Running head: CONTRASTIVE ANALYSIS OF MODALS OF POSSIBILITY
1
HO CHI MINH CITY UNIVERSITY OF EDUCATION
DEPARTMENT OF ENGLISH
CONTRASTIVE ANALYSIS OF MODALS OF POSSIBILITY
IN ENGLISH, CHINESE, AND VIETNAMESE
Instructor : Nguyễn Ngọc Vũ, PhD
Student : Nguyễn Phi Hùng
Class: 4A
HCMC, 17/12/2011
Contrastive Analysis of Modals of Possibility
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Acknowledgement
I am deeply indebted to a number of people for helping to make this essay possible.
First of all, I want to show my great gratitude to Dr. Nguyễn Ngọc Vũ, my supervisor. He
instructed me to build up the correct, logical and complete outline of this essay. Thanks for his
informative and thorough lessons in e-learning classes; many of my ideas for this essay took
root from.
I would like to earnestly thank Mr. Lê Đình Tưởng, my head teacher. He conveyed me
the ideas of making comparison of languages in the aspect of social functions. He warned me to
carefully pay focus on this one since it would increase the validity of this essay itself.
Very special thanks are due to Ms. Tô Anh Đào, my Chinese teacher. She taught and
illustrated Chinese possibility modals with various examples. Thanks to her extremely helpful
lessons, the Chinese section of this essay was completed adequately.
Last but by no means least, my heartfelt thanks go to my wonderful, loving mother who
taught me more about Vietnamese with clear explanations and real-life as well as fascinating
examples. She is also the first person to read, check and recheck my essay.
Without these immense help and support over time and distance, I could not have
finished this essay.
Contrastive Analysis of Modals of Possibility
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Table of content
Acknowledgement........................................................................................................2
Table of content ...........................................................................................................3
Introduction ..................................................................................................................4
LANGUAGE FAMILY AND TYPOLOGY OF ENGLISH, CHINESE AND VIETNAMESE
................................................................................................................................................5
Language Family ......................................................................................................5
Typology...................................................................................................................6
MEANING OF POSSIBILITY IN GENERAL .................................................................8
In Dictionaries...........................................................................................................8
In Philosophy ............................................................................................................9
In Some Aspects In Sociology ................................................................................10
TYPICAL POSSIBILITY MODALS IN EACH LANGUAGE .........................................13
In English ...............................................................................................................13
In Vietnamese ........................................................................................................21
In Chinese ..............................................................................................................27
Comparing and Contrasting 3 Types of Languages ...................................................30
Similarities ..............................................................................................................30
Differences .............................................................................................................33
IMPLICATIONS IN LANGUAGE TEACHING AND LEARNING ..................................37
Helps Students In High-Schools Have A Rudimentary View About “Possibility
Modals” In Both Mother Tongue And Target Languages. ...................................................37
Help Students Compare And Differentiate Between The Target Languages And
Mother Tongue...................................................................................................................37
Be Very Efficient In The Retrospective Explanation Of Errors In Some Aspects. ....38
Be Helpful In Doing Translation. .............................................................................38
Be Suitable For Learners In All Ages. .....................................................................38
Arouse Students’ Interest In Learning Grammar Of Languages. .............................39
Conclusion .................................................................................................................40
Reference ..................................................................................................................41
Contrastive Analysis of Modals of Possibility
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Introduction
Nowadays, learning foreign languages is becoming more and more vital and crucial.
Understanding and being competent a particular language is not a rare thing that only doctors or
linguists can do but it demands everybody to be aware of. The current tendency of learning L2
is also changing. People gradually turn back to the old-fashioned learning of dead grammar
which merely helps them understand the written literature or do correctly tricky grammatical
exercises that would never ever happen in real life. People are seeking for a way of learning
which can enhance their speaking, listening, writing, in short this way of learning must be
practically used in daily life. Consequently, complicated grammatical points like future present
perfect or IF type 3 is gradually giving up their seats to feasible and useable structures like:
Would you like … , would you mind …, could you …, let me …, 让我 给你。。。, làm ơn cho tôi
… These formulas never become out-of-date and are always fashionable and loveable to be
learnt by heart even that the teachers need not force learners to do that. Possibility modals are
also listed as useful and worthwhile things to learn and to remember. In any type of language,
learning about possibility modals is always be the must. Learning possibility modals in order to
understand in this situation, can/could can only used or in that case, may/might are much better.
Learning possibility modals to acknowledge the flexible application of 会, so that saying 他会电
脑 or 他会用电脑 are both correct. However, is there any correlation among the possibility
modals of english, Chinese and Vietnamese ? Is there any similarity in these three languages’
possibility modals or there is just a big difference ? If the answer is yes, what makes them
identical and what makes them distinct, forms, structures, or social functions ? All will be
answered thoroughly and completely in this small work.
Contrastive Analysis of Modals of Possibility
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LANGUAGE FAMILY AND TYPOLOGY OF ENGLISH, CHINESE AND VIETNAMESE
Language Family
English
From the very beginning of appearance up to these days, English proved itself as the
most convenient and powerful language to connect people with people. According to Comrie
(2009), English is spoken around the globe with a wider dispersion than any other language.
From its earlier home in Britain (now with 60 million speakers), it has spread to nearby Ireland (4
million), across the Atlantic to North America (where some 215 million residents over the age of
five speak it in the United States and as many as 20 million in Canada) and across the world to
Australia and New Zealand (with more than 20 million speakers) (p. 59). This language, English,
derives from the West Germanic branch of the Indo-European family of languages (Comrie,
2009, p. 63) and these days, it has become the primary language of the U.S., Britain, Canada,
Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, and various Caribbean and Pacific island nations, it is also an
official language of India, the Philippines, and many sub-Saharan African countries
(Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2011, "English language").
Chinese
It is an inarguable and undoubted fact that Chinese people are in every corner of the
world. From America to Vietnam, from Canada to Brazil, from East to West and from North to
South, etc. people easily bumps into a Chinese person. Their population is so immense that
these days, people in everywhere are familiar with the saying “There is smoke of the cooking,
there is Chinese”. Talk like Comrie (2009), there is over 1,000,000,000 people, approximately
one-fifth of the earth’s population, are speakers of some form of Chinese (p. 703). This
influential language originally is an independent branch of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages,
comprising a number of dialects, which can be classified into a minimum of five groups on the
basis of their structural affinities: Mandarin, Wú, Mǐn, Yuè, and Hakka (Comrie, 2009, p. 703705).
Vietnamese
There is a language which is gradually becoming more and more popular and common
to many people. There is a language whose words, despite a humble amount of quantity,
honorably have a stand in the world’s most trusted dictionaries, Oxford dictionaries. People
understand, know and speak those words easily without any intermediate stage of translation,
such as phở or áo dài. It is the mother tongue of the ethnic majority called người Việt or người
Contrastive Analysis of Modals of Possibility
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Kinh – some 66 million inhabitants who live in the delta lowlands of Vietnam, plus over one
million overseas Vietnamese, in France, the USA, Canada, Australia, etc. (Comrie, 2009, p.
677). That is Vietnamese. Although the nation Vietnam was ruled nearly 1000 years by Chinese
emperor, its language consists many of Chinese loanwords, specifically chữ Hán, its culture is
much influenced from Chinese ones, it is not at all genetically related to Chinese. It belongs
rather to the Mon–Khmer stock, within the Austro-Asiatic family, which comprises several major
language groups spoken in a wide area running from Chota Nagpur eastward to Indochina
(Comrie, 2009, p. 677).
Typology
English
On the phonetic typology, it can be generally accepted that English is a stress-timed
language in which stressed syllables recur and it is a non-tonal language (Ngo & Tran, 2001, p.
12). Nevertheless, on the morphological typology, there are still opposing ideas about English
typology, whether it is the synthetic language or analytic one. On one hand, in English, a single
word is formed by a number of morphemes (affixes or suffixes) like the word
“antidisestablishmentarianism”, which means “the movement to prevent revoking the Church of
England's status as the official church” (of England, Ireland, and Wales) (Wikipedia, 2011,
“Synthetic Language”), it can be classified in the synthetic languages. On the other hand,
English is also considered as the analytic language because there are not less circumstances in
which it applies single and separate word to express a meaning. For example, in English, we
still use “would go” to express the unreal condition in present but not any type of inflection like
Romance languages. Moreover, we still accept prepositions combining with some certain verbs
to invent phrasal verbs while most Slavic language use tense inflections (Wikipedia, 2011,
“Isolating Language”). From recent studies, Baugh and Cable (2002) confirmed that “Modern
English in an analytic, Old English a synthetic language” (p. 50). Similarly, McIntyre (2009)
supported that “The main difference between Old English and Present Day English is that OE is
a synthetic (or inflectional) language whereas PDE is an analytic (or isolating) language” (p. 40).
