Modal verbs are special words in the English language. People use them a lot when they talk, but not everyone knows what they really are or how they work. In this article, we’ll explain English modal verbs in a simple way and give examples to make it easy to understand.
Modal verbs, often simply referred to as “modals,” are auxiliary (or helping) verbs that express necessity, possibility, obligation, or permission. They are used alongside the base form of the main verb to indicate the mood or tense. Unlike other verbs, modals do not change form based on the subject, and they do not have infinitive or participle forms.
Common English Modal Verbs and Their Uses:
They are used to express possibility, necessity, obligation, permission, ability, advice, and probability. Here are some of the most common modal verbs and their primary uses:
Can / Could:
“Can” and “Could” are modal auxiliary verbs used to express various notions like ability, possibility, permission, and requests.
- Can: This is used to express a present ability.
- Example: She can speak three languages.
- Could: Often used to express a past ability.
- Example: She could run very fast when she was younger.
- Can: Expresses a general possibility or likelihood in the present.
- Example: Phones can be very distracting.
- Could: Indicates a hypothetical possibility or a potential situation in the future.
- Example: If we left now, we could catch the early train.
- Can: Used to ask or grant permission in a casual manner.
- Example (asking): Can I borrow your book?
- Example (granting): Yes, you can.
- Could: A more polite way to ask for permission.
- Example: Could I possibly use your phone?
4. Requests and Offers:
- Can: Used to make requests or offers.
- Example (request): Can you help me with this?
- Example (offer): I can help you if you want.
- Could: A more polite way to make requests.
- Example: Could you please pass the salt?
- Could: Used to make suggestions.
- Example: We could go to the beach this weekend.
May / Might:
- May: Used to express a possibility or likelihood in the present or future.
- Example: It may rain later today.
- Might: Often indicates a slightly lesser degree of possibility compared to “may”. It’s also used for hypothetical situations in the past.
- Example (present/future): It might rain, but I think it’s unlikely.
- Example (past): If I had known, I might have come earlier.
- May: Traditionally, “may” is used to ask for or grant formal permission.
- Example (asking): May I leave the room?
- Example (granting): You may
- Might: It’s less common to use “might” for permission, but in cases where it’s used, it implies a more tentative or polite request.
- Example: Might I suggest an alternative?
- Might: Used to make gentle suggestions or offer options.
- Example: You might want to consider revising that chapter.
4. Past Events:
- Might: Can be used to talk about events that didn’t happen in the past.
- Example: I might have won if I had trained harder.
Over time, the distinction between “may” and “might” has become somewhat blurred, especially in informal contexts. Many people use them interchangeably when talking about possibility.
Another point of distinction is the tone. “Might” often sounds a tad more tentative or uncertain compared to “may”.
When talking about events that didn’t happen in the past, “might” is more appropriate. For example, saying “I may have called him” implies you’re not sure if you called him or not. On the other hand, “I might have called him” suggests a missed opportunity in the past.
Will / Would:
Let’s delve deeper into the modal verbs “Will” and “Would.” These modals are pivotal for discussing future actions, habitual activities, and more.
1. Future Predictions and Intentions:
- Will: Primarily used to talk about future actions, predictions, or intentions.
- Example (action): She will arrive tomorrow.
- Example (prediction): I think it will rain later.
- Example (intention): I will make dinner tonight.
2. Habitual Actions:
- Would: Used to describe actions that were habitual in the past.
- Example: When I was a child, I would visit my grandmother every summer.
3. Polite Requests and Offers:
- Will: Can be used to make a polite offer or request.
- Example (offer): Will you have some coffee?
- Example (request): Will you please open the window?
- Would: Often seen as more polite than “will” and is typically used for requests or offers.
- Example (request): Would you mind helping me?
- Example (offer): Would you like some tea?
4. Conditional Statements:
- Will: Used in the main clause of the first conditional to talk about a possible future event.
- Example: If it rains, we will stay indoors.
- Would: Commonly used in the main clause of the second conditional to discuss an unlikely or hypothetical situation.
- Example: If I won the lottery, I would buy a mansion.
- Would: Used to express a preference.
- Example: I would rather have tea than coffee.
- Would: Used to extend an invitation.
- Example: Would you like to join us for dinner?
- “Would” can be seen as the past tense of “will,” but it’s not limited to this function. While “will” deals primarily with the future, “would” has a broader range, from discussing the past to making polite requests in the present.
