Could vs. Might

'Could' and 'might' are modal verbs and may confuse learners when it comes to giving permission. In this lesson, we will learn when to use them.

"Could" vs. "Might" in the English grammar

What Is Their Main Difference?

The main difference between 'could' and 'might' is that 'might' is slightly politer than 'could' and is mainly used in formal contexts.

'Could' is a well-known modal verb. It helps us add information to the main verb. It helps us talk about abilities, give ask for permissions, offer things, etc. 'Could' is the past tense of 'can.' Have a look:

I could lift up to 100 kilograms in my glory days.

Here, we are talking about past abilities.

Could you sign my book?

Here, we are requesting something.

'Might' is also a modal verb. It is used to talk about possibilities, give advice, and ask for permission. 'Might' is the past tense of 'may.' For instance:

He is crying. He might be hungry.

Here, we are talking about a possibility.

Might I ask a question?

Here we are asking for permission.

Similarities

Past Tense

'Might' and 'could' are past tenses of modal verbs 'may' and 'can' respectively. Have a look:

I may call her. → I might have called her.

I can help her. → I could help her.

Talking about Possibilities

'Could' and 'might' are used to talk about possibilities. While both modals are considered to be past tense, however, they are used to talk about the present and future possibilities. 'Might' only refers to present and future but 'could' refers to past, present, and the future. Pay attention to the following examples:

She might be on her way.

She could be on her way.

Giving and Asking for Permission

Giving Permission

We use 'could' to give permission. These permissions are given for the present and not for the past. Some learners may confuse it as 'could' is considered past tense. Have a look:

You could make a phone call.

He could leave the class.

Asking for Permission

'Could' and 'might' are used to ask for permission. Meaning that we are trying to get a grant to do something. While 'could' is more common, 'might' is a politer way of asking. For example:

Could I leave sooner today?

Might I leave sooner today?

Giving Advice

'Could' to express our disapproval towards something. The action is already done and we are judging the action or its outcomes. For example:

You could be more careful to avoid dropping your phone.

'Might' is also often used to give advice. In this form, it is often followed by 'want' as the main verb. For example:

You might want to keep your voice down.

Negation and Question

To make sentences with 'could' and 'might' negative, we add 'not' to them as shown below:

  • CouldCould notCouldn't
  • MightMight not

Here are some examples for negative sentences with 'might' and 'could:'

They could lift heavy things → They couldn't lift heavy things.

She might arrive on time. → She might not arrive on time.

When changing our sentences into interrogative form, we invert them. Watch:

I could figure it out myself. → Could I figure it out myself.

He might change it. → Might he change it?

With Other Modals

We only have one modal verb in a sentence and we cannot add more than one modal verb to a sentence. 'Could' and 'might' are no exception from this rule. We cannot use them with other modals. Have a look:

I might should leave early.

I could would pick you up.

With Conditionals

'Could' and 'might' are also used with conditionals type one, two, and three:

Conditional Type 1

Conditional Type 1 is used to talk about real situations that have a high chance of occurrence. Have a look:

If you promise to be careful, you could drive my car.

If you promise to be careful, you might drive my car.

Conditional Type 2

Conditional Type 2 talks about hypothetical situations in the present or future. These situations are imaginary and unlikely and rarely become real. Here are some examples for clarity:

If I won a lottery, I might move out.

If I won a lottery, I could move out.

Conditional Type 3

The third type of conditionals talks about the past. In this type, we are talking about an imaginary past that could have happened but it never did. In other words, we are imagining a different past.

I could have been there on time if I had left sooner.

I might have been there on time if I had left sooner.

Differences

Talking about Abilities

We use 'could' to talk about past abilities, talents, or skills. These abilities no longer exist or the person with the talent is deceased. For instance:

My mother could impersonate whoever she liked.

He could run really fast before he broke his legs.

Making Offers

'Could' is used to make offers. Offers are ways for us to show our willingness to do something for someone. With these offers, we are not sure if the listener will accept or not.

Could I hold your coat for you?

Could I give you advice?

Formality

'Might' is considered to be more formal than 'could.' We mainly use 'might' to sound politer.

I could be helpful.

I might be helpful.

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