- Modal Verbs – Definition
- How many Modal Auxiliary Verbs are there in English?
- Types of Modal Verbs
- Modal Verbs of Possibility
- Modal Verbs of Ability
- Modal Verbs of Permission and Requests
- Modal Verbs of Advice
- Modal Verbs of Obligation
- Conjugation of Modal Verbs
- Modal Verbs – Summary
- Frequently Asked Questions about Modal Verbs
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Basics on the topic Modal Verbs
Modal Verbs – Definition
Modal verbs are auxiliary verbs, which is a fancy way of saying that these verbs help out other verbs. They are also called helping verbs. Examples of modal verbs in English are can, should, and may. A modal verb cannot be the main verb in a sentence: It comes before the main verb and gives us more information about how likely or necessary the action of the main verb is. In this text, we will look at modal verbs and example sentences and the use of English modal verbs.
How many Modal Auxiliary Verbs are there in English?
There are five main modal verbs in English. Below is a list of the five main modal verbs and their related forms:
List of modal verbs
Some of them have related forms; for example could is a form of can. There are also negative forms of each verb, for example may not, must not, should not etc..
|modal verb||example sentence||meaning||function|
|should||You should put the napkin in your lap.||It's a good idea to put the napkin in your lap.||modal verb for advice|
|can||You can put the napkin in your lap.||You're able to put the napkin in your lap.||modal verb for ability|
|may||You may put the napkin in your lap.||You're allowed to put the napkin in your lap.||modal verb for permission|
|must||You must put the napkin in your lap.||You have to put the napkin in your lap.||modal verb of obligation|
|will||You will put the napkin in your lap.||You are going to put the napkin in your lap.||modal verb of possibility/probability|
The modal verb ought is not usually included in lists of modal verbs because it’s not used very often these days. Shall is a form of the modal verb should, which is used more often in British English than in American English. Need is sometimes used like a modal verb.
Overviews of all modal verbs sometimes include substitutes such as have to and allowed to. There’s more information on these substitutes in the section Past tense of modal verbs.
Types of Modal Verbs
There are several types of modal verbs. Some modal verbs have different meanings and fit into more than one category.
|modal verbs of possibility||modal verb of ability||modal verbs of permission and requests||modal verbs of advice||modal verbs of obligation|
|Koko might order the eucalyptus salad.||Koko can read the menu.|| Can you pass the bread, please?
May I have a glass of water, please?
|You should have brought your wallet.||Pip must pay the check.|
Modal Verbs of Possibility
Modal verbs of possibility help in expressing a degree of likelihood which an event or an action might have. You can use can, could, should and will as modal verbs of possibility. See below for an overview of the use of these modal verbs and their meaning.
|could, might||weak possibility||Koko might order the eucalyptus salad.|
|should||probability|| Koko should order the eucalyptus salad
because she always does.
|can, may||stronger possibility|| Koko can order the eucalyptus salad
because the restaurant has it on the menu.
|will||certainty|| Koko will order the eucalyptus salad:
She already told me that.
As you can see, you would use will whenever the event or the action is certain to happen. Could however is used if the possibility of something happening is very low.
Modal Verbs of Ability
Modal verbs of ability are used to say that someone is physically or mentally able to do something. Can is the only modal verb of ability.
Koko can read the menu.
Modal Verbs of Permission and Requests
Modal verbs of permission and request are used to ask for permission to do something and to allow someone to do something. The four modal verbs of permission and requests are can, could, may and should.
Can you pass the bread, please?
Modal Verbs of Advice
You use the two modal verbs of advice to tell someone what you think is a good idea for them to do. The modal verbs of advice are should and could.
Modal Verbs of Obligation
Modal verbs of obligation are used to talk about things that have to be done. An obligation is something you have to do. The two modal verbs of obligation are must and will.
Pip must pay the check.
Conjugation of Modal Verbs
Some modal verbs have a past tense form. This form often expresses a different meaning. For example, although would is the past tense form of will, we usually only use it in negative sentences, when talking about unreal situations, or when talking about things we used to do on a regular basis.
|will||future events||Koko and Pip will wash the dishes.|
|would||negative statements||Koko and Pip wouldn’t leave without paying.|
|would||unreal situation||They would pay the check if Pip had brought his wallet.|
|would||regular events||They would always pay the check when they used to eat here every day.|
Could is the past tense form of can.
- Pip can pay the check.
- Pip could pay the check when he had his wallet with him last week, but he can’t today.
For other modal verbs we use substitutes because they don’t have a past tense form.
|may||present||May I have a glass of water?|
|past||Was I allowed to have a glass of water?|
|must||present||Pip must pay the check.|
|past||Pip had to pay the check.|
|should||present||You should put the napkin in your lap.|
|past||You should have put the napkin in your lap.|
Modal Verbs – Summary
In this text, we looked at modal verbs, their function in a sentence as well as looking at the different types of modal verbs. Let’s review what we learned about modal verbs in this text. Modals are auxiliary or helping verbs that give more information about the main verb.
You can find interactive modal verb exercises, worksheets and other activities on modal verbs at the top of this page, as well as a video.
Frequently Asked Questions about Modal Verbs
A modal verb is an auxiliary verb, which means that it’s a helping verb. It comes before the main verb and gives us additional information about the event or action of the sentence.