In addition, Millar (2008) presents a scale rather than an absolutist statement: Synthetic <
Finnish – Russian – Latin – German – Dutch – French – English – Tok Pisin > Analytic (p. 44).
In conclusion, it can be generally accepted that English now is moderately analytic (Wikipedia,
2011, “Morphological Typology”).
Contrastive Analysis of Modals of Possibility
7
Chinese
As generally accepted that Chinese and Vietnamese are the figurative and most typical
members of the most purely isolating languages in which each word form consists typically of a
single morpheme (Encyclopædia Britannica Online, 2011, "Isolating Language"). In a similar
way, the grammatical meaning in Chinese sentences rely much on the word order like in
Vietnamese. There is an example which clearly illustrates the use of word order to show
subject–object relationships in China: 明天我的 朋友会为我做一个生日蛋糕。/ Tomorrow my
friends will make a birthday cake for me (Wikipedia, 2011, “Isolating Language”). Moreover,
unlike English language, compounds in Chinese are constituted from combining various
monographic and monosyllabic morphemes. For instance, 电话 (television),电脑 (computer)
can be called as the common samples of the isolating feature of Chinese language.
Vietnamese
It belongs to the group of analytic or isolating languages in which each morpheme is a
syllable and tends to form a separate word. Grammatical relationships in Vietnamese are
expressed not by changing the internal structure of the words (the use of inflectional endings),
but by the use of auxiliary words and word order (Ngo & Tran, 2001, p. 10). For instance, Mẹ tôi
đang nấu cơm (My mother is cooking). On the phonetic typology, Vietnamese is a syllable-timed
language in which the rhythm appears to be fairly even, with each syllable giving the
impression of having about the same duration and force as any other (Ngo & Tran, 2001, p.
12). The six tones: ngang, sắc, huyền, hỏi, ngã, nặng (level, rising, falling, falling raising, high
rising, low constricted), for instance ba, bá, bà, bả, bã, bạ, marks the speciality of Vietnamese
as the tone language in which the pitch levels are used to distinguish words, yet also cause
a variety of difficulties for learners, both in producing and maintaining the tones in speech flow
(Ngo & Tran, 2001, p. 12).
It may cause confusion for readers about the writer’s choice of selecting Chinese as one
of the language compared with English and Vietnamese ? English and Vietnamese, despite
indisputable differences in phonetics, syntax and lexeme, they, in fact share some identical
features. Since Chinese is a very unusual ideographic language, it does not contain Latin
syllables: A, B, C, … like Vietnamese and English. However, if we take a careful and thorough
look in the origin of Vietnamese language, we can effortlessly recognize that there is a great
similarity in vocabularies, grammar structures and even opinion expressions that both
Vietnamese and Chinese people all use. With nearly 1000 years of being ruled by China, there
Contrastive Analysis of Modals of Possibility
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is not only the language but the culture both Vietnamese and Chinese all share many identical
features. Nowadays, even when there is no ruler (China) nor the ruled nation (Vietnam), in
everyday conversations, especially in formal meetings, Vietnamese are keen on using Chinese
script (chữ Hán) in their speech. Moreover, in the way of thinking and deducing, both
Vietnamese and Chinese people have the very same perspective and that is the oriental
thought. Thus, choosing Chinese as one member in this work is not like the Tertium
Comparationis between a banana and a typewriter, but an absolute feasible and practicable
comparison.
That may be enough for the origin and these three relative languages. At this very
moment, it should be time for defining the word possibility in daily life.
MEANING OF POSSIBILITY IN GENERAL
In Dictionaries
In English
According to Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (7th ed.), p. 1130-1131, possibility is
the fact that something might exist or happen, but is not certain to.
e.g.
There is now no possibility that she will make a full recovery.
In Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (2nd ed.), p. 981, possibility is defined as a
chance that something may happen or to be true.
e.g.
The forecast said that there's a possibility of snow tonight.
These are the most common definitions of possibility due to reliable dictionaries which
students in universities and colleges and even advanced English users trust most and use in
learning and researching English.
In Vietnamese
Possibility could be sufficiently translated as “khả năng” or “sự có thể”. So, what is khả
năng ?
As Vu (1999) suggested in his study, khả năng is constituted by two wors: “khả” and
“năng”. Khả means “có thể” (possible), and năng is “sự tài giỏi để làm nổi việc” (capability).
Therefore, khả năng is also understood as “tài sức có thể làm nổi việc” (capability to do well
something) (p. 433)
In both two online dictionaries: Từ điển tiếng Việt and Vdict.com, khả năng is defined as:
1) Cái có thể xuất hiện trong những điều kiện nhất định – Something happens due to
certain conditions:
Contrastive Analysis of Modals of Possibility
e.g.
9
Chúng ta phải tính đến khả năng xấu nhất. – We have to expect the worst
possibility.
2) Năng lực, tiềm lực – capability, potential:
e.g.
Một cán bộ có khả năng phát huy mọi khả năng của tài nguyên nước ta. – A
cadre has the capabilities to promote all of the potential of our country’s resources.
In Chinese
可能 is equivalent to the word possibility in English with meanings as:1
1) Possible (as adjective)
e.g.
我们实现目标是可能的。
It's possible we'll realize our targets.
2) Maybe (as adverb)
e.g.
他可能 去重庆了。
Maybe he went to Chongqing.
3) Possibility (as noun)
In Philosophy
It seems quite unfamiliar when we apply philosophy to explain this very easy term in life.
However, philosophy, the entirely practical subject whose role in real life cannot be denied in
solving any problems in any period of history, opens a new complete and thorough way for us in
defining this term.
According to Kant dictionary, the postulate of possibility is "that which is agrees with the
formal conditions of experience, that is, with the conditions of intuitions and of concepts, is
possible". This is real possibility, which is narrower than strictly logical possibility (e.g., there is
no logical contradiction "in the concept of a figure which is enclosed by two straight lines",
although there is no real possibility of such a figure because it contradicts "the conditions of
space and of its determinations".2
In chapter Possibility and Reality in number 6 (November, 1907), volume 16 of the book
The Philosophical Review, Hollands (1907) stated: “There are two typical ways in which the
relation of the possible to the real may be conceived. According to the one, possibility is a mere
1
Information was retrieved from
http://www.nciku.com/search/zh/detail/%E5%8F%AF%E8%83%BD/1308723
2
Information was retrieved from http://www.philosophy-dictionary.org/POSSIBILITY
Contrastive Analysis of Modals of Possibility
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subjective notion; all the possible is in some sense real, and the real includes the possible.
According to the other, there is such a thing as absolute possibility; the realm of the possible
includes that of the real, and realities are possibilities of a certain kind. The classical statements
of these opposed positions are given by Spinoza and by Leibniz; but the issue, in one form or
another, is a persistent one. Spinoza invariably defines possibility as a notion due to limitations
of our intellect, and having no objective validity” (p. 604).
From all of these definitions, we could draw some general and common ideas about
possibility:
1) Is what still in the potential state, yet it might exist or happen if there are needed and
enough conditions.
2) Is the capability and potential of someone doing and producing something.
Nevertheless, this whole essay will not be called finished if there is no presence of the
next section.
In Some Aspects In Sociology
From the very beginning until now, readers have been filled with the meaning of
possibility in dictionaries and in philosophy, but those meanings are all academic and deadly
unmoving words in books from generations to generations ? To spend some time quietly and
meditate, a big question would be raised as what the origin of the word “possibility” is ? In what
place people first used it and gave it the name “possibility” ? Dictionaries or philosophy cannot
do this thing. They just show in academic words what it mean and how it can be used efficiently
in real life. The simple answer is that it lies in society. When people need a word to transmit
their level of both logical thought and conjecture, “possibility” and its modals appear as an
evidence.
Now, let’s look at how Vietnamese people talk. Averagely out of 10 sentences, there will
be 3 at the least are used with modals of possibility. Take this conversation as an example:
A: Ê mày, hôm nay nghe nói có bão đó. Dám chiều nay mưa lắm à. – Hey, it’s said
today will be stormy.
