Modal Verbs: Express the Function of a Verb

modal verbsAs if English wasn’t hard enough to learn, modal verbs complicate things even further. There are a lot of irregularities in the English language that can be confusing to students learning it as a second to their native tongue. We don’t have genders like a lot of languages, instead we stick with “a” or “the”; we have 12 tenses most of which are never used; and we have so many similar words that often get mixed up like accept/except, bear/bare, and their/there. English and other Germanic languages, however, utilize modal verbs to help express a function and are vital to gaining command of the English language.

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What are Modal Verbs?

Modal verbs are used in conjunction with verbs to express their function. Examples are permission, obligation, lack of necessity, possibility, ability, prohibition, advice and probability. You must remember that modal verbs are followed by an infinitive but without the word “to”. Must in the last sentence is an example of a modal verb. Modal verbs are different from other auxiliary verbs as they cannot stand alone in a sentence. They should always be followed by the base verb word (infinitive) like, play, work, run, and eat. Conjugated verbs such as: likes, played, working, ran and eats do not work with modal verbs. For a true beginner student of English this elementary English course will teach you the basic concepts, grammar, numbers and the alphabet.

List of Modal Verbs

Must – to have to, or to be highly likely. Must can be used to express 100% certainty, a logical deduction or prohibition depending on the context.

  • It must be hard to work 60-hours a week. (probable)
  • You must listen to the professor during the lecture. (necessity)
  • She must not be late for her appointment. (necessity)
  • It must not be very hard to do. (probable)

Can – to be able to, to be allowed to, or possible. Can is a very common modal verb in English. It’s used to express ability, permission and possibility.

  • It can be done. (possible)
  • She can sleepover at Sara’s house this weekend. (allowed to)
  • The car can drive cross country. (able to)
  • It cannot be done. (impossible)
  • The doctor said he cannot go to work on Monday. (not allowed to)
  • She cannot focus with the car alarm going off outside. (not able to)

Could –to be able to, to be allowed to, or possible. Could is used when talking about an ability in the past or for a more polite way to ask permission.

  • Mark could show up to work today. (possible)
  • Could I come with you? (allowed to)
  • When I was in college I could stay up all night without consequence. (able to)
  • Mark could not come to work today. (possible/allowed)
  • Last night I could not keep my eyes open. (able to)

May – to be allowed to, it is possible or probable

  • May I sit down here? (allowed to)
  • I may have to cancel my plans for Saturday night. (possible/probable)
  • She may not arrive on time due to traffic. (possible)

Might – to be allowed to, possible or probable. Might is used when discussing something that has a slight possibility of happening, or to ask for permission in a more polite way.

  • Chris might show up to the concert tonight. (possible/probable)
  • Might I borrow your computer? (Many people don’t say this in American English, instead they would say Can I borrow your computer? Or May I borrow your computer?)

Need – necessary

  • Need I say more? (necessary)
  • You need not visit him today. (not necessary)

Should – to ask what is the correct thing to do, to suggest an action or to be probable. Should usually implies advice, a logical deduction or a so-so obligation.

  • Should I come with her to the dentist? (permission)
  • Joe should know better. (advice/ability)
  • It should be a very quick drive to the beach today. (possibility)
  • Margaret should not jump to conclusions. (advice)

Had better – to suggest an action or to show necessity

  • Evan had better clean up the mess he made. (necessity)
  • Megan had better get to work on time tomorrow. (necessity)

Will – to suggest an action or to be able to

  • John will go to his second period class tomorrow. (action)
  • It will happen. (action)
  • She will see the difference. (be able to)
  • Eva will not drive the Volkswagen. (not do an action)
  • Joe will not study tonight because he has to work. (not be able to)

Would – to suggest an action, advice or show possibility in some circumstances

  • That would be nice. (advise/possibility/action)
  • She would go to the show, but she has too much homework. (action)
  • Mike would like to know what you think about his presentation. (action)

Test yourself with this daily grammar practical. Understanding fundamental grammar concepts will help you learn to speak English with grace and ease.

Modal verbs are so common that most English speakers don’t even know what the grammatical name for them is. Note that modal auxiliary verbs are a type of auxiliary verb. Auxiliary verbs encompass tenses, aspects, modality (modal verbs), voice, emphasis and so on. There are many other category of verbs in English like phrasal verbs. In this ESL (English as a Second Language) skills course you can learn natural English phrases. Learn even more about English grammar in this introduction to grammar course.