There are five main modal auxiliary verbs in English: Can, will, may, must and should
Examples of modal verbs are can, could, may, might, must, should, will, and would.
A modal verb is a kind of auxiliary verb that gives information about possibility, ability, permission, and obligation. Modal verbs can’t be used together with other modal verbs, but other auxiliary verbs can be combined.
Transcript Modal Verbs
Koko and Pip are celebrating the opening night of Koko's art exhibition. "Look, Koko! This place is fancy! They have expensive party hats!" "I CAN put it on my head." "Pip, I think you SHOULD put the napkin on your lap." In writing and speaking, we sometimes use words that express certain conditions. We call these types of words "modal verbs". Modal verbs are helping verbs that come before the main verb of a sentence. They change or affect other verbs in the sentence. They are used to show ability, permission, possibility, obligation, or give advice. The first type of modals show the ABILITY to perform actions. Ability modal verbs are CAN and COULD. Can is the modal that shows the action has the ability to happen in the present or in the future. Could is used when that action happened in the past. An example of an ability modal is, ' Koko COULD read the menu.'...or Koko CAN read the menu. Can is also used as a modal verb that asks PERMISSION. We use CAN or MAY to ask permission depending on who we are speaking to. Can is an informal way of asking to do something or making a request. If you are with a friend, you could say,' Can you pass the bread, please?' May also asks permission but is used in formal situations. When ordering at a restaurant you would say, 'May I have a glass of water, please?' We have several modal verbs that show the POSSIBILITY of something happening. These modals express a range of the probability something will happen. May', 'might', and 'could' indicate it is uncertain if it will happen, but there is a chance... while 'will' shows that it is certain. In this sentence, 'Koko MIGHT order the eucalyptus salad.', the word might implies she is thinking about ordering it, but not sure yet. If we change the 'might' to 'will' it changes the meaning of the sentence to show that she has made up her mind. Koko WILL order the eucalyptus salad. Another set of modal verbs show obligation. Obligation are things that we have a duty to do. To show obligation, we use the modals, 'must' or 'have to'. In this sentence, 'Pip must pay the check.', 'MUST pay' means it is not an option and needs to be done. The final type of modal is one that gives advice. It tells the other person what you think they need to do... Modals for advice include should and ought to... as in 'You SHOULD have brought your wallet.' While Koko and Pip wrap up their BIG night out, let's summarize. Remember.... modal verbs are helping verbs that come before the main verb of the sentence. They change or affect other verbs in a sentence. They are used to show ability, permission, possibility, obligation, or give advice." Koko, what SHOULD we do?" "Excuse me, sir, it looks like we have forgotten our money and can't pay the check." "What CAN we do?" "Yes, we're ALL EARS." "Ohhhhh(...)This is FUN!"
Modal Verbs exercise
Identify different uses for modal verbs.Hints
Modals used for possibility include: may, might, could, and will.
Can as a modal can be used for either ability or permission. Think about the way can is used in the sentence here.Solution
- Pip can behave correctly in the restaurant when he is reminded!
- May I have a glass of water, please?
- Koko and Pip will order soon, as they have decided what to have.
- Koko might order the eucalyptus salad. She's not sure yet.
How are modal verbs used?Hints
5 choices are correct.
Modals may show possibility, as in something may, might, could, or will happen.
Modal verbs may show obligation, as in you must, have to, or should do something.Solution
Modal verbs are used to describe:
- Obligation must, have to
- Permission can, may
- Ability can, could
- Possibility may, will, might, could
- Advice should, ought to.
What are the modal verbs used for?Hints
Modal verbs can show possibility, for example, if something might happen.
Modal verbs can show advice, for example, if something should happen.Solution
The correct pairs are:
- Obligation = Must or Have to.
- Advice = Should or Ought to.
- Permission = Can or May.
- Possibility = Might or Could.
Determine the correct modal verb for the sentence.Hints
The sentences describe ability, advice, possibility, and obligation, in that order.
Can describes an ability. Some examples of abilities are being able to swim, do karate, or dance ballet.
Have to describes an obligation. An obligation is something you must do, even if you maybe don't want to.Solution
- Not only do I speak English, I can also speak Spanish, French, and I am learning Italian!
- My little brother really ought to clean his room more often. It is starting to smell bad.
- I always lose when I play chess against my sister, but I keep trying. You never know, I could win someday.
- Sorry, I have to finish my homework before I go out and play. It's due tomorrow.
Identify the modal verbs.Hints
Modal verbs can show possibility, for example, if something may happen.
Modal verbs can show obligation, for example, if something has to happen.
Modal verbs can show advice, for example, if something should happen.Solution
The modal verb in each sentence is shown in bold below:
- Pip must pay the check.
- You should have brought your wallet.
- You ought to try harder to remember things!
- Pip and Koko might come here again, the food was great!
Complete the sentence.Hints
Might describes a possibility.
May describes asking permission.
Shall describes making a suggestion, or future actions.
Can describes an ability.
Have to describes obligation.Solution
- We might be late, but I will drive faster and hopefully not!
- May I please have some more? It's delicious!
- My cousin can run faster than anyone else at school! He always wins EVERY race!
- My mom says I have to clean my room again. Even if I don't want to.