English Grammar: Use of Modal Verbs

Modal verbs list, usages, examples

What are modal verbs?

Modals (also called modal verbs, modal auxiliary verbs, modal auxiliaries) are special verbs which behave irregularly in English. They are different from normal verbs like “work, play, visit…” They give additional information about the function of the main verb that follows it. They have a great variety of communicative functions. Here are some characteristics of modal verbs:
  • They never change their form. You can’t add “s”, “ed”, “ing”…
  • They are always followed by an infinitive without “to” (e.i. the bare infinitive.)
  • They are used to indicate modality allow speakers to express certainty, possibility, willingness, obligation, necessity, ability

List of modal verbs

Here is a list of modal verbs:
can, could, may, might, will, would, shall, should, must
The verbs or expressions dare, ought to, had better, and need not behave like modal auxiliaries to a large extent and my be added to the above list

Use of modal verbs:

Modal verbs are used to express functions such as:
  1. Permission
  2. Ability
  3. Obligation
  4. Prohibition
  5. Lack of necessity
  6. Advice
  7. possibility
  8. probability

Modal verbs list, usages, examples

Modal verbs meanings and uses Modal verbs are also know as helping verbs and are used to express the following:- Possililty, obligation, ability and permission.

Modal verbs their usage and examples

Modal verb list English Grammar

Modal verb list with examples

Modal verbs list, usages, examples

Modal verbs can be used with actions

Modal verbs list, usages, examples
Modal verbs used with actions

Modal verbs

      Can         ability     permission     probability (0%)         Can I go to the mall?     It can’t be Robert. He is in London
    Could     past ability     past permission     probability (30%)     request, offer or suggestion       He could speak English when he was 2 years old.    He could go to the park.     It could get much colder in December.     Could I go to the toilet?     I could lend you my dictionary.  
    May     probability (50%)     permission       It may rain tomorrow.     May I go to the cinema with you?  
    Might     probability (30% or less)       It might snow today.  
    Must       Prohibition     deduction / probability (100%)       You mustn’t play with that. It’s dangerous     The visitor must be Daniel. I’ve seen his car outside.
    Should       advice       You shouldn’t smoke. It’s bad for your health
    Will       prediction     spontaneous decision       I think he will study harder this time.     Oh, it’s very cold in here. I’ll close the window.

Examples of modal verbs

Here is a list of modals with examples:
Modal Verb Expressing Example
must Strong obligation You must stop when the traffic lights turn red.
logical conclusion / Certainty He must be very tired. He’s been working all day long.
must not prohibition You must not smoke in the hospital.
can ability I can swim.
permission Can I use your phone please?
possibility Smoking can cause cancer.
could ability in the past When I was younger I could run fast.
polite permission Excuse me, could I just say something?
possibility It could rain tomorrow!
may permission May I use your phone please?
possibility, probability It may rain tomorrow!
might polite permission Might I suggest an idea?
possibility, probability I might go on holiday to Australia next year.
need not lack of necessity/absence of obligation I need not buy tomatoes. There are plenty of tomatoes in the fridge.
should/ought to 50 % obligation I should / ought to see a doctor. I have a terrible headache.
advice You should / ought to revise your lessons
logical conclusion He should / ought to be very tired. He’s been working all day long.
had better advice You ‘d better revise your lessons

1. can

Use Examples
ability to do sth. in the present (substitute form: to be able to) I can speak English.
permission to do sth. in the present (substitute form: to be allowed to) Can I go to the cinema?
request Can you wait a moment, please?
offer I can lend you my car till tomorrow.
suggestion Can we visit Grandma at the weekend?
possibility It can get very hot in Arizona.

2. could

Use Examples
ability to do sth. in the past (substitute form: to be able to) I could speak English.
permission to do sth. in the past (substitute form: to be allowed to) I could go to the cinema.
polite question * Could I go to the cinema, please?
polite request * Could you wait a moment, please?
polite offer * I could lend you my car till tomorrow.
polite suggestion * Could we visit Grandma at the weekend?
possibility * It could get very hot in Montana.

3. may

Use Examples
possibility It may rain today.
permission to do sth. in the present (substitute form: to be allowed to) May I go to the cinema?
polite suggestion May I help you?

4. might

Use Examples
possibility (less possible than may) * It might rain today.
hesitant offer * Might I help you?

5. must

Use Examples
force, necessity I must go to the supermarket today.
possibility You must be tired.
advice, recommendation You must see the new film with Brad Pitt.

