Modal verbs can be used to indicate levels of past, current and future possibility. For example:
Douglas might have made it as a Premier League footballer, if it wasn’t for his two left feet.
Here, the modal verb ‘might’ suggests that, whilst I’m particularly unskilful and clumsy on the pitch, I arguably do possess some of the other requisite characteristics of a Premier League footballer that might have helped me make it to the very top (e.g. raging vanity and a pitifully low pain threshold). Anyway, I digress… Here’s a much more interesting and relevant example from White Teeth, by Zadie Smith:
He got the torch from the kitchen drawer and went upstairs looking for Millat.
‘Millat? Answer me, Millat! Are you there?’
‘Maybe, Abba, maybe not.’
Samad followed the voice to the bathroom and found Millat chin-high in dirty pink soap suds, reading Viz.
In the extract above, Samad (initially referred to as ‘Abba’) is frantically trying to evacuate his family from his north London home as the great storm of 1987 rages overhead. He believes, quite reasonably, that the roof will fall in and cause a serious injury. However, Millat, his rebellious teenage son, doesn’t share the same sense of urgency: he’s in the bath relaxing with a copy of Viz. When questioned about his whereabouts, Millat cleverly uses the modal verb ‘maybe’ to signal to his father that there is indeed a possibility he’s currently located upstairs. Naughty Millat. Of course, we know, and so does Samad, that his son is being infuriatingly disingenuous: the boy’s just wasting time.
Here’s one more example, this time from The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a novel by Mohsin Hamid about the impact of the 9/11 Al-Qaeda attacks on a Pakistani man named Changez:
Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance? Ah, I have alarmed you. Do not be frightened by my beard: I am a lover of America. I noticed that you were looking for something; more than looking, in fact you seemed to be on a mission, and since I am both a native of this city and a speaker of your language, I thought I might offer you my services.
At this point in the novel, Changez has returned to his native Pakistan from New York following the attacks. He meets, seemingly by chance, an American man who he believes is lost in Lahore. Changez offers his assistance: the tone of the question is polite and friendly. He initially chooses to use the modal verb ‘may’ to signal to the American stranger that he has a choice: he isn’t compelled to accept the offer. However, after the question has been asked, Changez notes that his approach has not been welcomed, and he feels compelled to explain. To do this, Changez simply informs the stranger that he grew up in Lahore and is bilingual and, as such, believed that he might be able to help. Changez’s decision to use the modal verb ‘might’ at the end of the extract helps to maintain the tone he established at the beginning: unassuming and self-effacing. Poor Changez.
And, there we go: another week done! Don’t worry though, there’s much more information to be accessed if you click on the link below:
TL;DR: modal verbs can be used to indicate levels of past, current and future possibility.