A Comprehensive Guide to Modal Verbs in English

Hello everyone,

Have you ever felt confused about when to use words like “can,” “could,” “should,” or “must?

If so, you’re not alone!

These are examples of modal verbs, and they can be tricky for both native English speakers and language learners.

Modal verbs are a type of auxiliary (helping) verb that add meaning to the main verb in a sentence.

They express ideas like ability, possibility, permission, obligation, and more. Using the right modal verb is important for clear communication.

In this lesson, we’ll cover everything you need to know about modal verbs—what they are, how to use them, and examples for each one.

Let’s dive in!

What Are Modal Verbs?

Modal verbs are:

– Can
– Could
– May
– Might
– Must
– Shall
– Should
– Will
– Would

These little words pack a big punch!

They modify the meaning of other verbs to express things like:

Ability (can, could)
Permission (may, might)
Obligation (must, should)
Future possibility (will, would)

For example:

“I can speak Spanish” (ability)
“You may leave early today” (permission)
“We must follow the rules” (obligation)
“It will rain later” (future possibility)

Note that modal verbs don’t change form for different subjects like regular verbs.

For example, we say “I can,” “you can,” “he can,” not “I cans,” “you cans,” etc.

Now let’s look at how to use each modal verb in more detail:

Can and Could

Use “can” to express ability or opportunity in the present:

“I can see the mountains from here.”
“She can meet us after work.”

Use “could” for abilities or opportunities in the past:

“When I was young, I could run for hours.”
“They could have gotten the earlier train, but they missed it.”

“Could” also expresses possibility or a polite request:

“It could rain later, so bring an umbrella.”
“Could you please pass the salt?”

May and Might

Use “may” to ask for or grant permission:

“May I use the restroom?”
“You may begin the test now.”

“May” also expresses possibility:

“The job may require some travel.”

Use “might” to say that something is a possibility, but less likely than “may”:

“I might stay late at work tonight.”
“It might rain this afternoon.”

Must

Use “must” to express obligation, requirement or necessity:

“I must get my car inspected this month.”
“You must follow all the safety rules.”

“Must” can also express a logical conclusion:

“He must be very tired after that long flight.”

Should and Ought To

“Should” and “ought to” suggest what is advisable or the right/best thing to do:

“You should get more sleep.”
“We ought to leave soon if we want to beat traffic.”

Will and Would

“Will” expresses future events, intentions, or habitual actions:

“I will call you when I get home.”
“The sun will rise at 6am tomorrow.”

Use “would” for hypothetical situations or past habits:

“If I won the lottery, I would travel around the world.”
“When we were kids, we would play outside all day.”

“Would” is also used to make polite requests:

“Would you mind opening the window?”

Shall

These days “shall” is not used as much, but it can express futurity or suggestions:

“I shall arrive by 6 pm.”
“What shall we do this evening?”

Modal Verb Phrases

Some modal verbs can be combined with other verbs to create “modal verb phrases” that express more nuanced meanings:

May have, might have, must have, could have, should have, would have, ought to have

Examples:

“I must have left my wallet at home.” (logical conclusion about the past)
“You could have asked for help.” (missed past opportunity)

Negating Modals

To make modal verbs negative, we insert the word “not” between the modal and the main verb:

“I cannot go to the party.”
“You should not eat so much junk food.”

However, we commonly use contractions instead:

“I can’t go to the party.”
“You shouldn’t eat so much junk food.”

Modal Verbs in Questions

For questions, we switch the subject and modal:

“Can you pass me the remote?”
“Should we order takeout tonight?”

That covers the basics of modal verbs!

As you can see, using the right one is key for clear, natural communication.

I hope this guide has helped clarify how and when to use these important little verbs.

The best way to master modal verbs is through listening and practice.

Pay attention when you hear or read them being used and try using different modals yourself in example sentences.

With time and exposure, they’ll become second nature!

Do you have any other questions about modal verbs I didn’t cover here?

Let me know in the comments and I’ll do my best to explain further.

Thanks for reading!

_____________________

Check out these awesome grammar books I recommend:

High School English Gram & Comp – by WREN & MARTIN

English Grammar in Use Book with Answers: A Self-study Reference and Practice Book for Intermediate Learners of English

OXFORD ENGLISH GRAMMAR COURSE ADVANCED WITH KEY (WITH EBOOK)

English Grammar (Language Workbooks) 

English Grammar: The Basics: The Basics

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