B: Vậy hả ? Rầu ghê, ngày nào cũng mưa. Thôi nhưng vậy cũng mừng. – Really ? It
rains everyday, so sad. Yet, it is relieved.
A: Sao vậy ? – Why ?
B: Thì mày nói có thể chiều mưa, vậy thì chiều nay ông thầy dạy thêm tao môn Lý chắc
cũng nghỉ à vì mưa lớn quá ngập là cái chắc. – Since you said it can be rainy, today my physics
tutor may be off too. It will rains heavily, so flood is the certain.
Contrastive Analysis of Modals of Possibility
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…
Only at the beginning of the talk, we can also overhear their “modals of possibility.” How
many “có thể, có lẽ” will be at the end of this chat ???
The writer does not know if he has grown up yet since he still watches cartoons and
loves most Disney Channel in which he always has fun and outbursts of laugh, very enjoyably.
Nevertheless, an undeniable fact that the writer has studied a lot from this channel through short
and funny films. For instance, in an episode of series Phineas and Ferb, the writer counted that
there were 5 times characters say “can or may.” The writer want to emphasize that there are
nearly 10 minutes for each episode and characters use modals of possibility so often. How
many will “can, could, may or might” be in a real conversation between friends or colleagues ?
People do not know exactly when and in what circumstance the word “possibility” appear
and the writer is sure that they will not want to know it. So confusing and time-consuming.
However, there is one thing that no one can deny the enormous role of words that express
possibility:

They are a logically classified themselves by the usage of each person.

They make sentences of normal conversations, of speech, or even of literature become
smooth and natural.

They possess humanism in themselves. This is the most essential role the writer want to put
emphasis on. In any conversations, no matter they are of English, Vietnamese or Chinese,
whenever people use words of possibility, they are creating an intimate span of bridge which
attract them closer and closer without consciousness.
A: Ê mày, hôm nay nghe nói có bão đó. Dám chiều nay mưa lắm à. – Hey, it’s said
today will be stormy.
B: Vậy hả ? Rầu ghê, ngày nào cũng mưa. Thôi nhưng vậy cũng mừng. – Really ? It
rains everyday, so sad. Yet, it is relieved.
A: Sao vậy ? – Why ?
B: Thì mày nói có thể chiều mưa, vậy thì chiều nay ông thầy dạy thêm tao môn Lý chắc
cũng nghỉ à vì mưa lớn quá ngập là cái chắc. – Since you said it can be rainy, today my physics
tutor may be off too. It will rains heavily, so flood is the certain.
…
What is the relationship between A and B ? They must be close friends since in their
gossip people can feel a very chummy and buddy-buddy. They make “bão and mưa” become
less horrible even they know that if it rained, it would cause them much trouble. However, no
Contrastive Analysis of Modals of Possibility
12
one can sense the pessimism, only a totally humorous response of B that he could escape from
his tutor. This is what the writer call a typical characteristics of Vietnamese people: optimism.
Or just have look at this English phone call:
A: Excuse me, could I have a talk with the manager ?
B: Ok. Can you wait for a second ? I’ll put you through to him right away.
In this conversation, A and B are both strangers, they don’t know each other. However,
just two simple words: can and could, they entirely destroy the distance between them.
All in all, what the writer wants to transfer in this minor section is to assert one thing that
possibility, modals of possibility and problems around modals of possibility are not new nor
unpractical. Instead they are ultimately realistic and sensible. From reality, the word possibility
and modals of it appeared and proved themselves as a feasible, convenient and all-purpose
way to convey ideas from person to person. Also from society, these words reappear on pages
of researchers, philosophers or linguists as academic terms to claim publicly their existence.
Therefore, without mentioning aspects in sociology where everything relating to humans and
serving for humans is venerated, this work is exclusively meaningless. As Johann Wolfgang von
Goethe, the greatest German writer of all generation, declared deliberately and eloquently:
Grau, teurer Freund, ist alle Theorie,
Dear friend, all theory is grey,
Und grün des Lebens goldner Baum.
And green the golden tree of life.
If the writer stopped at the point of “In philosophy”, all of his theories above and the
following parts will be all grey. Only when this work geminates from a practical and down-toearth root, it is called “the golden tree of life”.
This paper has been investigating many aspects of the word possibility, in dictionary, in
philosophy and even in sociology. Readers, up to this stage, are able to figure out similarities in
this universal word, possibility. People from nation to nation, no matter of race, class or gender,
can almost understand the meaning of this word, possibility. Nonetheless, there are certain and
inevitable differences and distinctness in this word of each language. So if these differences are
taken on, what about modals which are used to express the possibility in each language ? Are
they same or different ? Do they unify in one universal meaning or do they have unique
characteristics that are too far apart from others ? These are the deep and profound reasons for
the following main and vital section of this whole work.
Contrastive Analysis of Modals of Possibility
13
TYPICAL POSSIBILITY MODALS IN EACH LANGUAGE
In English
From his own theory and experience also throughout many years of learning and
practicing English, the writer came to a conclusion that English learners and most of native
speakers would seem to immediately think of four main modal verbs: CAN, COULD, MAY and
MIGHT to express possibility. This theory is supported by various trustworthy grammatical
books, such as:
 Oxford Practice Grammar (with answers) of John Eastwood, level Intermediate,
published by Oxford University Press in 2006, p. 108-113
 Oxford Practice Grammar (with answers) of George Yule, level Advanced, published by
Oxford University Press in 2006, p. 34-37
 English Grammar in use (with answers) of Raymond Murphy, 2nd edition, published by
Cambridge University Press in 1994, unit 26-30.
 Practical English Usage - International Student’s Edition of Michael Swan, 2nd edition,
published by Oxford University Press in 1995, p. 103-110, 322-328.
From these trusty and steady shores, here are what the writer researched:
Can
Positive Meaning
General or “theoretical” ability.
e.g.
I can speak 3 languages.
May can play the piano.
Saying what is common or typical.
e.g.
Scotland can be very warm in September.
Deciding now things to do in the future.
e.g.
I haven’t got time today, but I can see you tomorrow.
Let’s have lunch together. We can go to that restaurant.
Asking for permission.
e.g.
Can I borrow your dictionary ?
Can the dog come into the house ?
Contrastive Analysis of Modals of Possibility
14
Giving and refusing permission.
e.g.
You can wait in my office if you like.
Can we leave early today ? I’m sorry, but you can’t.
Talking about laws and rules.
e.g.
Can you park on a double yellow line on Sundays ?
Each passenger can take one bag onto the plane.
Suggestion or giving order.
e.g.
Can I carry your bag ?
Asking or requesting.
e.g.
Can you put the children to bed ?
Talking about choices that somebody has (now or in the future) or suggesting
opportunities.
e.g.
There are 2 possibilities: we can go to the police, or we can talk to lawyer.
e.g.
A: What shall we do ?
B: We can try asking Lucy for help.
Combining with perceiving verbs (i.e. verbs for senses) to imply the “present
progressive” meaning.
e.g.
I can see Susan coming.
Listen ! Can you hear the sea ?
Negative Meaning
Being used in affirmative sentences with adverbs like: “only, hardly” which have limiting
or negative meaning.
e.g.
A: Who’s that at the door ?
B: It can only be the postman.
Being used in negative sentences and questions to express the “logical possibility” that
something is true or that something is happening.
e.g.
A: There’s the doorbell ? Who can it be ?
Contrastive Analysis of Modals of Possibility
15
B: Well, it can’t be your mother. She’s in New York.
Could
This is The past form of CAN, so it has same characteristics:
Positive Meaning
General possibility in the past.
e.g.
He could lift a 100-kg weight when he was young.
Saying what was common or typical.
e.g.
I could be quite frightening if you were alone in our big old house.
Combining with perceiving verbs to imply the “present progressive” meaning.
e.g.
Suddenly she realized she could smell something burning.
A general permission in the past (someone who was allowed to do something at any
time in the past).
e.g.
When I was a child, I could watch TV whenever I wanted to.
Asking for permission. (more polite than CAN)
e.g.
Could I borrow your calculator ?
 In addition, it has its own functions:
Speculating about things, meaning “It’s possible that…”
e.g.
Your bag could be in the car.
Asking with meaning “It is possible that …”
e.g.
Peter is late. Could he be stuck in traffic ?
With a meaning “would be able/ would have been able”.
e.g.
You could get a better job if you spoke a foreign language.
You could have helped me – why did you just sit and watch ?
Criticizing someone for not doing something.
e.g.
You could ask me before you borrow my car.
