Modal verbs are a fundamental part of English because they express obligations, abilities, probabilities, suggestions and much more. So learning how to use modal verbs can really improve your level of fluency. Let’s have a look to see what modal verbs have in common and the many ways they can be used.
What are Modal Verbs?
Modal verbs are special verbs that we use in combination with another verb. In fact, most modal verbs have no real meaning without another verb. Each modal verb describes either how, why or when an action happens. There are ten modal verbs:
- ought to
How to Make Sentences with Modal Verbs
The great thing about modal verbs is that they all follow three simple rules to make affirmative, negative and interrogative sentences. Affirmative sentences are the same for all subjects with modal verbs, which means you don’t need to add -s to the third person singular:
To make negative sentences, we add ‘not’:
Now you’ve seen the structure, let’s look at the different situations in which we use modal verbs.
In English there are several ways we can make requests and with different levels of formality:
Here are some more examples:
Can you open the door for me?
Will you come to my party?
Would you send the material as soon as possible please?
Could you bring us the bill please?
Asking and Giving Permission
We can also ask and give permission with varying levels of formality:
Here are some examples:
Excuse me, could we sit here? – Certainly.
Can I get myself a glass of water, John? – Sure, help yourself.
May I wear jeans to the office? – I’m afraid you may not because we have a strict dress code.
Can my kids play here?
Describing Abilities and Possibilities
There are two modal verbs we use to describe ability – ‘can’ and ‘could’. We use ‘can’ to refer to present and general abilities, and ‘could’ to refer to past abilities. For example:
Jose can swim really well.
Can they play football? Yes, but not very well.
I can’t use Excel. Can you teach me?
They can speak English.
She can meet us at 3:30.
We can do the shopping then have lunch.
When I was younger I could play the piano.
My brother and I could ski as teenagers.
She couldn’t do the Maths homework so she asked her friend for help.
They couldn’t see much in the fog.
I could hear the thunder even though it was far away.
He couldn’t get tickets for the concert because it was sold out.
We can use a range of modal verbs to describe the future, depending on how probable we think the event or situation is. For example:
It will be hot tomorrow. 100% sure
It should be hot tomorrow. 80% sure (According to the weather forecast.)
It may be hot tomorrow. 50% possibility
It might be hot tomorrow. 50% possibility
It could be hot tomorrow. 30% possibility
Here are some other examples:
We might go to the beach this weekend. It depends on the weather.
I think we could win this match but it’ll be hard.
Harry should be home by now.
It won’t rain this afternoon. Look at the clear blue sky.
They may come round later if they have time.
The main modal verb we use to describe obligations is ‘must’. We can use it in the affirmative form to say something is mandatory, and in the negative form to say something is prohibited. For example:
You mustn’t enter this room without permission.
They must prepare the order by 5pm.
I must start doing some exercise. I’m really unfit.
We mustn’t park here. It’s forbidden.
When we want to describe a milder obligation (something important but not necessarily mandatory) we can use ‘should’. We often use ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ to give advice. For example:
He should study a bit more. He’s doing ok but he could do better.
You should stop drinking so much coffee.
What time should we leave?
I think we should go at 4pm to avoid the rush-hour traffic.
We can also use ‘ought’ and ‘oughtn’t to describe mild obligations, though it’s more common in British English than American English. ‘Ought’ is the only modal verb that is followed by ‘to’, though normally only in the affirmative form. For example:
You ought to try this soup – it’s delicious!
She ought to make a decision about that house before someone else buys it.
We ought to start the meeting, it’s getting late.
They oughtn’t ride their bicycles without helmets.
In very formal contexts, especially in the written form, we also use ‘shall’ to express an obligation. For example:
Guests shall report any damage to the hotel facilities before leaving.
Employees shall not take home office equipment.
The suspect shall remain in custody until the trial.
To make suggestions we can use ‘can’, ‘could’, ‘shall’ and ‘should’. For example:
We can have a game of tennis later.
We could meet at 3pm.
Shall we have a drink afterwards?
We should invite Rick and Olga too.
When you are almost certain something is true (or not true) you can use the modal verbs ‘must’ and ‘can’t. For example:
You haven’t eaten all day. You must be hungry. (I’m 95% certain.)
He’s got three Ferraris. He must be very rich.
You can’t be tired. You’ve just slept all morning! (It’s not possible in my opinion.)
They can’t be at home yet. They only left five minutes ago!
Making Conditional Statements
We also use modal verbs to make conditional sentences. In the first conditional we can use several modal verbs:
In the second conditional (which we use to describe improbable situations), we use ‘would’ or ‘could’:
In the third conditional (which we use to describe impossible situations in the past), we can use ‘would’ and ‘could’:
As you can see, modal verbs are essential for many functions in English. Now you’ve seen how they are used, try putting them into practice when you speak and write.