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Speculate about the past using modals!

You can use modal verbs to speculate about the past (what might have happened?)

You can change the modal verb to express how certain you are about what you want to say. For instance:

They must have missed the bus (high certainty)
They could have missed the bus.
They may have missed the bus
They might have missed the bus (low certainty)

In Part 1 of the IELTS speaking test, you might be asked a question about your childhood. You can use past modal structures to extend your answer by speculating. For example:

Q: Did you have any interesting hobbies as a child?
A: I used to play tennis a lot, so that was my main hobby. I played in a lot of competitions and my parents say I could have been really good if I had carried on playing, but I gave it up when I was about 15.

[The speaker is imagining a different future to the one that actually happened.]

In Part 2 of the speaking test, you often need to describe an event or action. Using past modals is a good way to talk about things that didn’t happen in the past, but were possible (they could have happened).

For example, imagine the topic was ‘presents’ and the question was ‘talk about a present that you bought for someone’, you could use past modals like these:

I bought my friend an iPod. I could have got him another brand, but he prefers Apple.
He must have liked it because he took it out of the box and used it straight away.
I think he might have liked an iPhone but I couldn’t afford one of those.

Finally, you can also use past modals in Part 3 of the speaking test. For instance:

Q: How important is primary school education?
A: It is essential. I learned many values from my first school. I couldn’t have become the person I am now without that and I might not have gone to university.

The negative forms are:

He can’t have taken a taxi = (high certainty)
He couldn’t have taken a taxi
He may not have taken a taxi
He might not have taken a taxi = (low certainty)

Note: we do not use ‘mustn’t’ in past modal negative structures, we use ‘can’t’ or ‘couldn’t’.

iPass IELTS task: Think about how you could use a past modal structure to answer this Part 1 question:

Q: Did you ever learn to play a musical instrument when you were at school?

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