Contrastive Analysis of Modals of Possibility
16
Especially, being used with “have + pp” to refer to the unreal capability in the past. (i.e.
something was possible but didn’t happen)
e.g.
That was a bad place for skiing – you could have broken your leg.
She could have been killed in the car crash.
Negative Meaning
Despite hard effort but not get successful.
e.g.
I couldn’t have won, so I didn’t go in for the race.
Can’t / Couldn’t help + doing something: a special structure which means someone can’t stop
himself doing it
e.g.
Excuse me – I couldn’t help overhearing what you said.
Differences In The Usage Of Can and Could
CAN
COULD
Present tense
Past tense of CAN
Tense
I can speak 3 languages.
He could lift a 100-kg weight when he was
young.
Politeness

Is preferred to CAN when being used to
express politeness.
Could you lend me five pounds until
tomorrow ? (More refined and elegant than
being used with CAN)

NEVER being used in giving or refusing
permission since it is used as a norm for
someone who is in younger age or in a
lower class talking to someone older or
in more noble class.
Could I ask you something, if you’re not too
late ? Yes, of course you can. (… you could)
Speculating about things, meaning “It’s possible that …” and asking “It is possible
Contrastive Analysis of Modals of Possibility
17
that …” COULD but not CAN
It could rain this weekend. (It can rain …)
Criticism: ONLY used with COULD
You could ask me before you borrow my car.
You could have told me you were getting
married.
May
Something Is Possible or That It Is Quite Likely
e.g.
It may be a bomb.
We may go climbing in the Alps next summer.
Being Widely Used In Academic or Scientific Terms (Talking About Typical Occurrences –
Things That Can Happen In Certain Situations)
e.g.
After having a baby, a woman may suffer from depression for several months.
The flower may have five or six petals, color may range from light pink to dark
red.
Accepting or Refusing a Permission (Very Formal, Not Often Used In Speech)
e.g.
You may telephone from here. (a written note)
May I put the TV on ? - Yes, of course you may / No, I’m afraid you may not.
Wishing or Hoping
e.g.
May you both very happy !
May God be with you !
Debate (Like Although … )
e.g.
It may be a comfortable car, but it uses a lot of petrol !
He may be clever, but he hasn’t got common sense.
Might
Indirect Reporting
e.g.
home.
Anne said that she might go to Scotland at the weekend, or she might stay at
Contrastive Analysis of Modals of Possibility
18
Sometimes Having a Meaning of “Perhaps”
e.g.
Don’t play with knives. You might get hurt. (= perhaps you would get hurt if you
did)
If you want to bad for an hour, you might feel better. (= perhaps you would feel
better)
Mentioning Something Which Could Happen But Not
e.g.
You were stupid to try climbing up there. You might have killed yourself.
If she hadn’t been so bad-tempered, I might have married her.
Requesting or Suggesting
e.g.
You might see if John is free this evening.
You might try asking your uncle for a job.
May / Might As Well: A Special Type of Expressing The Structure: “Should Do This Thing Since
There Is Nothing Better, Nothing More Interesting or Nothing More Useful To Do”
e.g.
There’s nobody interesting to talk to. We may as well go home.
A: Shall we go and see Fred ?
B: OK, might as well.
Similarities Between May and Might
Using either to say that something is possible now or later.
e.g.
Taking these pills may/might cause drowsiness.
I may/might go to the disco tomorrow.
Using either plus the perfect (may/might + have + pp) to say it is possible that something
happened before now.
e.g.
I may/might have lost my key.
Tanager may/might have met James when she was in London.
Discussion Between Some Basic Differences Between May and Might
MAY
MIGHT
First thing to remember: MIGHT is NOT usually used as the past form of MAY.
She may be here tomorrow.
She might be here tomorrow.
Contrastive Analysis of Modals of Possibility
19
(both is correct)
In report speech and thought after verbs in the past tense: using MIGHT not MAY.
(“I may be late.”) He said he might be late.
(He said he may …)
MAY but not MIGHT is used when we say that a possible situation is common or
usual.
Peppers may be green, yellow or red.
Describing of what was possible in the past: MAY can NOT be used.
In those days, people might spend their
entire lives in the village where they were
born.
Level of strength: MAY > MIGHT (MIGHT is more indecisive than MAY).
I may go to London tomorrow. (50%)
Joe might come with me. (30%)
Politeness: MIGHT > MAY, or even too formal to be widely used.
Might I put the TV on ? => Too formal to be
popular and only be accepted in indirect
question.
Rudimentary Differences Between Can, Could, May and Might
MIGHT
MAY
COULD
CAN
Definition
Chance that something (a specific event) is true, or that there is a
“General, or
possibility of it happening :
theoretical” ability:
There may / might / could be a strike next week. (= It’s possible that
Strikes can happen
there will be …)
at any time. (= It’s
possible for strikes to
happen …)
I may/might fly to Amsterdam on Tuesday.
One can travel to
Holland by boat or by
air.
Contrastive Analysis of Modals of Possibility
20
Talking About The Chances That Something Is True, or That Something Will Happen. For
This Idea (Probability): Could, May or Might Is Preferred To Can:3
‘Where’s Sarah?’ ‘She may/could be at Joe’s place.’ (She can be . .
.)
We may go camping this summer. (We can go . . . )
Using May/Might Rather Than Can/Could When We Make a Concession Before a Clause
With But
She may be 70, but she still likes to dance. (= Although she …)
We might have lost a battle, but not the war.
Making Suggestion About Possible Actions: Can/Could Not May/Might
We have a simple choice. We can/could wait
here for a bus or we can/could start walking.
Asking Someone To Do Things: Can/Could Not May/Might
Can you show me where it is ?
Could (May) you take this away ?
In Negative Form
Something is impossible:
Something negative is possible:
It may/might not rain tomorrow. ( = perhaps it
It can’t / couldn’t possibly rain tomorrow. (=
may not rain)
certainly, it cannot rain)
It may/might not be true. (= perhaps not)
That story can’t be true. (= I’m sure it’s not)
In Permission (i.e. Giving or Refusing Permission, Freedom or Regulation): Usually Not
Used May/Might, Instead We Prefer Can/Could
(I might what I like when I was a child)
I could read what I like when I was a child.
May I borrow the car ? Of course you can.
Can you park on both sides of the road here
(Of course you May is more formal)
? (more natural than May you park …)
Level of Certainty: Can > Could > May > Might4
He might want some
Tom may be
They could still be at
He can win the race.
more food. (40%
studying in his room.
school. (50%
(90% certain)
3
Examples were retrieved from http://englishwilleasy.com/free-english-grammar-online/esl-
grammar-c/can-possibility-and-probability/
4Examples
vs-probability.html
were retrieved from http://www.usingenglish.com/forum/ask-teacher/62895-possibility-
Contrastive Analysis of Modals of Possibility
21
certain; perhaps he
(perhaps; 50%
certain; it’s possible
wants some more
certain; it’s possible
they are still at
food.)
that he’s studying.)
school.)
Level of Intimacy In Giving Advice: Might < May < Can
Below is the situation that Gina is having a problem with her roommate, she is in big
dilemma. She asks Jane, her close friend, for advice.5
Gina: I cannot sleep,
Gina: Jane, I talked
Gina: She says she
because my
to Liz. She said that
understands me, but
roommate always
she has to work till
she has no other
comes very late and
late hours to make
choice! Now, What
she listens to music
money and music
can I do? Tell me!
at late hours!
relaxes her.
Jane: You can split
Jane: You might talk
Jane: You may tell
days. She can listen
to her.
her that you are
to music at
music at weekends,
terribly unhappy.
weekends, and
and respect your
You may explain
respect your sleep
sleep during the
your reasons.
during the week.
week.
In Vietnamese
As this is a need of language, when English people need words to express the
possibility, Vietnamese do as well. From the definitions of “khả năng” above, we can easily
foresee that there are also “modal verbs” in Vietnamese or even more than in English.
Có thể / có thể … đến
In Dai Tu Dien Tieng Viet – corrected and supplemented, 12th edition, có thể / có thể …
đến is defined as: (p. 328)
 Có khả năng, điều kiện thực hiện việc gì – Have the ability or condition to do
something:
Nó có thể làm được. – He can do it.
 Chắc hẳn, có khả năng như thế - Certainty, or having the similar capability:
5
Examples were retrieved from
http://khoaanh.net/index.php?module=News&func=display&sid=524
Contrastive Analysis of Modals of Possibility
22
Anh ta có thể ốm nặng. – He can be seriously ill.
