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English grammar notes - modals of deduction

 
 

Present
subject + modal auxiliary verb + verb bare infinitive

subject + modal auxiliary verb + be + verb-ing


Past
subject + modal auxiliary verb + have + verb past participle

subject + modal auxiliary verb + have + been + verb-ing

(1) It must be the postman.
(2) She might be having a bath.

(3) They could have got in through the window.

(1) It must be the postman.
(2) She might be having a bath.
(3) They could have got in through the window.

(1) It must be the postman.
(2) She might be having a bath.
(3) They could have got in through the window.


 

General use of modal verbs of deduction

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We can use certain modal auxiliary verbs to make deductions, i.e. to make guesses based on known facts.

We can make deductions about the present :

'Where's Joanna?'
'She's not here. She must be in the kitchen.'


We can also make deductions about the past :

'How do you think the burglar got in?'
'He must have climbed through the window.'


We use different modal axiliary verbs depending on how strong our guess is :

He must be in the kitchen. - Very sure - 99%
He can't be in the garden. - Very sure - we think it's impossible - 99%

He may / might / could be in his bedroom. We think it's possible - 50%


to make guesses about the past, we use the same modals and add the auxiliary verb have. This is followed by the past participle of the main verb :

He must have climbed through the window. - Very sure - 99%
He cant't have climbed through the window. - Very sure - we think it's impossible - 99%

He may / might / could have climbed through the window. We think it's possible - 50%

See also functions : making guesses

 

Note

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When using modal auxiliary verbs for deductions, the opposites of
must and must have are can't and can't have,
not mustn't and mustn't have.

Similarly, we don't use can or can have for making deductions.

 

Pronunciation

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When using past forms, the have that follows the modal auxiliary verb is usually contracted to 've in rapid speech.

He can't've been here long.
She must've been in a hurry.

These contracted forms are often written in dialogue; in novels, for example.
(Note: contractions should not be written in formal contexts such as business letters.)

In rapid speech these are often further contracted to :
He can'ta been here long.
She musta been in a hurry.


This kind of contraction is rarely written.



More on this topic

quiz

Modals of deduction quiz 1
Multiple-choice quiz.
Modals of deduction in the present
Fifteen-question MC quiz

Related language points
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