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How does a native speaker of English understand the meanings of the modal words could and might in sentences (present or future tense, not past tense sentences) without a specified conditional clause?

a) a word with a conditional meaning like the modal word would OR b) a word with no hint of conditional meaning.

A few sample examples are shown below ( sentences without a specified conditional clause):

1) It could be true, but I'm not sure. 2) We could go to the cinema. 3) I could stay with Sarah. 4)I could go with you to the supermarket, but I'm not sure.

5) It might be true. 6) you might want to consider quitting your barista job. 7) You might say that, yeah.

The above is not an exhaustive list though.

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There is no intrinsic implied condition in your examples, but an implied condition can be supplied by the context. For example:

A: What should we do this afternoon?
B: We could go to the cinema.
(no implied condition)

A: What should we do if it's raining?
B: We could go to the cinema.
(implied: We could go to the cinema if it's raining)

This is not a special property of the modal verbs, but applies to statements generally:

A: What do you do if it's raining?
B: I usually go to the cinema.
(implied: I usually go to the cinema if it's raining)

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Rizan MalikHow does a native speaker of English understand the meanings of the modal words could and might in sentences (present or future tense, not past tense sentences) without a specified conditional clause?

may and might express possibility, and they are almost always interchangeable when they have this meaning. 'may' is more formal than 'might', at least in American English.

They can be paraphrased as "it is possible that" or with "maybe".

You [may / might] like this book.
~ It is possible that you will like this book.
~ Maybe you will like this book.

could is a sort of honorary member of this group, especially when followed by 'be'.

It [could / may / might] be true.
~ It is possible that it is true.
~ Maybe it's true.


In addition to these core meanings and uses, there are many others too numerous to consider in a single post.

could is used as a tentative or indirect form of can. As such, it is used both for politeness and for making suggestions and offers. Stating that there is an ability to carry out an action is interpreted as a suggestion to do so. A suggestion directed toward oneself becomes an offer.

Two of your sample sentences fall into this category.

We [can / could] go to the cinema.
~ We have the ability to go to the cinema.
( ~ I suggest that we go to the cinema. )

I [can / could] stay with Sarah.
~ I have the ability to stay with Sarah.
( ~ I suggest that I stay with Sarah. )
( ~ I am offering to stay with Sarah. )

can makes for a stronger suggestion or offer than could.


might (with or without 'want to') is even weaker in this respect, as in your sample sentence about quitting a job. 'might want to' has almost reached the status of an idiom of its own. Directed at 'you', it's gentle advice.

You might (want to) consider quitting your barista job.
~ It is possible for you to consider quitting your barista job.
~ I suggest (gently) that you (should) consider quitting your barista job.


A final note. One of your examples strikes me as anomalous.

I could go with you to the supermarket, but I'm not sure.

If you could go, you have the ability to go. You've just said that you have that ability. You've made an offer. You can't take back your offer in the next clause by saying you're not sure. That says you have an ability, but you're not sure you have that ability, and that doesn't make sense.

You can fix this in two ways.

I could go with you to the supermarket. (By saying you have the ability, you've made the offer because that is how such statements are interpreted.)
I could go with you to the supermarket, but I'm not sure that I want to. (Here you say you have the ability, but you add something that prevents the usual interpretation from applying. You set up a barrier to the interpretation of your statement of ability as an offer. Such withdrawals of offers are, of course, not polite, and we usually avoid them.)

CJ

(answered at the request of the OP)

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Comments  

Thank you for this really helpful post. Thanks again for your time, effort and patience.

CalifJimA final note. One of your examples strikes me as anomalous.
I could go with you to the supermarket, but I'm not sure.

I intended to use could in the above sentence with this meaning:

CalifJimcould is a sort of honorary member of this group, especially when followed by 'be'.
It [could / may / might] be true.

But, I don't think I used could correctly in that sentence. Am I right?