According to Tu Dien Tieng Viet of Social Sciences and Humanities – Linguistics
Institute, có thể is: (p. 128)
 Sẽ được, có lẽ được, sẽ xảy ra, lời đoán chừng nhưng chắc chắn:
Việc đó có thể làm. – That can be done.
However, this word can also be used flexibly in many other situations:
Widely Used In Everyday Speech Meaning General Ability
e.g.
Anh ta có thể bơi cái hồ rộng lớn này trong nháy mắt. – He can swim this big
pool before you could blink.
Nó có thể nói 5 ngôn ngữ một cách rất lưu loát. – He can speak 5 languages
very fluently.
Asking For Permission
e.g.
Alô, có thể cho tôi gặp thầy hiệu trưởng không ạ ? – Hello, could (can) I speak to
the principle ?
Em có thể đậu xe ở đây được hông anh ? – Can I park here ?
Giving or Refusing The Permission: (A Little Formal)
e.g.
Tôi có thể dùng thêm món này không ? Đương nhiên có thể rồi. / Xin lỗi, anh
không thể. – Can I have this more ? Certainly, you can. / Sorry, you can’t.
A: Em có thể xin thầy 5 phút được không ạ ? – Excuse me, could I have a minute
talking with you ?
B: Tất nhiên (em có thể) rồi / Xin lỗi em, thầy đang bận. – Certainly (you can) /
So sorry, I’m busy now.
A Sensible and Certain Guess
e.g.
Trời âm u quá, rất có thể hôm nay trời mưa lắm đó.- It’s quite dark. It’s much
possible that it will rain.
(Situation: Someone took an exam 1 month ago. In this week, the Test Center
will inform the result and he is waiting for it. This is Wednesday and the phone rings…)
Contrastive Analysis of Modals of Possibility
23
Điện thoại kìa, nghe đi. Có thể bên chỗ thi báo kết quả điểm. – The phone is
ringing, pick it up. It can be the test center informing the test result.
Negative Form: Không Thể / Không Thể Nào
e.g.
Anh ta nói chuyện mắc cười quá, tôi không thể nhịn cười được. – He talks so
funny, I can’t help laughing.
A: Nó nói tao nghe nó thấy mày ăn trộm gà nhà bác Hai tối hôm qua. – He said
that he saw you stealing chicken of uncle Hai yesterday.
B: Không thể nào, nó đui mà. – It can’t be / Impossible. He’s blind.
Chỉ có thể / chỉ có thể là …
Being used as a way to limit the chance, the opportunity,…:
e.g.
A: Có tiếng kèn xe ngoài cửa kìa. – There’s a horn outside.
B: Chỉ có thể là ba về. – It must be dad.
A: Hôm nay thầy cho kiểm tra bài gì, mày biết không ? – What test will it be
today, you know ?
B: Chỉ có thể là “modal verbs”. – It must be “modal verbs”.
Có thể … vậy mà …
Especially, Being Used In The Past With A Meaning Of “Something Could Happen But Not”
e.g.
Nó có thể mượn xe của ba nó nếu nọ chịu năn nỉ ổng vậy mà nó không chịu làm.
– He could have asked his father for the motorbike, but he didn’t do.
Mày có thể giúp tao đỡ kiện hàng đó vậy mà tại sao mày chỉ ngồi và nhìn vậy ? –
You could have helped me loading that parcel, why did you just stand and stare ?
Criticizing Someone For Not Doing Something
e.g.
Tại sao mày không nói tao nghe chuyện đó. Mày có thể gọi tao mà sao mày
không gọi ? – Why didn’t you tell me about that. You could have called me, why didn’t you do it
?
Contrastive Analysis of Modals of Possibility
24
Có lẽ / có lẽ sẽ
In Dai Tu Dien Tieng Viet – corrected and supplemented, 12th edition, có lẽ / có lẽ sẽ is
labeled as: (p. 327)
 Có thể là, cũng có lí do để có thể như thế
e.g.
Anh ta nói có lẽ đúng sự thật.
Nể lòng có lẽ cầm lòng cho đang. (Truyện Kiều)
Appearing in Tu Dien Tieng Viet of Social Sciences and Humanities – Linguistics
Institute, có lẽ / có lẽ sẽ means: (p. 127)
 Chắc, có thể như vậy. – Maybe.
e.g.
A: Có lẽ An không đến rồi. – An may not come.
B: Có lẽ vậy. – Maybe.
From These Definitions, Có Lẽ / Có Lẽ Sẽ Is Used With The Meaning as “Perhaps”
e.g.
Hôm nay An không đi học. Có lẽ nó bệnh rồi. – An is off today. Maybe he gets
sick.
Một tháng rồi chưa cúp điện. Hôm nay có lẽ mấy ổng sẽ không tha cho đâu. –
The power has been so good. Today, maybe they (the electricians) do not let us off.
Interrogative sentence: Có Lẽ Nào…
e.g.
Có lẽ nào nó có ý phản phé không ? – Does he really have the thought of
betraying me ?
Có lẽ nào nó lại được chọn đi thi Toán quốc tế à ? – Was he chosen to compete
in the Internation Math’s competition ?
Có khả năng
Vu (1999) suggested that có khả năng means “Có tài sức để có thể làm nổi việc”
(capability to do well something) (p. 433). Thus, in real life this group of words is used with the
meaning:
Showing the particular capability of someone:
e.g.
Với cái đà học này, thầy xem xem em có khả năng lấy học bổng toàn phần
trường Harvard không ? – With this learning type, could you tell me whether I am able to get a
scholarship of Harvard University ?
Nghệ sĩ hài Tiểu Bảo Quốc rất có khả năng đoạt giải Cù Nèo Vàng năm nay. –
The comedian Tiểu Bảo Quốc probably win the Cù Nèo Vàng Award this year.
Contrastive Analysis of Modals of Possibility
25
Dám lắm / Dám có khi
As Dai Tu Dien Tieng Viet – corrected and supplemented, 12th edition, stated dám is
expressed as: (p. 327)
 Không ngại, không sợ, tự tin để làm những việc khó khăn, nguy hiểm – Be confident
to do difficult and risky things without worrying nor feeling fearful of hardship:
e.g.
Dám nghĩ dám làm. – Dare to think, dare to do.
Tu Dien Tieng Viet of Social Sciences and Humanities – Linguistics Institute, defined
dám as: (p. 231)
 Cách gan dạ, không sợ - To express the bravery, no worry:
e.g.
Dám ăn dám nói. – Dare to eat, dare to speak.
Chừng nào muối ngọt chanh thanh - Thì em mới dám bỏ anh lấy chồng (ca dao)
 Cách khiêm nhường – To express the humility:
e.g.
Dám bày lòng kiến xin dâng bệ rồng. – I’d dare to express my own thought to
respectfully present to Your Majesty.
Nevertheless, in daily conversations of Southern Vietnamese people, especially in the
sections of common ones, “dám” is used with the meanings as:
A “Sensible Possibility”:
e.g.
Điện thoại kìa, nghe đi. Dám bên chỗ thi báo kết quả điểm lắm à. (very informal)
- The phone is ringing, pick it up. It can be the test center informing the test result.
Being Used as A Mere Guess, Not Based On Any Proof:
e.g.
Thằng này trông gian quá. Dám nó là ăn trộm lắm à. – He looks so suspicious.
He may be a thief.
Chắc (là)
In Dai Tu Dien Tieng Viet – corrected and supplemented, 12th edition, dám is described
as: (p. 235)
 Có thể tin được, đúng như lời nói – It can be trusted, as exactly as said:
e.g.
Điều đó chưa chắc đã đúng. – That thing may not be true.
 Rất có thể - Much possible:
e.g.
Chắc mọi người sẽ hiểu tôi. – People may understand me.
 Nghĩ và tin sẽ đúng như thế - Think and believe it will be like that:
Contrastive Analysis of Modals of Possibility
e.g.
26
Cứ chắc sự việc xảy ra suôn sẻ ai ngờ lắm sự trục trặc như thế. – I was sure
that everything would happen easily, but it turned out to be too problematic.
 Phải chăng là như thế - Is it true like that:
e.g.
Anh biết hết mọi chuyện chắc ! – You know all things, don’t you ?
Despite the theoretical meanings in dictionaries, in Vietnamese language “chắc” is very
often used in daily life and has an wide-ranging meaning. This word is used in many
circumstances in all social classes with the meaning that the speaker is not sure, or even
humorous and jokey:
e.g.
