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Modal Verbs of Speculation about the Past

Published by My Lingua Academy on

In today’s lesson, we’re going to learn about modal verbs of speculation about the past, which, I’m sure, is very useful for you. Many students find modal verbs confusing, so this is your chance to give it a little practice and learn how to use them. You’ll find uploaded worksheets in pdf with the lesson and exercises you can download, as well as the quiz.

As you probably know, modal verbs are special verbs we use to indicate modality: ability, request, suggestions, order, etc. They always go with another verb and we never add any endings to them. 

However, when it comes to modal verbs in the past, we use this form:

modal verb + have + past participle

Forms of modal verbs of speculation about the past are: may have, could have, might have, must have, can’t have.

Things that possibly happened in the past

When we talk about things that we think possibly happened in the past, we use modal verb forms might have, may have and could have. 

For example, Susan didn’t come to the meeting, so we can speculate about where Susan was:

She’s new in the town. She may have got lost.

It’s a nice day. She might have gone to the beach. 

She could have gone shopping, as well.

Things that certainly happened in the past

When we talk about things that certainly happened in the past we use modal verbs must and can’t. They have opposite meanings to each other. We use must have + past participle to speculate about things we are certain happened or were true in the past. We use can’t have + past participle to speculate about things we are sure were not true or didn’t happen in the past.

A: I’ve heard that John hasn’t passed the test. 

B: He can’t have failed the test. He’s been home ill all week. You must have mistaken him for somebody else.

Look at more example sentences:

Thomas is not at home. He must have gone to the gym. (He mentioned earlier that he would go to the gym)

Donna was very upset when she came home. They might have rejected her at the job interview. (I assume that’s the reason why she was upset)

I saw your dog a few minutes ago. It can’t have gone far. (impossible that it’s gone far)

Any person who was awake at 5 this morning could have seen the eclipse. (it is possible)

Have you seen my phone? I might have left it in the kitchen. (I was in the kitchen, so I suppose that’s where I left it)

Download the PDF

Download the PDF exercise

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My Lingua Academy is an online school of English language. We give one-on-one lessons to students of English of all ages and all levels of knowledge all around the world. With us you can prepare for written assignments and exams, attend a general or business English course, or have conversation classes with qualified native English teachers who have years of experience.

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