Modal Verbs

Grammar in use

  • Topic : Modal verbs
  • Skills : Grammar


What is a Modal verb?

We use modal verbs or other modal expressions when we want to express an opinion or attitude about a possible fact or to control a possible action.

Modal verbs are a type of auxiliary verb that express a variety of meanings, such as ability, obligation, permission, possibility, and necessity.
Because they are a type of auxiliary verb, they are used together with the main verb of the sentence. Common modal verbs include can, should, and must.

Here are the most common modal verbs in English:

Can: expresses ability, possibility or permission
Example: “I can speak Spanish.”

Could: expresses past ability or possibility, or present/future possibility with a degree of uncertainty.
Example: “I could speak French when I was younger” or “I could go to the party, but I’m not sure yet.”

May: expresses possibility or permission.
Example: “It may rain later” or “You may leave early today.”

Might: expresses a lower degree of possibility or a polite suggestion.
Example: “It might rain later” or “You might want to consider taking a break.”

Must: expresses strong obligation or necessity.
Example: “I must finish this project today.”

Should: expresses advice or recommendation.
Example: “You should get more sleep.”

Would: expresses a conditional situation or a polite request.
Example: “I would go to the concert if I had more time” or “Would you please pass the salt?”

It’s important to note that modal verbs do not have an “-s” or “-ed” ending,
and they are followed by the base form of the verb (e.g. “I can speak,” not “I can speaks”).


normal verbmodal verb
affirmativehe workshe can work
negationhe does not workhe cannot work
emphatiche does work hardhe can work hard
questiondoes he work here?can he work at all?
negation + questiondoes he not work here?can he not work at all?
The Formation of Noun
Unfortunately, there is no simple rule that connects a noun to the adjective or verb it comes from. But they generally look similar.

Nouns coming from a verb:
to organize  organization
to change change
to try  trial

Nouns coming from an adjective:
strong  strength
stupid  stupidity
intelligent  intelligence

Here are some common situations where modal verbs are used:

Ability: Modal verbs like can and could are used to express ability.
For example: “I can speak Spanish” or “She could play the guitar when she was younger.”

Permission: Modal verbs like may and can are used to express permission.
For example: “May I leave early today?” or “Can I borrow your book?”

Obligation: Modal verbs like must and should are used to express obligation.
For example: “I must finish my homework tonight” or “You should eat a healthy diet.”

Possibility: Modal verbs like may, might, and could are used to express possibility.
For example: “It may rain tomorrow” or “She might come to the party.”

Necessity: Modal verbs like must and have to are used to express necessity.
For example: “I must attend the meeting tomorrow” or “I have to take my medicine every day.”

Advice: Modal verbs like should and would are used to give advice or make suggestions.
For example: “You should study more” or “Would you like to try the new restaurant?”

It’s important to note that modal verbs are always followed by the base form of the main verb (e.g. “I can swim” not “I can swimming”).
Also, modal verbs are never used with auxiliary verbs like “do” or “have” (e.g. “I must go” not “I must do go”).

It’s important to remember that the use of modal verbs can change depending on the tense of the sentence. For example, “I must study for the exam” is in the present tense, while “I had to study for the exam” is in the past tense.

Here is a complete list of modals associated to their expression with examples:

Modal VerbExpressionExamples
mustNecessity or obligationI must attend the meeting tomorrow
Logical deduction or conclusionHe’s been working late every day this week, he must be under a lot of pressure.
Advice or recommendationYou must take care of your health.
Expressing certaintyI must say, this is the best pizza I’ve ever had.
Expressing a conditionIf you want to succeed, you must work hard.
Making a suggestionWe must explore other options before making a final decision.
Expressing a strong opinion or convictionWe must take immediate action to address this issue.
Expressing a requestI must ask you to leave the room, I need to have a private conversation.
must notProhibitionWe must not share our passwords with anyone.
Strong recommendationYou must not miss this opportunity to study abroad.
Necessity or obligationWe must not forget to send the report to the client by the deadline.
WarningYou must not touch the electric fence, it’s dangerous.
Negative adviceYou must not stay up too late, it’s not good for your health.
Expressing a logical conclusionHe must not have received my email, otherwise he would have replied.
Expressing a strong suggestionYou must not skip breakfast, it’s the most important meal of the day.
Expressing a conditionYou must not turn off the computer until the software update is complete.
canabilityI can speak French fluently.
permissionYou can leave early today.
possibilityShe can come to the party if she finishes her work.
Request or offerCan I help you with anything?
Expression of doubtI can’t believe she did that.
Expression of surpriseYou can play the guitar? That’s amazing!
Expression of ability in the pastWhen I was younger, I could run faster than anyone in my class.
Concession or acknowledgmentI can see your point of view, but I still disagree.
couldPossibilityI could go to the movies tonight if I finish my work in time
AbilityWhen I was younger, I could run a mile in under six minutes.
Polite RequestCould you pass me the salt, please?
Past habitI could eat a whole pizza by myself when I was in college.
SuggestionYou could try taking a warm bath to help you relax.
Conditional statementIf I had more time, I could read all the books on my list.
UncertaintyI’m not sure if I could handle a job like that.
ComparisonThis cake is good, but it could be sweeter.
mayPossibilityIt may rain this afternoon, so I should bring an umbrella.
PermissionMay I use your restroom?
ProbabilityBased on the forecast, the project may be delayed.
Wish or hopeMay you have a happy birthday!
Polite requestMay I have another piece of cake, please?
Concession or acknowledgment of a possibilityI may have been wrong about the time, it’s possible.
Expressing a preference or opinionI may prefer coffee over tea in the morning.
Giving advice or making a suggestionYou may want to consider taking a break before continuing with your work.
mightPossibilityI might go to the gym tonight, but I haven’t decided yet.
PermissionYou might leave the party early if you’re not feeling well.
ProbabilityThere might be a traffic jam on the highway, so we should leave early.
Suggestion or adviceYou might want to try this new restaurant I heard about.
Polite requestMight I have a glass of water, please?
Expressing uncertainty or hesitationI might not be the best person to ask about that.
Making a tentative conclusionBased on the evidence, the suspect might be innocent.
Hypothetical scenarioIf we leave early, we might be able to catch the last train.
need toObligationI need to finish this report before the deadline.
NecessityI need to buy some groceries before I can make dinner.
Advice or suggestionYou need to take a break and get some rest.
Polite requestI need to ask you to lower your voice in the library.
Planning or intentionWe need to book our flights soon before the prices go up.
Expressing urgencyI need to talk to you right away about an important matter.
Consequence or resultIf you don’t study for the exam, you’ll need to retake the class.
Making a comparison
This jacket is nice, but I need to try on a smaller size.
should/ought toAdvice or recommendationYou should/ought to take a break and relax
Moral obligationWe should/ought to help those in need.
Expected behaviorYou should/ought to be respectful to your elders.
ProbabilityIt should/ought to rain today based on the forecast.
Expressing regretI should/ought to have studied more for the exam.
Making a suggestionYou should/ought to try the new Italian restaurant in town.
Expressing expectationYou should/ought to arrive on time for the meeting.
Expressing a preference or opinionI should/ought to go for a walk in the park instead of watching TV.
had betterAdvice or warningYou had better leave now if you don’t want to miss your flight.
Suggestion or recommendationYou had better take an umbrella with you, it might rain later.
Expressing a threatYou had better not tell anyone about this.
Making a strong suggestionYou had better study hard for the exam if you want to pass.
Expressing a preference or opinionI had better stick to my usual routine for the best results.
Expressing a necessary actionYou had better take care of yourself after the surgery.
Expressing a logical conclusionBased on the evidence, you had better be careful around that dog.
Expressing a regretI had better not have said that, it was not appropriate.

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