Tao đau bụng quá. Chắc tao chết mất. – I’ve got bad stomachache. I may die.
A: Thằng cha này đi coi loạng choạng dữ à, chắc xỉn quá. – He is staggering,
maybe drunken.
B: Chắc vậy rồi. – Certainly.
Essential Differences of “Possibility Modals” In Vietnamese:
‘Có Thể’ Is Used In Most of The Time With a Meaning of “General, Theoretical” Ability:
e.g.
Một người có thể chết khát nếu nhịn uống 2 ngày. – A person can die of thirsty if
he does not drink for 2 days.
Đà điểu có thể chạy rất nhanh. – Ostriches can run really fast.
When Mentioning About Someone’s Specific Capability, ‘Có Khả Năng’ Is Commonly Used
Than ‘Có Thể’ With A Respectful Attitude:
e.g.
Vị sư thầy đó có khả năng xướng tụng cả hơn 4 tiếng đồng hồ mà không cần
nghỉ. – That monk is capable of chanting for 4 hours without relaxing.
Anh Đàm Vĩnh Hưng có khả năng hát liên tục 20-30 bài hát trong những
liveshow của anh. – Mr. Đàm Vĩnh Hưng is capable of singing continuously 20-30 songs in his
shows.
NO Vietnamese People Use ‘Có Khả Năng’ In Requesting:
e.g.
Anh có khả năng cho tôi nói chuyện với giám đốc không ?
Tôi có khả năng xem menu không anh ?
Contrastive Analysis of Modals of Possibility
27
Level Of Certainty: CÓ KHẢ NĂNG > CÓ THỂ > CÓ LẼ > DÁM > CHẮC (LÀ)
A substantive prediction is NOT used with WEAK verbs like: “có lẽ”.
e.g.
Nó làm việc tốt quá. Nó rất có khả năng sẽ lên chức phó phòng đó. – He’s been
doing so well. He will be probably promoted to deputy manager.
NOT: Nó làm việc tốt quá. Nó rất có lẽ sẽ lên chức phó phòng đó.
However, this order is not always true in all situation.
Sometimes Vietnamese people do not distinguish the great difference between a
“substantive” hypothesis and a “not-proven” guess.
e.g.
Điện thoại kìa, nghe đi. Rất có thể bên chỗ thi báo kết quả điểm. – The phone is
ringing, pick it up. It can be the test center informing the test result.
Điện thoại kìa, nghe đi. Dám bên chỗ thi báo kết quả điểm lắm à. (very informal)
– The phone is ringing, pick it up. It can be the test center informing the test result.
From the writer’s narrow viewpoint, this typical usage can only be seen in Southern
Vietnamese people. They tend to class “có thể” and “dám” as one and everyone, when hearing
or overhearing other people’s conversations, all catch the idea.
In many situations, chắc (là) is the strongest.
e.g.
A: Trông bạn thật tự tin. Bạn có chắc mình vào vòng chung kết không ? – You
look so confident. Are you sure you can continue to the final round ?
B: Chắc trăm phần trăm (có khả năng …) – 100% sure.
Level of formality.
“Dám”, “có lẽ” is used often in intimate or informal talk between friends, family members:
e.g.
A: 2h rồi mà thầy chưa vô nữa, có lẽ thầy nghỉ rồi. – It’s 2 o’clock and the teacher
has not arrived yet.
B: Dám lắm à. - Maybe
Chắc (là) is a very distinctive word of southern Vietnamese people.
e.g.
A: Hôm nay học mệt quá – chắc xí lắc léo quá mày ơi. (… có khả năng là xí lắc
léo …) – Today working so hard. Maybe I will be die soon.
In Chinese
会
On the webstie http://tratu.vietgle.vn/hoc-tieng-anh/tu-dien/lac-viet/TA/%E4%BC%9A.html, 会 is defined as:
Contrastive Analysis of Modals of Possibility
28
 Can , be possible, or be able to
Truong and Le (2004) suggested other meanings of 会 as: (p. 187,189)
General ability to do something
e.g.
他 会 说 汉语。 – He can speak Chinese.
Any skill which requires the perfect understanding and cognizance (as a verb)
e.g.
他会 电脑。 – He can use the computer.
Negative form
e.g.
A: 你会 打太极拳? – Can you perform Thái Cực Quyền ?
B: 我不会 打太极拳。 – I can’t do it.
能/ 可以
On two websites http://tratu.vietgle.vn/hoc-tieng-anh/tu-dien/lac-viet/TA/%E8%83%BD.html and
http://www.nciku.com/search/zh/detail/%E5%8F%AF%E4%BB%A5/1308737, 能/ 可以 are
understood as:
 Can, may, or capable
e.g.
我能 照顾好自己。
- I can take care of myself.
别人能 做到的,你也可以。- If other people can do it, so can you.
As Truong and Le (2004) suggested, 能/ 可以 could be used with various meanings as:
(p. 189)
Particular capability or condition to do something
e.g.
她今天不能 上课。 – Today she’s unable to come to class.
e.g.
他可以 用汉语说 。– He’s capable of using Chinese very well.
Asking for permission
e.g.
我试试可以 这皮大衣? – Could I try this leather overcoat ?
Expressing a specific availability (based on the specific situation or circumstance)
e.g.
A: 下午你能 给我一起去吗?- Could you possibly go with me this afternoon ?
B: 对不起,我有事, 不能 给你一起去。- I’m afraid not. I’m busy, so I can’t go
with you.
Contrastive Analysis of Modals of Possibility
29
Suggesting a possible act or planning to do something in the future
e.g.
星期六是吗丽的生日,我们可以 举行一个生日晚会。– This Saturday is Mary’s
birthday, so we can organize a birthday party.
Criticizing someone for not doing something
e.g.
为什么你不给 我说?你可以 给我打电话。– Why didn’t you talk to you ? You
could have called me.
Negative form
Situations in which someone cannot resist doing or acting something:
e.g.
明月我考试托福, 所以我不可不 复习努力。 – Next week I have a TOEFL test, so
I have to study hard.
可能
A guess based on definite factors
e.g.
他今天有点不舒服,头疼, 发烧, 可能 感冒了。- Today he doesn’t not feel well,
he’s felt sick and headache. Maybe he’s caught cold.
Being used with an adverb like: “只” in affirmative sentences which means limiting a chance or
an opportunity
e.g.
A: 他是谁?- Who is he ?
B: 只可 能 是王老师。 – Can only be professor Vương.
Differences In Using “Possibility Modal Verbs” In Chinese
会
能/可以
General ability to do
Particular capability or
something
condition to do something
我不是法国人,不会 说法
这儿不可以停车。 – No
语。 – I’m not French, so I
parking here (you are not
can’t speak French.
allowed to park here)
他会 开车, 现在不能 开车。 – He can drive, but at this
moment he’s unable to do it. (In situation: the man is
可能
Contrastive Analysis of Modals of Possibility
30
drunken)
Can be used as a VERB
instead of a MODAL.
他会 英语,不会 法语。 –
He knows English but not
French.
ARE ONLY MODALS
老师,吗丽不舒 服,今天她不能 来上课。 – Miss, Mary
feels sick today so she’s unable to come.
Comparing and Contrasting 3 Types of Languages
Similarities
Form
General structure: MODAL VERB + VERB
In English
Positive: Can / Could / May / Might + bare inf.
Negative: Can / Could / May / Might + NOT +bare inf.
In Vietnamese
Positive: Có thể / có lẽ / dám + động từ chính
Negative: Có thể / có lẽ / dám + KHÔNG + động từ chính
KHÔNG + Có thể / có lẽ / dám + động từ chính
In Chinese
Positive: 会/ 能/ 可能/ 可以+动词
Negative: 不+会/ 能/ 可能/ 可以+动词
Meaning
A general or theoretical ability
e.g.
I can speak 3 languages.
Anh ta có thể bơi đến 10 vòng hồ 200m trong vòng 5 phút. – He can swim up to
10 rounds of 200 meter pool in 5 minutes.
他 会 说 汉语。 – He can speak Chinese.
Contrastive Analysis of Modals of Possibility
31
A sensible possibility (Usually in negative form)
e.g.
There’s the doorbell ? Who can it be ? “Well, it can’t be your mother ?”
A: Nó nói nó thấy mày ăn trộm gà. – He said that he saw you stealing the
chicken.
B: Không thể nào, nó đui mà – It can’t be / Impossible. He’s blind.
A: 今天可能会下雨。- Today it can rain.
