Modal Verbs

Modal verbs are auxiliary verbs and are often called modal auxiliaries. They act very differently to other verbs. There are a few ways in which Modal verbs differ from other verbs:

  • Unlike other auxiliary verbs modals only exist in their helping form; they do not stand alone as a main verb.
  • They are never followed by a verb in the full infinite form, i.e. to be form.
    • The modal verb “ought to” already has “to”, but you cannot have he ought to to be.
  • They are followed by a verb in the bare infinite form absent of the “to”
    • He must write
  • When the continuous form (-ing form) of a verb follows a modal, another auxiliary verb is used before the continuous form of the verb.
    • He must be waiting
    • They could be sitting over there.
  • They also do not use the –s form in the third person that other verbs use.
  • To form the negative of the modal verb, “not” follows the modal verb.
  • They do not appear as gerunds, infinitives, or participles.

The modal verbs are:-

  • can
  • could
  • may
  • might
  • must
  • shall
  • should
  • ought to
  • will
  • would


Can is used;

  • to show an ability or possibility
    • She can ride a bike
    • Can they fight
    • They can’t find the form
  • to ask permission
    • Can I drink a beer please, dad?
    • Can I have smoke in the restaurant?
  • as a request
    • Can I have a beer please?
    • Can I have the salt?


Could is used

  • to ask permission
    • Could I have the phone please?
    • Could I borrow your pen?
  • As a request
    • Could you repeat that please?
    • Could you pass the salt?
  • As a suggestion
    • We could assemble it ourselves
    • They could do it, if they tried
  • As a change in the past
    • She gave up a hood career, so she could look after the children
    • He gave up smoking so he could have a better life
  • As a future possibility
    • It could rain tomorrow
    • He could be in the Olympics if he just trained harder


May is used

  • to ask permission (often used as a more polite request)
    • May I have the phone please?
    • May I borrow your pen?
  • As a future possibility
    • The economy may improve
    • He may be the next President


Might is used

  • As a present possibility
    • We can contact them later, they might be in bed.
    • I might have a boyfriend already!
  • As a future possibility
    • If you ask, they might give you a discount.
    • He might be the next President


Must is used

  • to show necessity
    • The plane must land eventually.
    • I must go out now, or I’ll be late
  • to show obligation
    • You must show respect to the King.
    • I must do as my parents ask

Ought to

Ought to is used

  • to convey what is correct or right
    • We ought to clean our room
    • You ought to go, as they are expecting you

Shall (Shall is often replaced by should)

Shall is often replaced by should and is less common in American English than other forms of English. It is often used as a polite form of should.

Shall is used

  • As an offer (not replaced by should)
    • Shall I help you?
    • Shall we help you?
  • As a suggestion
    • Shall we help him?
    • Shall we?
  • to ask what to do
    • Shall I do that tonight?
    • What shall I do whilst I am waiting?


Should is used

  • to convey what is correct or right
    • We should clean our room
    • You should take a taxi, as it will be faster.
  • As a uncertain prediction or future possibility
    • The economy should improve next year.
    • The movie should be good, it has good reviews
  • As a recommendation
    • You should do that again.
    • The Prime Minister should resign from office.


Will is used;

  • to show an instant decision
    • I will take this bus
    • Can they fight
  • as an offer
    • My son will mow the lawn for you
    • I will do the dishes.
  • as a certain prediction or future certainty
    • The economy will improve next year, it can’t get any worse.
    • The movie will be good; my friend said it was good.
  • as a promise
    • I will eat later
    • I will call you tomorrow

“Will” can be used as a contraction

  • He’ll take the bus
  • I’ll eat later


Could often replaces would in less formal speech. It is also sometimes used as a more forceful speech, whilst still trying to stay polite.

  • Could you please turn down the radio
  • Would you mind turning down the radio, I have asked you 3 times.

Would is used

  • to ask permission
    • Would you mind if I have the phone please?
    • Would it be possible to come with you?
  • As a request
    • Would you repeat that please?
    • Would you pass the salt?
  • As an invitation
    • Would you like to go tonight?
    • Would you like to attend the Rotary convention?
  • for making arrangements
    • Would Friday night suit you, or is that too soon?
    • Would 6pm be ok for dinner?
  • To show preference
    • Would you like tea or coffee?
    • Would golf be a better choice?

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