Modal Verbs – Meaning, Usage & Examples

Hello everyone,

If you’ve ever found yourself confused about words like can, could, should, would, may, might, and must, you’re not alone.

These are modal verbs, and they can be tricky to use correctly.

But never fear!

This lesson will break down everything you need to know about modal verbs in a simple, straightforward way.

What are Modal Verbs?

Modal verbs are auxiliary verbs that express ideas like ability, possibility, permission, and obligation.

They never change their form, so they don’t have any endings like -s, -ed, or -ing added to them.

Some examples of modal verbs in English include:

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

Let’s go through the different modal verbs and their meanings one by one.


The modal verbs can and could express ability or possibility in the present and past, respectively.

For example:

“I can run fast.” (Present ability)

“She could speak three languages fluently.” (Past ability)

Can also expresses permission or possibility:

“Can I use your phone, please?”

“It can snow heavily in winter.”

Could is used to make polite requests:

“Could you pass the salt, please?”


May and might express possibility or probability.

For example:

“It may rain tomorrow, so bring an umbrella.” (Present possibility)

“He might have missed the bus.” (Past possibility)

May is also used to request or grant permission:

“May I leave early today?”

“You may go to the party.”

Might can make a suggestion more polite:

“We might consider other options.”


Must expresses necessity, obligation or a logical conclusion.

For example:

“I must finish this work by tonight.” (Necessity)

“You must be Sarah’s brother – you look so alike!” (Logical conclusion)

In negative sentences, must not means to prohibit or forbid:

“You must not smoke inside the building.”

Should/Ought to

Should and ought to indicate a recommendation, piece of advice, or moral obligation.

For example:

“You should eat more vegetables.”

“We ought to save money for our vacation.”


Shall is most commonly used to make suggestions or ask for instructions.

For example:

“Shall we go to the movies tonight?”

“What shall I do next?”

In modern English, will tends to be favored over shall for simple future statements.


Will and would are used to express future events, requests/offers, and willingness.

For example:

“It will rain tomorrow.” (Future event)

“Will you help me with my homework?” (Request)

“I would be happy to assist you.” (Willingness)

Would is the past tense form, used for hypothetical or imaginary situations:

“If I had a million dollars, I would travel the world.”

It is also more polite than will for requests:

“Would you mind opening the window?”

Using Modal Verbs

Now that we understand the meanings, let’s look at how modal verbs are used grammatically:

– Modal verbs are followed directly by the base form of the main verb (without to):

Correct: “I can speak French.”

Incorrect: “I can to speak French.”

– Negatives are formed by adding not after the modal verb:

“I should not eat too many sweets.”

– Question forms are created by inverting the subject and modal verb:

“Can you swim?”

“Would they like to join us?”

– For third person singular subjects, there is no -s ending on the modal verb:

“He can juggle.” Not “He cans juggle.”

– Two modal verbs cannot be used together in the same verb phrase:

Correct: “I might be able to come.”

Incorrect: “I might can come.”

Modal Verb Combinations

Sometimes modal verbs are combined with other verbs to express different meanings:

– ‘Have to’ indicates obligation or necessity:

“I have to work late tonight.”

– Used to describes a past habit:

“I used to play soccer every weekend.”

– Be able to denotes ability:

“Will you be able to attend the meeting?”

– Be going to indicates future plans:

“We are going to visit our cousins next month.”

– Be supposed to suggests an obligation or duty:

“You are supposed to finish your homework.”

– Would like/Would love express desire politely:

“I would like the vegetarian option, please.”

To illustrate modal verbs in action, let’s look at some examples in context:

Asking for permission:

“May I use the restroom?”

“Could I leave work early today?”

Expressing ability:

“I can speak a little Spanish.”

“My brother couldn’t drive until he was 18.”

Making a polite request:

“Would you mind taking out the trash?”

“Might we have the check, please?”

Giving advice:

“You should exercise more often.”

“We ought to save for retirement.”

Talking about the future:

“It will be sunny all week.”

“I shall call you tomorrow with an update.”

Expressing logical conclusions:

“You must be tired after that long flight.”

“They can’t be home – all the lights are off.”

That covers the basics of modal verbs!

While there are many nuances, understanding the core meanings and usages will help you wield these everyday verbs like a pro.

With a bit of practice, using the right modal verbs will become second nature.

Just remember to can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will or would your way through any situation!

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