Special use of might and could1 [58]

i You were mad to drive so fast: you might/could have been killed.
ii We could/might be in Africa. [knowingly uttered in France] (Perhaps somewhere long abandoned in the south of France. I add this. Correct me if I'm wrong.)

These do not fall into either of the above major categories: there is no implicit condition, but the preterite conveys much more than a slight element of tentativeness.

In [i] the (circumstantial) possibility existed but was not actualised: you weren’t killed.

[ii] can also be regarded as unactualised circumstantial possibility, but differs from [i] in that there is no element of cause and effect (as your being killed was a possible result of your driving so fast); it can be glossed as “It is as though we were in Africa — we’re not, but judging from appearances there's no reason why we should not be”.

I'm more interested in the application of case [ii].

  1. Suppose I am eating an ice-cream cone, and it tastes like caviar, can I say "I could/might be eating caviar."? (Apparently I'm not)

  2. Suppose I forgot my laptop's password, but my sister somehow inadvertently got it cracked, can I say to my sister "You are so smart. You could/might be a Russian hacker."? (Apparently she's not)

  3. Suppose I'm watching Luis Suarez biting his Italian opponent, can I say to my sister "Suarez could/might be a cannibal. Don't be a fan of his."? (Apparently he's not)

Would my remarks correspond with the context?

1. Page 201, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, aka CGEL.


4 Answers 4


From my experience, might and could can both be used in situations as you've described above, but carry different meanings. In U.S. English, the two words have different connotations, so using one or the other subtly changes the meaning and intent of the sentence.

Let's use your hacker example. (I'm only using one example since they're all basically the same.)

Suppose I forgot my laptop's password, but my sister somehow inadvertently got it cracked, can I say to my sister "You are so smart. You could/might be a Russian hacker."

Could is used when something is possible, but probably not currently true. If you say "You could be a hacker", you are suggesting that your sister has the skills to be a hacker, but you don't actually believe that she is one.

Might is used when something is possible, and the evidence leads you to believe in that possibility. If you say "You might be a hacker", then you are saying that your sister is so good at computers, you think there is actually a chance she ...might be a hacker. (Or you're saying it ironically, the same as saying "You're so smart! Are you sure you're not a hacker?")

Therefore, in your examples, you would want to use could, and not might.

  • But I often come across "could" being used in the same way as "might". For example, it could rain tomorrow. This indeed indicates my evaluation for the possiblity of raining. How is that? @Egghead99
    – Kinzle B
    Sep 29, 2014 at 13:39
  • @KinzleB I believe what you are coming across are colloquial differences. In ordinary conversation, people may not care as much about minor nuances of meaning, so they'll use words interchangeably.
    – Egghead99
    Oct 4, 2014 at 8:06

I'm not sure I fully understand the question, but hey, why not try to answer anyway?

I would view these as two separate usages, even though they're grammatically similar. In [i], the speaker is trying to emphasize a risk: you could have been killed. This would almost always appear in a context where the speaker is trying to caution the listener against similar future behavior.

[ii] has a totally different meaning: it's saying "We both know this comparison is not true, but what you can perceive right now would never show the difference." I am more used to seeing this with the might/could followed by "almost", as in a straightforward example: [Spoken in July] "The weather is so nice, it could [almost] be spring." I know it is not spring, because of the calendar; but the weather is very similar. So [ii] is a structure used to make a strong comparison.

Your first example is probably your best--the speaker would have to be eating ice cream that really tasted like caviar, which is unusual but possible. A similar example might be "This mock duck is so good, I could [almost] be eating real meat." Your second example might work, but without context I would be more likely to read it as a joke ("How do I know I can trust you? You could actually be a Russian spy!" -- the speaker is pretending to be actually uncertain, rather than making a comparison to an acknowledged untrue situation). Third example seems forced--you have the grammar pattern correct, but there isn't an obvious comparison and your meaning wouldn't be clear without some very specific context.

  • Yep, #2 and #3 were intended as jokes :)
    – Kinzle B
    Jul 1, 2014 at 1:14
  • I made a few edits to show what I had been thinking of when I made up them. @Tiercelet
    – Kinzle B
    Jul 1, 2014 at 11:34
  • I see your edits & get what you mean, but it feels a little different to me. The pattern in the source example & your first example isn't really used in a humorous context--the comparison relies on both speaker and listener knowing that it's a counterfactual. I think the humor works better if the speaker is discussing a possibility that he is pretending could be real. Like, "You're really smart; have you considered becoming a Russian spy?" sort of thing. This feels different than the pattern. But that's a really fine distinction!
    – Tiercelet
    Jul 1, 2014 at 16:09
  • Why do you think adding almost would be better? Since no one has upvoted for your answer, I'm not sure you have nailed it.
    – Kinzle B
    Jul 1, 2014 at 16:18
  • Honestly that's just what I'm more used to hearing. I expect it is probably a dialectical difference--you're citing a British source and I'm an American speaker. (My unscientific observation is that "might" is also more commonly used in Commonwealth English than in the US). But "almost" also distinguishes the two patterns, which have different meanings. In [i], the speaker is stating a future possibility which could become real; in [ii], both speaker and listener know it will never be true.
    – Tiercelet
    Jul 1, 2014 at 16:24

The use of modals is highly subject to contextual constraints. Inside a conversation (speaker to speaker or writer to reader) a lot of shared information comes to be held between both sides. For that reason, it is frequently exceedingly difficult if not impossible to look at a single sentence example and say which is "best." Both are grammatical in any context, but there are nuances of meaning.

"Might" is the past tense form of "may," just as "could" is the past tense form of "can." Because these are modals, this isn't exactly all that helpful, as meaning changes from past to present forms with modals are quite different than with non auxiliary verbs. Nevertheless, it does provide clues to the nuances. "May" has the basic meaning of "permissible," whereas "can" is more general, including "permissible," but also possibly meaning "having the ability, capacity, will, force, power, etc."

In the example you give, "We could be in Africa," demonstrates where context is so important. If the speaker fell asleep on the train and woke up not knowing where he is, he would say "We might be in Africa. I don't know where the hell I am, but this might be Africa." If the person knows he's in France, but is struck by how similar the scene and setting is to some place in Africa that he has been, he is merely making the observation that it could be Africa in the sense that it is so very similar.


Might: One of the meanings of might is to be allowed to. e.g.The members of the organization agreed that I might join it. Might expresses the highest degree of politeness. e.g. Might I observe what you are doing?

Could: The most important meaning of could is to be able to. When she was young, she could swim across the lake. Like the auxiliary would, could can be used in polite requests and suggestions. e.g. Could you please tell me how to get to Almond Street?

  • Your provided definition of might does not match the usage in the question, which is about possibility, not permission. Are you suggesting that what you've stated is the only definition of might? Because that's not so. Jul 1, 2014 at 1:59
  • I flagged this one. It doesn't seem to be relevant here. @EsotericScreenName
    – Kinzle B
    Jul 1, 2014 at 2:28

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