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THE BLOG – Detectives in English

Detectives are cool. They have to collect evidence. Examine that evidence. Then they speculate about a conclusion. Whether you are Detective Conan, Sherlock Holmes or some other detective you need to use the correct language when talking about your speculations.

Conversa Kids

Let’s take a simple case as an example: The Case of the Missing Slice of Chocolate Cake

20051474 - a whole dark chocolate cake with flowers decorations, a piece missing

First we have the cake. Obviously, a slice is missing. The question is, however, who took it?

So, we know the suspect must be a chocolate lover. Let’s take a look at some suspects.

3506652 - young boy eating cookie in living room smiling

And it can’t have been this boy. He only likes cookies!


42718035 - eat, food, kid.

And it can’t have been this girl. She only likes vegetables!


10748957 - happy young woman dirty in melted chocolate

Aha! Here we go. This woman loves chocolate, and she even has chocolate on her face. She must have stolen the cake!


So, there we have it. As Sherlock Holmes said, “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” I guess in this case, it was pretty darn probable, though.


We can use MODALS to speculate in English. The Modals for speculation are:

must, could, may, may not, might, might not, can’t, and couldn’t.

We can put these modals of speculation into 3 categories. We categorize them by how certain we are.

#1) If we are very certain that something is true (95%-99%), we use must.

For example:

  • She must have stolen the cake! (PAST TENSE CERTAINTY: MODAL + have + PAST PARTICIPLE)
  • Whoever it was must be a chocolate lover.  (PRESENT TENSE CERTAINTY: MODAL + BF)

#2) If we are talking about things we believe are possibilities (30%-50%) we use could, may, may not, might, and might not.

For example:

  • Anyone could have taken the cake.   (PAST TENSE POSSIBILITY: MODAL + have + PAST PARTICIPLE)
  • It may have been him, but he seems to like cookies.   (PAST TENSE POSSIBILITY: MODAL + have + PAST PARTICIPLE)
  • So I guess, it might not have been him.  (PAST TENSE NEGATIVE POSSIBILITY: MODAL + not + have + PAST PARTICIPLE)


#3) If we are very certain that something is impossible, we use can’t or couldn’t.

For example:

  • That can’t be right- The witness said the suspect was average size. (PRESENT TENSE IMPOSSIBILITY: MODAL + not + BF)
  • And it can’t have been this guy. He only likes vegetables! (PAST TENSE IMPOSSIBILITY: MODAL + not + have + PAST PARTICIPLE)

NOTICE! can’t and couldn’t are both present and past! Past Modals of Speculation change tense by adding either BF  OR have + PAST PARTICIPLE. Therefore could is not necessarily past, and can’t is not necessarily present.



Speculate about what happened or what is happening in the following pictures…

1) Why is the man so angry?

2) What happened to the car?

3) What happened to the street?

15444714 - portrait of an angry businessman yelling at phone 2483706 - car trapped under fallen tree after wind storm. los angeles, california. 31239270 - sinkhole in sidewalk

Write your answers in SPEAK YOUR MIND below…

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