Modal verbs in English can be quite confusing. I remember how challenging it was for me when I first started with it. In this post, I want to try and help make it easier for you.
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What Are Modal Verbs in English?
Modal verbs are a set of auxiliary verbs which are sometimes also called modal auxiliary verbs.
Modal verbs uses include hekping us talk about the probability of something happening, a person’s ability to do something or how obligated someone is to do a certain thing. Note that we don’t really use it to talk about the reality of something happening.
Other uses for modal verbs are saying how we feel about something, being polite, giving advice, asking for something or giving permission.
Important Things to Know
- Modals never change their form. “Must” stays “must” regardless of how you use it. “Musted” or “musting”, for example, is not a thing.
- A modal verb must always be the first word in a verb phrase. It is then followed by the base form of the verb. For example: “She will go to the mall” not “she will goes to the mall”.
- Modal verbs do not take “-s” in the third person. Sentences with them should look like this: “He should eat his food”, not like this: “He shoulds eat his food.
- “Will” can be contracted to “-‘ll”. For example, “I will do my homework” can become “I’ll do my homework”.
- “Would” can be shortened to “-‘d”. “I would rather read a book” can also look like this: “I’d rather read a book”.
- Many modal verbs can only be used in the present tenses.
Modal Verbs Uses
The uses of modal verbs are not clear-but. Sometimes people will use the same verb to talk about something a bit different. However, there are some guidelines as to when and how to use them.
Modal Verbs in English List
Here is a list of modal verbs in English and their uses:
“Can” indicates the ability to do something:
Can you speak German?
I can speak Italian.
It can also be used to indicate that something is possible or that there will be an opportunity for something.
They can eat when they get home.
“Can” can also be used in polite questions. For example, it can be used for asking permission:
Can I eat that?
Lastly, it can be used to make a request:
Can you hand me that book?
“Could” is the past tense for “can” and thus it indicates past ability. This means that in the past someone/something was able to do something:
He could eat an entire bread.
However, it can also indicate that something might be possible in future:
I could take a look at that when I get home.
Furthermore, we can use it to make a suggestion:
We could get another opinion.
It can also be used as a conditional:
He could speak it well if he studied more.
Like “can”, “could” can be used to ask permission:
Could I see that?
It can also be used to make a request:
Could you repeat that?
We use “will” to indicate that there it is almost certain that something will happen in the future.
He will speak German once he feels confident.
However, sometimes we can pair it with other words to indicate that the possibility of it happening is not quite as high. For example:
She thinks that he will be at home.
“Shall” is not used that often anymore. It means the same as will, but is only used with “I” and “we”. For example you would say:
I shall go to school tomorrow.
He will go to school tomorrow.
However, there is another use of “shall” that is not the same as will and that is to offer to do something for someone or to give a suggestion:
Shall I help you with washing the dishes?
Shall we do this again tomorrow?
Might or May?
If you are not sure when to use might or may, you are in luck because in most cases you can use them interchangeably. Here is how to use them.
“May” / “might” + base form of the verb is used to express the possibility of something in the future (note that the following two sentences have the same meaning):
May I come in?
Might I come in?
“May” / “might” + base form of the verb can also be used to suggest a present possibility:
Ben may be at the library now.
Ben might be at the library now.
“May” / “might” differs from “will” because “will” indicates greater certainty:
Ann will be at school tomorrow. (The speaker is more certain.)
Ann may/might be at school tomorrow. (The speaker is less certain than in the previous sentence.)
Note that “may not” or “might not” can not be contracted. More on the negative of modal verbs later.
This word can be used to ask for permission or making a request:
Would you open the window, please?
Sometimes we use it as a conditional, like this:
Had he done his homework, he would not be in trouble now.
In other cases it can indicate repetition in the past:
She would always read before going to bed.
In short, “should” means “it is a good idea to do that” and in some cases it can indicate that a person is obligated to do something. For example:
Ann should go to school.
The above sentence means:
It is a good idea for Ann to go to school.
But it can also mean:
Ann is obligated to go to school.
Sometimes we should use the context of a situation to determine the meaning of what is being said.
We can also use “should” to indicate an expectation:
She should he at home by now.
Ought to is pretty much the same as should. You can use it interchangeable. In fact, in most cases people simply say “should”.
Ann ought to go to school.
“Must” means the same as “have to”, like this:
You must drink water.
You have to drink water.
You can also use it to indicate that you feel quite certain about something being true. Like this:
You must have some idea as to why he is not here.
“Must” differs from “should” because it shows that something is really important and that you don’t have a choice if you want to do it or not.
“Should” just says that it is a good idea to do that, but it is your choice.
Modals in the Negative
You can add “not” after a modal verb in English to make the sentence mean the opposite like this:
You should not have eaten that.
You can also contract the “not” in these sentences to “-n’t”:
You shouldn’t have eaten that.
Modal Verbs in English and the Tenses
Usually modal verbs do not include tenses, but it can imply the present, the past or the future. This is done by using time-words such as “now”, “tomorrow” or “soon”.
Note that although they may imply a certain time, the verbs themselves still don’t change their forms. Look at these examples.
We must act now.
The book might be in on my desk.
We must act soon.
The package might arrive tomorrow.
To indicate the past, we use phrases such as: “was able to” or “had to”. We can also use a modal verb + “have”.
We should have read the book when we had a chance.
The package might have arrived yesterday.
We had to know then.
However, to all rules there sometimes are some exceptions. In some situations, “could”, “would”, “should” and “might” are past forms of “can”, “will”, “shall” and “may”. For example:
I can’t remember the password. (present)
I couldn’t remember the password. (past)
Polite Questions Using Modal Verbs
You can ask questions in different ways. When using modal verbs in questions you should always place the modal verb right before the subject of the sentence and not the main verb. Take a look at this example where “will” is the modal verb, “Ann” the subject and “come” the main verb:
Will Ann come to the party?
In the following few sections I will show you how to make these questions more polite.
Questions with “may I”, “can I” and “could I”
Using these three options at the start of your sentences will automatically make your questions polite. They are all used to ask for permission.
Look at the following three examples. Note that they all have the same meaning:
May I borrow your book?
Could I borrow your book?
Can I borrow your book?
You can add please between the modal verb + “I” and the main verb to make a question more polite:
May I please borrow your ruler?
Could I please borrow your ruler?
Can I please borrow your ruler?
Asking questions using “would you” and “could you”
These two options are used to ask someone to do something. Both mean the same.
Here are examples of how they are used:
Would you lend me your book?
Could you lend me your book?
Of course you can once again add please to your question to make it more polite, like this:
Could you please lend me your eraser?
Would you please lend me your eraser?
Conclusion: Modal Verbs in English
These verbs doesn’t need to confuse you. Try to remember the common uses that I gave you in this post. Then try to listen to how people use them to see when you can use them differently.
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