There are lots of ways to communicate thoughts and ideas while talking. Depending on the intention of these ideas, many different words or groups of words can be used to express what a person wants to say. One of these groups of words is the modal verbs.
The modal verbs in English are very particular, they share some characteristics that make them unique, but all of them have the same principle in common: they talk about modality, which is the attitude the speaker has about the situation he or she is describing. This means that by using the modal verbs, a person is able to communicate different claims while stating the commitment they have to those claims.
The modal verbs are:
can / could / might /will
would / shall / should / must
Uses of the modal verbs in English
In English, the modal verbs are used to express ability, possibility, permission or obligation. Each one of the modal verbs can be used to express one or more of these modalities. They can also be used to form the future tense in English and to make conditional sentences.
One of the particularities of the modal verbs is that they don’t work by themselves, on the contrary, they have to be accompanied by another verb in order to make sense. The main function of the modal verbs is to modify another verb to fit one of the aforementioned modalities.
When using the modal verbs, the infinitive “to” shouldn’t be written in the sentence, and the second verb will always go after the modal that is being used.
How to use modal verbs in English
Each one of the modal verbs has its own use and meaning in English. Most of the time, each modal verb can have more than one use and in these cases, their meanings can vary.
The verb “can” is used to express ability, possibility, to make a request or to ask for permission, and it can even be used to make an offer or a suggestion. Additionally, in its negative form, “can’t” or “cannot”, it can be used to express inability or impossibility.
👉 Examples of the modal verb “can”:
Can you come home early today?
Can you help me?
I can call you later.
Elliot can’t fix the phone.
Cowy and Lisa can jump very high.
Billy can play the piano since he was 6 years old.
Lisa can come early if you want, she doesn’t have homework today.
This verb has many different possible uses. It can be used to talk about ability and permission in the past. Also, just like the modal verb “can”, the modal verb “could” can be used to make questions, requests, suggestions or offers, but in a more polite way. It can also be used to talk about possibilities, but not as strong possibility that the one expressed with “can”. Its negative form is “couldn’t ”.
👉 Examples of the modal verb “could”:
I could go to the market with you if you’d like.
Could you pass me the salt, please?
Cowy was free at the moment, so she could go to the movies with her.
Could I go play with Lisa?
I couldn’t jump very high when I was little.
It could rain tomorrow.
The use of “may” as a modal verb is to talk about permission in the present, to make suggestions and to talk about possibilities as well. However, may is much more polite than “can” or “could”. Its negative form, “may not ”, is often used to talk about not giving permission.
👉 Examples of modal verb “may”:
May I go to the toilet, please?
Mary may go to your party later.
May I help you with anything?
I can’t help you with the homework, but your brother may be able to.
It may a good idea to go to school early.
Elliot may not stay out of home late.
The modal verb “might” is used to express possibility in the present or in the future. It can be used as the verb “may” most times, however, it often means that the event has less possibility of happening than when it’s said using may. Its negative form, “might not ” is used to talk about possibilities but in a negative way.
👉 Examples of the modal verb “might”:
I heard that tomorrow it might rain.
Don’t call Lisa right now, she might not be in school.
Baby Bot has a new dance teacher that you might like.
Elliot might need your help later.
Billy might go to Canada this summer.
This art class looks interesting, I might take it.
The main use of the modal verb “will” is to form the future form of the verbs in English. However, it also has many other important uses, like to talk about wishes, requests, demands, to make predictions and assumptions, to make promises and to talk about spontaneous decisions and also to talk about habits. When talking about demands and requests, the use of will sometimes is not as polite as other modal verbs. Its negative form is “won’t”.
👉 Examples of modal verb “will”:
The dog will play with its tail for hours.
Do you need help? I will help you!
Look at the sky, it won’t rain later.
Billy thinks his team will win the championship.
I don’t have my phone here, but I will call Elliot as soon as I can.
Will you turn off the light?
The use of the modal verb “would” can be similar to the modal verb “will”, both are used to make wishes and to make requests. However, “would” is a much more polite way to do so. It’s also used to talk about habits in the past, to make arrangements, to state preferences and to make invitations.
👉 Examples of the modal verb “would”:
I remember I would stay awake all night reading when I was young.
Would you open the window, please?
I would love to sing, thanks!
Would you like to play basketball with me on Sunday?
I would rather have water, please.
Would you prefer dark or white chocolate?
This modal verb is more common in British English than in American English. It’s usually for making offers, suggestions, to talk about options, and to ask about what to do, but in a very polite way. Its negative form, “shall not” is used to talk about things that are forbidden or not allowed.
👉 Examples of the modal verb “shall”:
Shall I help you with your bags?
Great, let’s meet later. Shall we say 3 p.m. then?
You shall not forget to bring your bike.
He shall be replaced with a new music teacher.
Shall we begin eating?
As a modal verb, “should” has many important uses in the English language. It’s used to give advice, to express what’s right, and to recommend an action. Also, it’s used to make predictions, but ones that are more uncertain than those with the other modal verbs. Its negative form is “shouldn’t ”.
👉 Examples with modal verb “should”:
We should arrive on time if we leave now.
Lisa thinks that we should meet on Thursdays.
Should I stay here?
The kids should start studying soon.
I think you should buy a blue car instead of a red one.
Maybe we should check everything again.
This is one of the less known modal verbs, and it’s a synonym of the verb “should”, but it’s less frequently used than this one. It’s also used to express advice and obligation.
👉 Examples with the modal verb “ought to”:
It’s raining. You ought to drive carefully when you leave.
Lisa ought to help her sister when she moves to her new house.
Cowy, you ought to help Baby Bot with her homework!
All the players ought to be on the field after lunch.
The modal verb “must” is the perfect option to talk about necessity. Also, it’s used to talk about possibilities, but in a much more certain way. Additionally, this verb can be used to talk about advice and recommendations.
👉 Examples with the modal verb “must” :
I must go, I have a doctor’s appointment soon.
You mustn’t use mom’s tablet without her permission.
Lisa has been studying all day, she must be tired.
The new film is great, you must see it!
Billy must be a teacher, he knows a lot about science.
Even though modal verbs don’t have the same properties as the rest of verbs in the English language, they help make sentences clearer and more accurate by helping evaluate the actions mentioned in a sentence, and expressing if these are possible, not likely to happen, if they are obligations or needs!
Playlearn in English with the Lingokids App!
Want to try learning all of this grammar through games, songs, and interactive activities? Download the Lingokids app and discover the world of playlearning™ – a safe, game-based learning experience that takes kids beyond the classroom.