6. must not/may not

Use Examples
prohibition (must is a little stronger) You mustn’t work on dad’s computer.
You may not work on dad’s computer.

7. need not

Use Examples
sth. is not necessary I needn’t go to the supermarket, we’re going to the restaurant tonight.

8. ought to

simliar to shouldought to sounds a little less subjective
Use Examples
advice You ought to drive carefully in bad weather.
obligation You ought to switch off the light when you leave the room.

9. shall

used instead of will in the 1st person
Use Examples
suggestion Shall I carry your bag?

10. should

Use Examples
advice You should drive carefully in bad weather.
obligation You should switch off the light when you leave the room.

11. will

Use Examples
wish, request, demand, order (less polite than would) Will you please shut the door?
prediction, assumption I think it will rain on Friday.
promise I will stop smoking.
spontaneous decision Can somebody drive me to the station? – I will.
habits She’s strange, she‘ll sit for hours without talking.

12. would

Use Examples
wish, request (more polite than will) Would you shut the door, please?
habits in the past Sometimes he would bring me some flowers.
* These are no past forms, they refer to the future.

Uses of Can and Could

The modal auxiliary can is used

  • to express ability (in the sense of being able to do something or knowing how to do something): He can speak Spanish but he can’t write it very well.
  • to expression permission (in the sense of being allowed or permitted to do something): Can I talk to my friends in the library waiting room? (Note that can is less formal than may. Also, some writers will object to the use of can in this context.)
  • to express theoretical possibility: American automobile makers can make better cars if they think there’s a profit in it.

The modal auxiliary could is used

  • to express an ability in the past: I could always beat you at tennis when we were kids.
  • to express past or future permission: Could I bury my cat in your back yard?
  • to express present possibility: We could always spend the afternoon just sitting around talking.
  • to express possibility or ability in contingent circumstances: If he studied harder, he could pass this course.

In expressing ability, can and could frequently also imply willingness: Can you help me with my homework?

Can versus May

Whether the auxiliary verb can can be used to express permission or not — “Can I leave the room now?” [“I don’t know if you can, but you may.”] — depends on the level of formality of your text or situation. As Theodore Bernstein puts it in The Careful Writer, “a writer who is attentive to the proprieties will preserve the traditional distinction: can for ability or power to do something, may for permission to do it. The question is at what level can you safely ignore the “proprieties.” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, tenth edition, says the battle is over and can can be used in virtually any situation to express or ask for permission. Most authorities, however, recommend a stricter adherence to the distinction, at least in formal situations.

Uses of May and Might

Two of the more troublesome modal auxiliaries are may and might. When used in the context of granting or seeking permission, might is the past tense of may. Might is considerably more tentative than may.
  • May I leave class early?
  • If I’ve finished all my work and I’m really quiet, might I leave early?

In the context of expressing possibility, may and might are interchangeable present and future forms and might + have + past participle is the past form:

  • She might be my advisor next semester.
  • She may be my advisor next semester.
  • She might have advised me not to take biology.
Avoid confusing the sense of possibility in may with the implication of might, that a hypothetical situation has not in fact occurred. For instance, let’s say there’s been a helicopter crash at the airport. In his initial report, before all the facts are gathered, a newscaster could say that the pilot “may have been injured.” After we discover that the pilot is in fact all right, the newscaster can now say that the pilot “might have been injured” because it is a hypothetical situation that has not occurred. Another example: a body had been identified after much work by a detective. It was reported that “without this painstaking work, the body may have remained unidentified.” Since the body was, in fact, identified, might is clearly called for.

Uses of Will and Would

In certain contexts, will and would are virtually interchangeable, but there are differences. Notice that the contracted form ‘ll is very frequently used for will.

Will can be used to express willingness:

  • I’ll wash the dishes if you dry.
  • We’re going to the movies. Will you join us?

It can also express intention (especially in the first person):

  • I’ll do my exercises later on.

and prediction:

  • specific: The meeting will be over soon.
  • timeless: Humidity will ruin my hairdo.
  • habitual: The river will overflow its banks every spring.

Would can also be used to express willingness:

  • Would you please take off your hat?

It can also express insistence (rather rare, and with a strong stress on the word “would”):

  • Now you’ve ruined everything. You would act that way.

and characteristic activity:

  • customary: After work, he would walk to his home in West Hartford.
  • typical (casual): She would cause the whole family to be late, every time.

In a main clause, would can express a hypothetical meaning:

  • My cocker spaniel would weigh a ton if I let her eat what she wants.

Finally, would can express a sense of probability:

  • I hear a whistle. That would be the five o’clock train.

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