B: 不可能,。。。- It can’t / Impossible.
In situations that somebody do not or even cannot resist doing
e.g.
Excuse me – I couldn’t help overhearing what you said.
Anh ta nói chuyện mắc cười quá, tôi không thể nín cười được rồi. – He talks so
funny, I can’t help laughing.
这本书很便宜,我不可不 买。 – This book is very cheap so I will buy it. (Rarely:
This book is so cheap that I can’t help buying it.)
Combining with some adverbs to constitute sentences with a meaning of limitation of a chance
or an opportunity – a fairly certain guess
e.g.
Who’s that at the door ? – It can only be the postman.
A: Có tiếng kèn xe ngoài cửa kìa. – There’s a horn outside.
B: Chỉ có thể là ba về. – It must be dad.
A: 他是谁?- Who is he ?
B: 只可能 是王老师。 – Can only be professor Vương.
Social Function
Asking for permission
e.g.
Can I speak to Henry ? (it does not mean whether I have or do not have
capability to speak to Henry )
Alô, có thể cho tôi gặp thầy hiệu trưởng không ạ ? – Could I speak to the
principle ?
我试试可以 这皮大衣?- Could I try this leather overcoat ?
With a meaning of “something could happen but not”, used to show a regret
e.g.
You could get a better job if you spoke a foreign language.
Contrastive Analysis of Modals of Possibility
32
Cô ta có thể đoạt giải Hoa Hậu Hoàn Vũ vì cô có vóc dáng rất đẹp, vậy mà … chỉ
tại cô ta xài răng giả. – She could have won the Miss World Award as she has a very beautiful
appearance, but … she wore dentures.
如果 你努力学习,你就可以 考的上。 – If you had studied hard, you could have
gotten higher mark.
Criticizing someone for not doing something
e.g.
You could ask me before you borrow my car
Tại sao mày không nói tao nghe chuyện đó. Mày có thể gọi tao mà sao mày
không gọi ? – Why didn’t you tell me about that. You could have called me, why didn’t you do it
?
为什么你不给我说?你可以 给我打电话。 – Why didn’t you talk to me ? You
could have called me.
Suggesting a possible act someone can do or planning to do something in the future
e.g.
I’m busy now, but I can call you back at night.
Chủ nhật này sinh nhật thằng Tí, tụi mình có thể đi karaoke. – This Sunday is
Tí’s birthday, we can go for karaoke.
星期六是吗丽的生日,我们可以 举行一个生日晚会。 – This Saturday is Mary’s
birthday, so we can organize a birthday party.
The Level Of Certainty
In both English, Chinese and Vietnamese, level of certainty exists and manifest itself in
each modals of possibility. Below is the table showing the percent of modal verbs in each
language:
 50%
60 – 80%
90 – 100%
I might not finish the
I’m completely unfit. I
marathon tomorrow. (It’s
couldn’t run a marathon. (It’s
possible that I will not finish
impossible for me to run it)
it. – half win half lose)
Contrastive Analysis of Modals of Possibility
33
Hôm nay An không đi học.
Hôm qua An phụ má nó bán
Suốt năm học, An học rất sa
Có lẽ nó bệnh rồi. – An is off
đến 1h sáng nên rất có thể
sút vì lý do gia đình và sức
today. Maybe he gets sick.
sáng nay nó sẽ đi học
khỏe. Có khả năng rất lớn
muộn. – Yesterday An
nó sẽ ở lại năm nay. –
helped his mother selling up
During this year, An studied
to 1a.m., so he will probably
so bad because of his family
come to class late this
problem and his own health.
morning.
Most likely that he will have
to repeat the class.
下可能 雨。- (40-50% that it
下可能会 雨。- (70% that it
下会 雨。- (100% that it will
will rain, not sure about it,
will rain, expressing a little
rain)
half-half)
bit of uncertainty)
Differences
Above are the general and most common points that three languages all meet. However,
if in a research applying CA as a base, just comparing similarities is not enough and this work is
not a perfect one. Revealing any minor contrastive features in each language so that learners
can predict their errors as well as analyzing L2 & L1 themselves to correct and improve
themselves effectively and successfully (The prominent principle of behaviorists views in
1950s.) This idea, the writer thinks is what all learners of any language hope to explore and to
see it with their own bare eyes. The table below will be in charge of this significant job:
English
Chinese
Vietnamese
Tense
COULD is the past of CAN.
Almost NONE.
NONE (only use some
Nevertheless, in some
adverbs like: 昨天,已经,
wordy criticism, we may use
。。。)
“đã” like:
Mày đã có thể gọi cho tao
mà, tại sao mày không gọi ?
– You could have called
me, why didn’t you do it ?
Contrastive Analysis of Modals of Possibility
34
Type Of Verb
CAN/COULD/MAY/MIGHT are
CÓ KHẢ NĂNG/ CÓ THỂ/
会 is both a modal verb and
all modal verbs, we need main
CÓ LẼ/ DÁM/ CHẮC are all
a main verb
verb to create a full sentence.
modal verbs, we need main
他 会 说 汉语。 – He can
He can play piano. (NOT: He
verb to create a full
speak Chinese.
can piano.)
sentence.
他会电脑。 – He can use
Anh ta có thể trồng cây
chuối nửa giờ đồng hồ. –
the computer.
He can stand on his head
for half an hour. (NOT: Anh
ta có thể cây chuối nửa giờ
đồng hồ.)
Adverbs Accompanying With
NONE
Freely use words like: rất,
NONE
No one say: He very can play
cực kỳ, rất lớn… before CÓ
No one say 他 很 会 说 汉
piano.
KHẢ NĂNG/ CÓ THỂ/ CÓ
语。 – He very can speak
LẼ/ DÁM/ CHẮC.
Chinese.
Hôm qua An phụ má nó bán
đến 1h sáng nên rất có thể
sáng nay nó sẽ đi học
muộn. – Yesterday An
helped his mother selling up
to 1a.m., so he will probably
come to class late this
morning.
Suốt năm học, An học rất
sa sút vì lý do gia đình và
sức khỏe. Có khả năng rất
lớn nó sẽ ở lại năm nay. –
During this year, An studied
so bad because of his
family problem and his own
health. Most likely that he
Contrastive Analysis of Modals of Possibility
35
will have to repeat the
class.
Intonation and Pronunciation
CAN is pronounced in weak
NO weak or strong form.
NO weak or strong form.
form /kən/, NOT strong (or
The SAME intonation in all
The SAME intonation in all
normal) form /kæn/ in most of
of the questions.
of the questions.
the questions asking about
general ability, asking for favor,
giving order, …
Can you swim ?
What can I do for you ?
In interrogative questions (yes
– no questions) : Rising
Intonation
May I help you ?
In wh-questions : Falling
Intonation
Where can we stay for tonight
?
Particular capability or condition to do something:
NOT using CAN or COULD,
Using CÓ KHẢ NĂNG as:
Using 可以 as:
but using BE CAPABLE OF +
Với cái đà học này, thầy
他可以 用汉语说 。– He’s
V-ing as:
xem xem em có khả năng
capable of using Chinese
Only the Democratic Party is
lấy học bổng toàn phần
very well.
capable of running the country.
trường Harvard không ? –
With this learning type,
could you tell me whether I
am able to get a scholarship
of Harvard University ?
Social Function
The formality
COULD > CAN
In a general view, all words
NONE. Only depend on the
MIGHT > MAY
are in the equal level.
subject .
Contrastive Analysis of Modals of Possibility
36
MIGHT is the most formal
If formal: Làm ơn,
If we want to increase the
(rarely used in spoken
Tôi/em/chị sẽ mang ơn rất
formality in sentences, we
language)
nhiều nếu em/anh/bác có
use 您 (like Madam or Sir)
Could you lend me five pounds
thể … - I’d be much grateful
as the subject.
until tomorrow ? (More refined
if you …
and elegant than being used
with CAN)
Suggestion or giving order
English: Can I carry your bag ?
Để tôi giúp cô cho ! – Let
A: 我感到很累 了。- I’m too
me help you ! (A man wants
tired now.
to carry the cases for a
B: 让 我 给 你请个家。- Let
lady) [Rarely heard “Tôi có
me ask permission of
thể giúp cô chứ ?” , maybe
teacher for you.
in soap opera on TV]
Aspect Of The Culture: (Politeness and Refinement)
COULD / MAY / MIGHT is used CÓ THỂ / CÓ THỂ NÀO
会/ 能/ 可能/ 可以 is used
in most of the questions of well- must accompany with some
both for politeness and
educated and courteous
expletive words like: ạ / dạ /
non-politeness. The only
people:
dạ thưa / được không ạ,…
way to generate the
Could you (please) help me
to show respect:
politeness is to change the
calling him to arrive here ?