CalifJimI could go with you to the supermarket, but I'm not sure.
If you could go, you have the ability to go. You've just said that you have that ability. You've made an offer. You can't take back your offer in the next clause by saying you're not sure. That says you have an ability, but you're not sure you have that ability, and that doesn't make sense.

Couldn't we use could=might be able to in that sentence, since you said, "'could' can more frequently be paraphrased as 'would be able to', but in some cases 'might be able to' will work." here: https://www.englishforums.com/English/CouldMightBeAbleTo/bxxxmr/post.htm

For example: I could(=might be able to) go with you to the supermarket, but I'm not sure if I can.

CalifJimcould is a sort of honorary member of this group, especially when followed by 'be'.
It [could / may / might] be true.
~ It is possible that it is true.

Could with this meaning cannot be used in second conditional sentences. Is this statement correct?

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Rizan Malik
CalifJimA final note. One of your examples strikes me as anomalous.
I could go with you to the supermarket, but I'm not sure.

I intended to use could in the above sentence with this meaning:

CalifJimcould is a sort of honorary member of this group, especially when followed by 'be'.
It [could / may / might] be true.

But, I don't think I used could correctly in that sentence.

No, you didn't use it correctly. This is a case where 'could' can't substitute for 'may/might'. This barrier to a "could substitution" usually occurs when you connect 'could' with an agentive subject (i.e., a person) and verb of action. In those cases you get the meaning that the subject is physically able to perform that action. "I could go" > I am physically able to go. This is the core meaning of 'can' and 'could', and that meaning can't be suppressed unless you have a subject and verb that don't suggest physical ability: What George said could/may/might be right. Things that people say don't have physical abilities.

Rizan MalikCouldn't we use could=might be able to in that sentence ...
I could(=might be able to) go with you to the supermarket, but I'm not sure if I can.

You can use might be able to, but not could. These two are not exact translations of each other, so they are not completely interchangeable.

Remember that statements like "I could go with you ..." are coded offers. By using might be able to instead of could, you break the code. You change the statement from an offer to a "maybe" statement.

Rizan Malik
CalifJimcould is a sort of honorary member of this group, especially when followed by 'be'.
It [could / may / might] be true.
~ It is possible that it is true.

Could with this meaning cannot be used in second conditional sentences. Is this statement correct?

You might be able to write a sentence like that.

If the eyewitness were reliable, then her testimony could be true.

I can't say that you'll find a lot of sentences like that, but I don't think they're impossible.

CJ

A great explanation. Thank you very much.


One last question:

CalifJimIf the eyewitness were reliable, then her testimony could be true.

Can I replace could with would possibly in the above sentence?

Rizan Malik
CalifJimIf the eyewitness were reliable, then her testimony could be true.

Can I replace could with would possibly in the above sentence?

At first it seems that you could do that, but 'would' is so much more definite than 'could' that I don't think it will end up saying the same thing.

'could', as I've said, is an honorary member in the "may/might" group of modals, so when you want that meaning, 'might' is going to get you closer than 'would' to what you want.

You can use 'would possibly' if you're willing to put up with some awkwardness in the sentence, but 'might possibly' works a lot better (even though 'might' and 'possibly' together makes for some redundancy).

CJ

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Thank you, sir. One doesn't get this sort of thorough explanation everywhere.

Consider this sentence, please:

You never know what could happen to you.

I came across this sentence recently and I was wondering what the could here might mean. Since we've discussed about could on here somewhat in detail, I thought I should ask the question in this thread.

Does the could in the above sentence fall under this definition:

CalifJimmay and might express possibility, and they are almost always interchangeable when they have this meaning. 'may' is more formal than 'might', at least in American English.They can be paraphrased as "it is possible that" or with "maybe".
You [may / might] like this book.~ It is possible that you will like this book.~ Maybe you will like this book.
could is a sort of honorary member of this group, especially when followed by 'be'.It [could / may / might] be true.~ It is possible that it is true.~ Maybe it's true.

I think the could in the sentence doesn't mean would be able to. Am I right?

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