The Can Family -- Encarta

can [stressed, kan unstressed, kən]
CORE-MEANING: a modal verb used to indicate that it is possible for something to be done or made use of in a particular way
Loans can be made over the phone.
modal verb
1.  be able to: to have the ability, knowledge, or opportunity to do something
Can you swim?
2.  be likely: to be likely to be true or to be the case
It can be dangerous.
3.  be allowed to: to be allowed to do something, either by legal or moral right or by permission
Can I go?
4.  be acceptable: used to make polite requests, suggestions, or offers
Can I make a suggestion?
5.  be possible: used in questions to emphasize strong feelings about something
What on earth can be the matter?

[ Old English cunnan < Indo-European]

can or may?

Many people draw a distinction between can, meaning "be able to," and may, meaning "be allowed to," but the distinction is hard to maintain in practice and the meanings often overlap. In everyday conversation, Can I go? is as likely to be used as May I go?, and the context, together with intonation, usually makes it clear what is meant. In more formal situations it is wise to maintain the distinction, if only because many people expect it. Note that may has ambiguities of its own. He may go can mean either "he is allowed to go" or "it is possible that he will go"; again, intonation and context clarify the matter. The negative contraction mayn't is awkward, and can't is usually used instead: Can't we come too?

Microsoft® Encarta® 2006. © 1993-2005 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

could [kd, kəd]
CORE-MEANING: a modal auxiliary verb used as the past tense of "can"
My mother did the best she could for my brother and me.
She could perform on the trapeze.
His feet were so swollen that he could hardly walk.
We were so tired we couldn't stay awake.

1.  modal verb
expressing possibility: used to indicate that something is possibly true or happening in the future
She thinks that medical technology could be the field for her.
2.  modal verb
expressing request: used when making polite requests
Could you close the window please?
3.  modal verb
indicating possible past situation: used to indicate a possible situation in the past that did not happen
We could have gone.
4.  modal verb
expressing polite offer: used to make polite offers and suggestions
You could stay at my place.
5.  intransitive verb
for emphasis: used in questions to emphasize strong feelings about something
How could you do that?

[ Old English cūþe , past tense of cunnan "know" (see can1); altered after should , would ]

may [may]
(past might [mīt], 3rd person present singular may) CORE-MEANING: a modal verb indicating that something could be true, or could have happened, or will possibly happen in the future
I may not be able to meet you.
He may have been working too hard.
A verdict may be announced today.

modal verb
1.  indicates possibility: indicates that something is possibly true
That may be the best way to do it.
2.  △indicates that something could happen: indicates that something could have happened, or could happen in the future
The crash may well have been caused by faulty brakes.
The comet may be remembered best for its nonscientific impact.
3.  indicates permission: indicates that somebody is asking somebody for permission or giving somebody permission to do something (formal)
"May I leave the table?" "No, you may not."
4.  indicates right: indicates that somebody has a legal or moral right to do something
You may withdraw money from this account at any time.
5.  indicates requests or suggestions: indicates polite requests, suggestions, or offers
May I remind you of our earlier agreement?
May I help you with that bag?
6.  indicates wish: indicates that somebody wishes for something very strongly (formal)
May God bless us, every one.

[ Old English mæg , form of magan "be able" < Indo-European]

be that as it may indicates that somebody wants to go on to a new topic after conceding the possible truth of a previous statement
"He doesn't earn much money." "Be that as it may, he's been successful in what he set out to do."

See can1.

Microsoft® Encarta® 2006. © 1993-2005 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

might [mīt]
CORE-MEANING: a modal verb indicating the possibility that something is true or will happen in the future
She said that John might be living abroad now.
The meeting might be as early as next week.
modal verb
1.  giving advice: used as a polite way of making suggestions and giving advice
I thought we might go out tonight.
You might want to give him a call first.
2.  expressing obligation: used to indicate that somebody ought to do something, often to show annoyance that it has not been done
You might at least have told me!

[ Old English mihte , meahte , the past tense of magan (see may1)]

might or mite? Do not confuse the spelling of might and mite, which sound similar. Might is a verb meaning "will possibly" or "ought to": It might rain. You might have warned me! It is also noun meaning "power" or "strength": the might of a multinational organization; with might and main. Mite is a noun only, referring to a tiny eight-legged animal, a little child, or a small amount, as in a spider mite, give the poor mite a drink, or feeling a mite jealous.

Microsoft® Encarta® 2006. © 1993-2005 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.