Có thể nào cho tôi gặp anh
pronouns:
An được không ạ ? – Can /
请问,你 叫什么?≠ 请问
Could I speak to Mr. An ?
,您叫什么?
Sometimes, a highly polite
person can use words: LÀM
ƠN… in his/her requests:
Anh làm ơn cho tôi hỏi
đường Lê Đại Hành ở đâu
vậy anh ? – Could you
please tell me where Lê Đại
Hành street is ?
These two sentences could
be fairly equivalently
translated:
Excuse me, what’s your
name ? ≠ Excuse me sir,
what’s your name ?
Contrastive Analysis of Modals of Possibility
37
IMPLICATIONS IN LANGUAGE TEACHING AND LEARNING
Helps Students In High-Schools Have A Rudimentary View About “Possibility Modals” In
Both Mother Tongue And Target Languages.
This is the foremost and vital role for any CA work. The intention of the writer of listing
many definitions, forms, structures and comparing each linguistic and social corner in Chinese,
Vietnamese and English is just to serve for one purpose: giving students, specifically senior high
school ones, a general panorama of possibility modals in their mother tongue (Vietnamese) and
target languages (english and Chinese). Fully understanding “có thể, có lẽ, chắc,dám” in order
to be aware that in english and Chinese, people have similar words or equivalent phrases like
can, could, may, might or 会/ 能/ 可能/ 可以, … thus be able to use appropriate word for each
situation without feeling awkward nor clumsy. However, this is not yet the final point. The higher
and uppermost aim is to help students learn more about the culture, the viewpoint and the
thoughts of each nation which is hidden under the level of mediocre words. No well-educated
Vietnamese people would forget the expletive words in their asking or requesting like: “Anh làm
ơn cho tôi hỏi đường Lê Đại Hành ở đâu vậy anh ?”. Nor no Chinese people would forget to add
the phrase 让 我 … give order. In short, behind the surface of language, students can explore
and discover themselves the underlying culture.
Help Students Compare And Differentiate Between The Target Languages And Mother
Tongue.
Another obvious benefit of this small work is to help students tell apart the differences or
figure out the similarities in features of possibility modals in each language from the micro level
to macro level, in other words from the linguistic area to the sociolinguistic one. Students will
know that it would be no problem if they want to apply the general structure : Modal verb + main
verb for the three languages. Or students will know that in english, using could plus a strong
intonation would be like the case of using có thể … mà sao structure in Vietnamese to express
the criticism. On the other hand, it will be a disaster if one wants to translate “Anh ta rất có thể là
hung thủ giết người vì vân tay của anh ta ở khắp nơi trong phòng này.” into “He very can be
the murderer because …”. Therefore, helping students compare and differentiate between the
target languages and mother tongue can also be regarded as a perfect way of preventing
mistakes students may make in future.
Contrastive Analysis of Modals of Possibility
38
Be Very Efficient In The Retrospective Explanation Of Errors In Some Aspects.
Actually, this notion is taken from the own experience of the writer during school age and
from his friends’. The writer recognizes that high-school students is in need of a work which can
give help for them to have a clear and throughout look about differences in their mother tongue
and the target language so that they can understand what mistakes they did and why they had
to use this but not that. It certainly helps them a lot in reducing time and effort in learning both
L1 and L2. With the same intention to express the general ability of someone, why is A’s
sentence right when he says: “She can sing beautifully.” while B’s one is completely wrong:
“She is able to sing beautifully.” ? Why do people feel normal and comfortable when this MC
utters “Anh Đàm Vĩnh Hưng có khả năng hát liên tục 20-30 bài hát trong những liveshow của
anh,” but sense something incorrect or belittled when a courteous man says “Anh có khả năng
cho tôi nói chuyện với giám đốc của anh được không ?” All of the errors come from the problem
of not knowing or misunderstanding the functions of each possibility modal in each language.
This issue is partly solved in aforementioned sections of this work.
Be Helpful In Doing Translation.
The reason why there are so many of inappropriately translated work currently in any
corner of book is that we, foreign language learners, are not native speakers who live and work
in the country whose language we are trying to translate. In short, we lack cultural and social
perspective of them. With this small work, whose principle is of Contrastive Analysis, this
problem can be reduced, not all, but at a certain level that both L1 or L2 readers or listeners feel
that it is not too exotic or bizarre. After finishing reading this work, readers will be able to
understand why they have to translate the sentence “让 我 给 你请个家” into “Let me ask
permission of teacher for you” in English. Or there will be no doubt why this sentence “I might
not finish the marathon tomorrow” must be turned into “Có lẽ tôi sẽ không hoàn thành được
cuộc đua ngày mai” rather than “Tôi có thể không hoàn thành được cuộc đua ngày mai”. Good
translated work after all is not only the using polished or flowery words but the proper
application of appropriate words in appropriate situational contexts. This work, hopefully,
provided some certain contexts for readers to unambiguously comprehend.
Be Suitable For Learners In All Ages.
Some people may think this statement is too blustering, bragging and the writer is too
self-praise of his own work. NO, this really is another on-the-ground implication of this work. Not
only high-school students, who certainly is in need of learning this work, but lower pupils or
Contrastive Analysis of Modals of Possibility
39
higher educated persons such as undergraduate students or linguistic researchers may feel
interested in this piece. A pupil, according to the theory of psychology, is keen on understanding
the differences between things in life, even the language if it could be transcribed or conveyed
in vivid and fascinating way like comparing and contrasting that language or this language with
his/her own language. Personally, the writer believes that by giving a thorough look in down-toearth contexts like expressing certainty, formality, suggesting or giving order, … in three
languages can bring itself into students’ attention. On the other hand, linguistic researchers will
also identify one or two useful points in this immature work about linguistics and sociolinguistics
but not laugh at or ridiculing it.
Arouse Students’ Interest In Learning Grammar Of Languages.
If helping students in high-schools have a rudimentary view about “possibility modals” in
both L1 and L2 is the first-rate job of this work, arousing students’ interest in learning language,
specifically grammar, is the utmost important role of this work in particular and of all Contrastive
Analysis work in general. The key reason for students not to love grammar is that with students,
grammar is something on the sky, impractical and unrealistic. This is not all for the teacher’s
inept teaching skills nor the language itself, it is because there is a lack of adequate comparison
between languages. After learning English for 6-7 years, a high-school student still not know
when, where, and in what situation they will use future present perfect instead of simple future.
A Vietnamese student, likewise, still confuse about “định ngữ”, “bổ ngữ”, and “trạng ngữ” and do
not know where to put these complex terms, in front of nouns, or behind the verbs. All of these
troubleshooting problems could be entirely avoided if there were enough inputs given to
students, in this case the thorough and in-depth contrastive analysis between the mother tongue
and target languages. Once students comprehend the similarities and differences between their
native language and the foreign ones, automatically they will have good mood in learning more
about other angles of them, such as about the forms, grammatical structures, and even the
social functions without having a feel of being forced nor compelled. That is what both teachers
and learners hope to achieve through learning grammar.
Contrastive Analysis of Modals of Possibility
40
Conclusion
Possibility modals, an issue that if someone spends his time writing pages by pages
describing, comparing and contrasting will be like a non-stop train. Since it is a part of language
which is generally accepted to be always changing. No one can ensure that in the future these
words like can/could/may/might or có thể/có lẽ/dám or : 会/ 能/ 可能/ 可以 will act as the role of
possibility modals without be replaced by A, B,C or Z. No one can say that 50 or 100 years later
the words like might, có lẽ and 可能 will permanently be words expressing the level of certainty
at the rate 50%. Since language is from daily life, created by daily needs of life and for this life, it
depends on human beings to understand, accept and use it. Therefore, this humble work is like
a temporary portrait of the ever-moving object, language. This portrait contains the language
family and typology of languages, definitions of possibility, comparison and contrast of
possibility modals in three languages, and lastly the implication. These details, hopefully, can in
this way or that way provide readers useful and applicable information in studying, researching
and even in applying in real life. The writer hopes that with this imperfect and shortcoming work,
the readers will not be too disappointed but can find enthralling points about possibility modals
in particular and language in general.
Contrastive Analysis of Modals of Possibility
41
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