- The use of “will” often implies a level of certainty, while “would” introduces an element of doubt, politeness, or speculation.
- In some contexts, especially in spoken English, “will” and “would” might be used interchangeably. However, recognizing the nuances of each can greatly enhance clarity and precision in communication.
Future Predictions (Formal):
- Shall is traditionally used with the first person (I and we) to indicate future actions or intentions, particularly in British English.
- Example: We shall see what tomorrow brings.
2. Offers and Suggestions:
- Shall is often used to make offers or suggestions, particularly with the first person.
- Example (offer): Shall I carry that for you?
- Example (suggestion): Shall we go to the theater tonight?
3. Determination or Promises:
- Using “shall” in affirmations can give a sense of determination.
- Example: I shall overcome this challenge!
4. Obligation (Legal or Formal Contexts):
- In legal or highly formal contexts, “shall” is used to indicate a duty or obligation. This usage is less common in everyday conversation but prevalent in formal documents.
- Example: The tenant shall be responsible for any damages to the property.
5. Questions (Seeking Direction or Confirmation):
- When used in questions with the first person, “shall” seeks direction or confirmation.
- Example: Shall I proceed with the plan?
Let’s dive into the modal verb “Should.” This versatile modal plays a critical role in giving advice, suggesting, expressing expectation, and more.
1. Advice or Recommendations:
- “Should” is commonly used to give advice or make recommendations.
- Example: You should eat more fruits and vegetables for better health.
2. Obligation or Duty:
- It can indicate a sense of obligation or duty.
- Example: We should respect our elders.
3. Probability or Expectation:
- “Should” can also express an expectation or something that is likely or probable.
- Example: If you’ve mailed the letter, they should receive it by Friday.
4. Conditional Statements:
- Used in the if-clause of conditional sentences to talk about possible scenarios.
- Example: If you should see James, tell him to call me.
5. Tentative Expressions:
- To express something tentatively or less directly.
- Example: I should like to visit Europe next year. (This is more formal and less direct than saying “I would like to…”)
6. Past Regret:
- “Should” can be paired with “have” and the past participle of a verb to express regret about something that did not happen or something one failed to do.
- Example: I should have studied harder for the exam.
Let’s delve into the modal verb “Must.” It’s a powerful word in English, conveying a strong sense of obligation, necessity, or logical deduction.
1. Obligation or Necessity:
- “Must” expresses something that is necessary or mandatory.
- Example: You must wear a helmet when riding a bike for safety.
2. Prohibition (in negative form):
- When used as “must not” or “mustn’t,” it indicates prohibition or something that is not allowed.
- Example: You mustn’t smoke in the hospital.
3. Strong Recommendation:
- “Must” can be used to give a strong recommendation.
- Example: You must see that movie; it’s fantastic!
4. Certainty or Logical Conclusion:
- Used to express something that the speaker believes is certain or obvious based on the information available.
- Example: This must be the place. (Based on the given address)
5. Describing Past Obligation (when combined with “have”):
- “Must have” followed by a past participle indicates a logical conclusion or deduction about an event in the past.
- Example: She’s not answering her phone; she must have gone to sleep.
Let’s delve into the modal expression “Ought to.” This phrase, while bearing resemblance in usage to “should,” imparts a sense of duty, expectation, or advisability.
1. Advice or Recommendation:
- “Ought to” is often used to give advice or make recommendations, similar to “should.”
- Example: You ought to drink plenty of water during hot weather.
2. Moral Duty or Obligation:
- Expresses a sense of moral or ethical duty.
- Example: We ought to help those less fortunate than ourselves.
3. Expected Action or Event:
- “Ought to” can indicate an action or event that is expected to happen (or have happened).
- Example (present): This letter ought to arrive by Friday.
- Example (past): They ought to have reached their destination by now.
4. Criticism (often in negative form):
- Used in a negative form to criticize an action that hasn’t been done but was considered right or necessary.
- Example: You ought not to have spoken to her like that.
Modal Verbs vs. Semi-Modals:
While the aforementioned are primary modals, there are also “semi-modals” that function similarly but have characteristics of main verbs. Examples include “need to,” “dare to,” and “used to.”
- Need to: I need to exercise regularly.
- Dare to: He didn’t dare to speak.
- Used to: I used to live in New York.