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Modals of deduction

 
 
 

Grammatical form

subject + modal auxiliary verb + verb bare infinitive
subject + modal auxiliary verb + be + verb-ing


It must be the postman.
She might be having a bath.


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


They could have got in through the window.
 
 

General use of modal verbs of deduction

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

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

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

Related ESL material
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ESL lesson plans

How Donald Trump got rich: a tale of three Trumps

US Election ESL worksheet 1 Donald Trump ESL worksheet 2 Donald Trump worksheet 3 Donald Trump ESL worksheet 4 Donald Trump ESL worksheet 5 Donald Trump ESL worksheet 6
B1 / B2 Complete lesson Skills: split reading; discussion; role play Vocabulary: business and economics

Download A Tale of Three Trumps for B1/B2 (PDF)
C1 Complete lesson Skills: split reading; discussion; Grammar: participle clauses

Download A Tale of Three Trumps for C1 (PDF)
 

US Election Special 2016

US Election ESL worksheet 1 US Election ESL worksheet 2 US Election ESL worksheet 3 US Election ESL worksheet 4
B2/C1 Complete lesson Vocabulary: politics, elections; skills: discussing elections and issues.

Download Politics and the US Election (PDF)
 

Wear high heels or go home: gender discrimination at work

Gender descrimination ESL worksheet 1 Gender descrimination ESL worksheet 2 Gender descrimination ESL worksheet 3
B2/C1 Complete lesson Vocabulary work clothes; skills: gender discrimination; grammar: reported speech.

Download Workplace gender discrimination (PDF)
 

English grammar notes

Comparison with as...as

Comprehensive grammar reference notes, illustrated.
Grammar notes on comparison with as..as 1 Grammar notes on comparison with as..as 2 Grammar notes on comparison with as..as 3
Download English grammar notes: comparison with as...as (PDF)