English Modal Verbs

can | could | may | might | must | ought to | shall | should | will | would 

English Modal Verbs Table | Situations Table | Exercises


English modal verbs are special verbs that are used to show possibility, ability, permission, and so forth.

The different English modal verbs

Examples:

"It might rain" – shows possibility.
"I can juggle" – shows ability.
"You may sit down" – shows permission.

The modal verbs are:

can, could, may, might, must, ought to, shall, should, will and would.

First of all, what does MODAL mean?

modal = expressing mood.

mood = a way to express the attitude of the speaker to what is being said.

Examples:
"I can paint" means the speaker believes he has the ability to paint.
"I might paint" means the speaker believes there is a possibility for that to happen.
"I will paint" means the speaker has the intention to paint.

English Modal Verbs show us the attitude of the speaker to what is being said.

What is special about the modal verbs?

They are special because they behave differently from other verbs in English:
  1. English modal verbs are used together with the base form of another verb.

    Examples:
    "He might come late."
    "You may leave if you wish."
    "We must finish this on time."

  2. English modal verbs have only one form. You don't add "-ing""-ed" or "-s" to them.

    Examples:

    Correct: "We must go now."
    Incorrect: "We are musting go now."

    Correct: "They said we could park here."
    Incorrect: "They said we coulded park here."

    Correct: "She can help us."
    Incorrect: "She cans help us."

  3. To form questions use the modal verb itself, but change the order.

    Examples:

    "He can fix the car tomorrow."

    Correct: "Can he fix the car tomorrow?"
    Incorrect: "Does he can fix the car tomorrow?"

    "We should start packing our things."

    Correct: "Should we start packing our things?"
    Incorrect: "Do we should start packing our things?"

    "She will be ten years old next month."

    Correct: "Will she be ten years old next month?"
    Incorrect: "Does she will be ten years old next month?"

  4. To form negative sentences use the modal verb itself and add "not" or "n't" to it.

    Examples:

    "He can run fast enough."

    Correct: "He can't run fast enough."
    Incorrect: "He doesn't can run fast enough."

    "She could lift a feather."

    Correct: "She could not lift a feather."
    Incorrect: "She did not could lift a feather."

    "I thought he would come."

    Correct: "I thought he wouldn't come."
    Incorrect: "I thought he did not would come."
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How and when do we use each of the English modal verbs?


Uses of "can" (negative: cannot, can't)

  1. To talk about what you are able to do
    "He is so strong! He can lift that car!"
    "She can't come before four o'clock."
    "Can he teach?"

  2. To talk about a general possibility
    "The weather here can get really bad."
    "These chairs can be folded."
    "Such things can happen."

  3. To say that something is allowed
    "He can borrow my book if he needs it."
    "You can't smoke in here".
    "You can pay with a credit card."

  4. To make a request
    (this is is an informal use, "may" is the formal version)

    "Can you help me with my homework?"
    "Can you make some tea?"
    "Can you come here, please?"
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Uses of "could" (negative: could not, couldn't)

  1. As the past form of "can"
    "He said he couldn't come so early."
    "I couldn't remember who he was."
    "They couldn't pass the border."

  2. To make a polite request
    "Could you open the window, please?"
    "Could you turn up the heat?"
    "Could you remind him to call?"

  3. To show possibility ("may" and "might" are stronger)
    "She could be with her parents."
    "It could take you months to find a new place."
    "He could still win, but it's not very likely."
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Uses of "may" (negative: may not)

  1. To show possibility (it is slightly stronger than "might")
    "What he said may be true."
    "It may rain."
    "You may win the race."

  2. To request or give permission
    (this is a formal use, "can" is the informal version)

    "You may sit down."
    "May I speak?"
    "He may not use the car."
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Uses of "might" (negative: might not)

  1. As a past from of "may"
    "The weatherman said it might rain."
    "She mentioned that she might come."
    "We agreed that it might be dangerous."

  2. To show possibility (it is slightly weaker than "may")
    "He might pass the exam, but I wouldn't count on it."
    "We might fail, but let's not think about it."
    "I might visit on Saturday."
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Uses of "must" (negative: must not, mustn't)

  1. To show that you have to do something, for example because it is very important or because it is a rule
    "You must stop the car when the traffic light turns red."
    "You must pay your taxes."
    "She must stop drinking if she wants to keep her job."
    "I must go now, otherwise I will miss my train."

  2. "Must not" (or "mustn't") is used to show you are not allowed to do something
    "You mustn't steal."
    "He mustn't talk to his parents like that."
    "The fruit of this bush must not be eaten because it is toxic."

  3. To show that something is very logical or very likely to be true
    "He left at noon, so he must be there already."
    "She is not stupid, so she must have known what she was doing!"
    "They must be really rich to live in such a house."
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Uses of "ought to" (negative: ought not to)

  1. To say what is the right thing to do ("should" is the more common word)
    "In her condition, she ought to quit smoking."
    "I believe you ought to apologize."
    "He was watching TV when he ought to have been studying."
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Uses of "shall" (short form: 'll, negative: shall not, shan't)

  1. Used with "I" and "we" to talk about the future (especially in formal British English)
    "I shall leave tomorrow morning."
    "I'll never forget you."
    "We shall overcome."
    "I shan't be late again."

