the referent “Suzy” and a description “ be ill” speakers can express the relationship in a simple assertion

Suzy is ill.

However, they can also add some indication of their perspective on the likelihood of that relationship being the case

Suzy must be ill

Suzy may be ill

The modals indicate the speaker’s assessment of whether the state of affairs is simply the case, necessarily the case, or possibly the case. That assessment is based on what is known. Modal forms used with this function are interpreted in terms of epistemic necessity or epistemic possibility. It is important to remember that it is the speaker’s or writer’s perspective that is being presented.


Root modality is not based on the speaker’s knowledge of facts but on the speaker’s awareness of what is socially determined. Root modals are typically used interpersonally and have to do with obligation and permission. Creating an obligation or giving permission are acts that are based on social power of some kind. For example given another situation involving the referent “Suzy” and a description “leave before noon” , speakers can express the relationship as a simple observation

Suzy leaves before noon

However, if the speaker has some socially-based power to control that relationship, then the speaker’s perspective can be marked with modals to indicate the use of that power to determine the relationship

Suzy must leave before noon

Suzy may leave before noon

Here the modals indicate the speaker’s perspective on whether the event is required to occur or permitted to occur. The speaker’s social power is often based on some established social relationship. Root uses of modals are common in polite requests and offers



Having noted the basic meaning distinctions in the uses of modal verbs, we shall identify the core meaning of each modal and then show how that core meaning is interpreted in different circumstances.


The “potential” of can


Most grammar texts list three meanings for the modal verb can. These are usually identified as ability

Peter can swim. He can speak French.


Can I borrow one of your pens? - Sure, you can take any of them

and possibility

A visit to a dentist can be frightening.

It can sometimes get very cold here in winter

The core concept which these three uses have in common is about “potential”. The differences result from the way in which that “potential” is perceived in different circumstances

When the circumstances involve an animate agent, having the potential to perform actions or activities, there's typically an inference of ability, either natural or learned for can Most of the time, that animate agent is human and the action is physical


My son can play the piano. My daughter is only four and she can ride a bicycle

but the key elements are animate subject and dynamic verb.


Hey, that's nothing. My dog can count to three

It is important to recognize that it is the potential to perform the action that is being expressed in these sentences, not the actual performance.


The permission meaning of can is tied to circumstances where social relationships, particularly social authority, are involved. It expresses root modality. In such cases it is not the individual’s potential for action that is being considered, but the potential for some social transaction to take place. The source of that potential is the social power of one individual relative to another. Of course, the social power may exist because the other person has something you want permission to use, for example to borrow or to look at. In very clear cases, such as parent-child, or student-teacher, the potential for an event to take place is controlled by the one having social authority.


Can I have another cookie?

No, but you can have an apple


The possibility interpretation of can occurs in circumstances where the potential for an event taking place has no specified source in terms of an animate agent or a social authority. The potential simply exists and is typically expressed without an agent as subject


Things can get crazy around here sometimes.

I’m sure these problems can be solved

These types of constructions express epistemic modality. They will tend to be used when there’s a desire to convey the potential for an event taking place, even when the speaker is not sure of how or when the potential will be realized


The relationship between can and its past tense form could is one of relative remoteness from the point of utterance. The combination of remoteness and potential in the conceptual meaning of could is interpreted differently according to the three types of circumstances mentioned above


When the potential for an animate agent to perform an action is marked as more remote from the point of utterance, it can be interpreted as more remote in time

I could run much faster when I was younger

Or as more remote in likelihood

With the right tools I could fix it myself

Remote potential in social terms creates an impression of less imposition and hence greater politeness

Could I leave earlier today if we are not too busy?

It also marks less likelihood of social permission being given

Well, you could, but there’s a lot of work to be done

The remote potential of some situationally specified events taking place also results in an interpretation of “less likely” with the source of that potential unexpressed

The current plans could be revised

Things could get worse

Date: 2015-12-11; view: 1141

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