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English Modal Verbs

What Are Modal Verbs?

homesitemapA-Z grammar terms modal verbs
The main modal verbs are "can," "could," "may," "might," "shall," "should," "will," "would," and "must." Modal verbs (or modal auxiliary verbs) express modality. Modality refers to properties such as possibility, ability, permission, obligation, and condition.

Table of Contents

  • Examples of Modal Verbs
  • Using Modal Verbs
  • Modal Verbs Showing Possibility
  • Modal Verbs Showing Ability
  • Modal Verbs Showing Permission
  • Modal Verbs Showing Obligation
  • Modal Verbs Showing Condition
  • Another Way to Use Modal Verbs
  • Why Modal Verbs Are Important
  • Test Time!

Examples of Modal Verbs

modal verbs in English
possibilityabilitypermissionobligationcondition
"can"I can attend the meeting. It is possible.I can attend the meeting. John will take me.I can attend the meeting. I have permission.
"could"I could attend the meeting. It was possible.I could attend the meeting. My schedule was free.
"may"I may attend the meeting. There is a 50% chance.I may attend the meeting. I have permission.
"might"I might attend the meeting. There is a 50% chance.
"shall"I shall attend the meeting. I promise.
"should"I should attend the meeting. It is the right thing to do.
"will"I will attend the meeting. I promise.
"would"I would attend the meeting. However, I have another meeting.
"must"I must attend the meeting. It is important.

Using Modal Verbs

This is the main format for using modal verbs:
[modal verb]
+
[base form]
Unlike a normal verb, a modal verb does not change. In other words, a modal verb does not conjugate, have participle forms, or have an infinitive form. For example:
Conjugation ExampleParticiple FormsInfinitive Form
"play"
(normal verb)
  • I play.
  • He plays.
A normal verb changes (or conjugates).
  • playing
  • (present participle)
  • played
  • (past participle)
  • to play
  • (infinitive form)
"could"
(modal verb)
  • I could.
  • He could.
(A modal verb never conjugates.)
There are no participle forms.There is no infinitive form.

Modal Verbs Showing Possibility

"can," "could," "may," or "might"
+
[base form]
  • Alan can play football against St. Joseph's. He has cancelled his holiday. correct tick
  • (Note that the modal verb is followed by the base form of "to play." Also, note that "can" used for possibility and "can" used for ability are similar concepts.)
  • Alan could play against St. Joseph's because he cancelled his holiday. However, he is now injured. correct tick
  • (Note that "could" is the past-tense version of "can.")
  • People may hear your words, but they feel your attitude. correct tick (Author John C. Maxwell)
  • (This means "people will likely hear your words.")
  • Don't die for your beliefs. You might be wrong. correct tick (Philosopher Bertrand Russell)
  • (This means "maybe you are wrong.")

Modal Verbs Showing Ability

"can" or "could"
+
[base form]
  • John can speak German. correct tick
  • ("Can" is most commonly used to show ability. This means "John is able to speak German.")
  • John could speak French when he was a boy. correct tick
  • (Note that "could" is the past-tense version of "can." This means "John was able to speak French.")

Modal Verbs Showing Permission

"can" or "may"
+
[base form]
  • You can swim in the lake. correct tick
  • ("Can" is also used to express permission.)
  • You may swim in the lake. correct tick
  • ("May" is more polite than "can" when expressing permission.)

Modal Verbs Showing Obligation

"shall," "should," or "must"
+
[base form]
  • We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. correct tick (British Prime Minister Wiston Churchill)
  • (This means "We have no option but to defend our island.")
  • The aim of argument should be progress not victory. correct tick (French moralist Joseph Joubert)
  • (This means "It is right if the aim of argument is progress.")
  • You must do the things you think you cannot do. correct tick (US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt)
  • (This means "It is right to do the things you think you cannot do.")

Modal Verbs Showing Condition

"would"
+
[base form]
  • The word "happy" would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. correct tick (Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung)
  • (Sadness is needed for "happy" to exist. It is a condition.)

Another Way to Use Modal Verbs

The format below is another common way of using modal verbs:
[modal verb]
+
"have"
+
[past participle]
This structure is typically used for expressing modality (e.g., possibility, ability, permission, obligation, and condition) in the past tense. Here are the main uses for this structure:
possibilityabilitypermissionobligationcondition
can
couldI could have attended the meeting. It was possible.I could have attended the meeting. My schedule was free.
mayI may have attended the meeting. There was a 50% chance.I may have attended the meeting. I had permission.
mightI might have attended the meeting. There was a 50% chance.
shall
shouldI should have attended the meeting. It was the right thing to do.
will
wouldI would have attended the meeting. However, I had another meeting.
must

Warning

The "have" format is often contracted to the following:
[modal verb]
+
've
+
[past participle]
  • I would have attended the meeting. correct tick
  • I would've attended the meeting. correct tick
  • (This is the contracted version.)
The "-ve" ending sounds like "of." It is not "of." It is never "of." Using "of" is a serious writing error.
  • I would of attended the meeting. wrong cross

Why Modal Verbs Are Important

The term "modal verb" comes from "modality." Remember that modality includes some important properties such as possibility, ability, and obligation. If you're teaching or learning English, then rest assured that covering modal verbs will be well worth it. The modal verbs are essential for communicating.

Also, you might be surprised how common modal verbs are. If you're unconvinced, spend some time playing with Google's Ngram viewer, which scans millions of publications. You will soon notice that our language is rammed full of modal verbs. (Click here for an example showing that "would" and "could" are far more common than "see" and "work," which are themselves extremely common words.)

So, modal verbs are important! Some language instructors believe that learning the modal verbs should be one of the very first activities for learners.

Key Point

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This page was written by Craig Shrives.

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