  2. Used with "I" and "we" to ask questions or make suggestions
    "Shall I close the door?"
    "What shall we do tonight?"
    "Let's start, shall we?"
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Uses of "should" (negative: should not, shouldn't)

  1. To say what is the right thing to do
    "You should be helping your mother."
    "If he doesn't like the job, he should tell it to his boss."
    "If you knew you were going to be so late, you should have called."

  2. To give advice or ask for advice
    "You should try the new restaurant down the street."
    "What should I do? Should I tell him the truth?"
    "Should I try to take the exam again?"

  3. To show that something is likely to be true or that it is expected
    "Let's return home, dinner should be ready by now."
    "We should arrive there by twelve o'clock."
    "I should get an e-mail from him soon."
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Uses of "will" (short form: 'll, negative: will not, won't)

  1. To talk about future actions or future states (not plans)
    "I hope he will pass his exams."
    "She'll be very happy to hear this."
    "They will not be here on time."
    "You won't feel a thing."

  2. For promises or intentions
    "Leave it, I will do the dishes."
    "It must be Joe at the door, so I'll get it."
    "I won't do that again, I promise."
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Uses of "would" (short form: 'd, negative: would not, wouldn't)

  1. As the past form of "will" in reported speech
    "I will handle it myself." --> "He said he would handle it himself."
    "I won't be late." --> "He said he wouldn't be late."
    "She'll change her mind in the end." --> "He said she'd change her mind in the end."

  2. To talk about an imagined situation
    "What would you do if you were a millionaire?"
    "I wish he'd take a break."
    "I would have cleaned the house, but I was too tired."

  3. To make a polite request
    "Would you mind closing the window?"
    "Would you get me the paper, please?"
    "Would someone please answer the phone?"

  4. To invite someone, or offer something, politely
    "Would you like a drink?"
    "We are going for a walk, would you like to join us?"
    "Would you like to meet her?"

  5. To say that you want something or want to do something

    I would like = a polite way of saying, "I want."
    I would hate = a polite way of saying, "I don't want."
    I would rather = a polite way of saying, "I prefer."

    "I would like a cup of coffee, please."
    "I would hate to miss this opportunity."
    "We'd rather study with you."
    - "Would you like to come with us?"
    -" I'd love to, but I can't."
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Wow! That was quite a lot of information about English Modal Verbs, wasn't it?
Let's sum it up...

English Modal Verbs Table

Modal verb Usage Example
can ability I can do several things
at the same time.
when something is possible Miracles can happen.
permission You can go now.
informal requests Can you come here for a minute?
could past form of "can" She said she could pay
for us as well.
polite requests Could you move
your bag, please?
possibility It could be that he
missed the train.
may possibility It may rain tomorrow.
ask for or give
permission (formal)
May I speak?
might past form of "may" He said he might
change his mind.
possibility This might fail.
must you have to do it You must obey the law.
it's very logical or
very likely to happen
They left so early, they
must be home by now.
must not/
mustn't
you are not
allowed to do it
You mustn't smoke in here.
shall future for "I" and "we" I shall see him tomorrow.
questions and suggestions for "I" and "we" Let's continue, shall we?
should the right thing to do  She should call the police.
advice - What should I do?
- You should stop
thinking about it.
what is likely or
expected to happen
We should be
back by midnight.
will future action or states
(not plans)
Prices will go up
next summer.
promises and intentions It's alright, I'll pick it up.
would past form of "will" He told me he would come.
imagined situations What would you do
if you were him?
for polite requests, offers and invitations - Would you please sit down?
- Would you like some tea?
- We are meeting with Sarah
next Saturday, would you like to come along?
to say what you
want to do or have
I would like a piece of cake.
ought to the right thing to do You ought to apologize.

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English Modal Verbs – Situations Table

Situation Modal Verb Example
requests
(formal)
may May I sit down?
requests
(informal)
can Can I sit down?
requests
(polite)
could Could I sit down?
requests
(polite)
would Would you mind if I sit down?
permission
(formal)
may You may sit down.
permission
(informal)
can You can sit down.
obligation
(full)
must You must tell the
police the truth.
obligation
(partial)
should You should tell
your friends the truth.
obligation (partial)
(less common)
ought to You ought to tell
your friends the truth.
logical conclusions
(stronger than "should")
must He left an hour ago, so he must be there already.
logical conclusions
(weaker than "must")
should He left half an hour ago,
I believe he should
be there already.
possibility
(general)
can It can rain sometimes.
possibility
(weaker than
"may" and "might")
could It could rain, but it is
not very common in this
part of the country.
possibility
(weaker than "may")
might It's not very cloudy yet,
but it might rain.
possibility
(stronger than "might")
may It's starting to get cloudy –
it may rain soon.
future actions/states/intentions will Look at the sky!
It will rain soon.

English Modal Verbs Exercises

Exercise 01

Exercise 02

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