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Modal Verbs and Their Functions

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In this lesson, we will learn about modal verbs, and how they are used to convey different conditions.

Modal Auxiliaries/Verbs: There are 10 types of modal verbs.

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

These ten modal verbs are used in many ways. Here are some of their most common functions.

Can is used...

USES
EXAMPLES
To express or inquire about willingness.
Can you help me move next Friday?
In the negative form, to show inability or impossibility.[Negative Form: "Cannot" contracted to "can't"]
We can't fix it.
To show possibility, in the sense that an action is theoretically possible.
We can arrive in time if we leave now.
To show ability, in the sense of knowing how or being able to do something.
We can swim, but we can't surf - yet!
In informal situations, to express permission, in the sense of being allowed to do something. [Note: In formal situations, you should use "may" in this case.]
Mom, can I go over to my friend's house?

Could is used...

USES
EXAMPLES
To make a request.
Could you say it again more slowly.
To give a suggestion.
We could try to fix it ourselves.
To show ability in the past.
Until he grew taller than me, I could run faster than my younger brother!
To identify a possibility in the present.
We could go out for dinner, or we could just eat leftovers.
To express or inquire about permission or willingness in a more polite form.
Could I borrow your car next week?
To identify a possibility in the future that is dependant upon a present action.
If she practiced more, she could sing beautifully.

May is used...

USES
EXAMPLES
To express possibility in the present and future. [Note: In this context, may and might are interchangeable.]
Dr. Fox may be your teacher next year.
In formal situations, to express permission, in the sense of being allowed to do something.
May I be excused from the table?

Might is used...

USES
EXAMPLES
To express possibility in the past.
He might have seen the movie before he read the book.
To express possibility in the present and future. [Note: In this context, may and might are interchangeable.]
Dr. Fox might be your teacher next year.
In formal situations, to express permission, in the sense of being allowed to do something. It is more polite and tentative than may.
Might I be excused from the table?

Will (and its contracted form 'll, and negative form won't) is used...

USES
EXAMPLES
To express intention.
I'll (I will) mow the lawn if you clean the house.
To make a prediction.
The weather will be hot enough to go to the beach this weekend.
For habitual behavior.
I'm not surprised you don't know what to do! You will keep talking in class.
To make a semi-formal request.
Will you open the window, please? It's very hot in here.
To show willingness or interest.
We're going to go to the mall. Will you come with us?
For making a promise or a threat.
If you don't finish your dinner off, you'll go straight to bed!
To reassure someone or to make a decision.
Don't worry! You'll settle down quickly, I'm sure.
For talking about the future or past with certainty.
Don't bother calling: they'll have left for their 10 o'clock meeting.

Would (and its contracted form 'd, and negative form wouldn't) is used...

USES
EXAMPLES
For requests.
Would you pass the salt please?
For preferences.
Would you prefer tea or coffee? I'd like tea please.
To request permission.
Would you mind if I brought a colleague with me?
To show habitual activity .
The dog would bark every time the doorbell rang.
To enquire about willingness.
Would you like to come on vacation with us this year?
To comment on a likely truth.
The doorbell just rang. That would be your mother!
To talk about refusals in the past.
She wouldn't ride the roller coaster, no matter how much we begged her.
To comment on a hypothetical possibility.
If I trained, I would be able to run a marathon.
To talk about habitual behavior in the past.
Every Saturday, dad would make us pancakes.
To talk about the future in the past, as the past tense of "will".
I knew it would be cold, so I packed sweaters and a coat.
To comment on someone's characteristic behavior (often with a negative connotation).
Mrs. Jones gave us so much homework! She would ruin our weekends! (Meaning, it is just like her to do so.)
To express a situation that is dependant upon another action (this is called the conditional mood).
If I had a million dollars, I would buy a fancy car.

Shall is used...

USES
EXAMPLES
For suggestions.
Shall we say 2:30, then?
For asking what to do.
Shall I do that or will you?
For offering someone help.
Shall I help you with your luggage?
In formal or legal situations.
The plaintiff shall be allowed to speak.
In British English, to indicate a promise in the future.
The package shall be delivered on Thursday.
In British English, to form the simple present for I and we.
Shall we meet at 7?
In American English, to form polite questions that include a polite request for permission.
Shall I call you a taxi?

Should (and the negative contracted form shouldn't) is used...

USES
EXAMPLES
To make a suggestion or advice.
You should try this soup!
To convey the idea of an obligation.
He should come to the meetings on time.

Ought to is used...

USES
EXAMPLES
In the same situations as "should," but with a stronger sense of obligation or intensity.
He ought to come to the meetings on time! He's the boss!

Must (and its negative contracted form mustn't) is used...

USES
EXAMPLES
For prohibition (mustn't only).
They mustn't disrupt the work more than necessary.
To make a command in a more respectful way.
You must do your homework before watching TV!
To make a conjecture, but with some certainty.
It's already 9 PM! You must be hungry!
In similar contexts as "should and ought to," but with a sense of external obligation.
All employees must come to staff meetings!
Summary
  • There are ten types of modal verbs: can, could, may, might, will, would, shall, should, must, ought to.
  • Can (or cannot/can't) shows ability, in the sense of knowing how or being able to do something. In informal situations, it expresses permission, in the sense of being allowed to do something. It also shows possibility, in the sense that an action is theoretically possible. It expresses or inquires about willingness. Lastly, in the negative, it shows inability or impossibility.
  • Could (or couldn't) shows ability in the past, and expresses or inquires about permission or willingness in a more polite form. It also identifies a possibility in the present, or a possibility in the future that is dependant upon a present action. Lastly, it can be used to make requests or for giving suggestions.
  • May is used in formal situations to express permission, in the sense of being allowed to do something. It also expresses possibility in the present and future.
  • Might is used in formal situations, and also to express permission in the sense of being allowed to do something. It also expresses possibility in the present, future, and past.
  • Will (or won't) shows willingness or interest, expresses intention, and makes predictions. It is also used to reassure someone or help them make a decision, to make a semi-formal request, to show habitual behavior, to make a promise or a threat, and to talk about the future or the past with certainty
  • Would (or wouldn't) enquires about willingness, shows habitual activity, comments on someone's characteristic behavior, comments on a hypothetical possibility, and comments on a likely truth. It also is used for asking permission, making a request, and to express preferences. It can be used to talk about the past, talk about the future in the past, or to talk about a situation that is dependant upon another action.
  • Shall is used in England, to form the simple present for I and we, and to indicate a promise in the future. It's used in the United States to form polite questions that include a polite request for permission, and universally in formal or legal situations. It can also be used for offering someone help, for suggestions, or for asking what to do.
  • Should (or shouldn't) conveys the idea of an obligation or makes a suggestion.
  • Ought to is used in the same situations as should, but with a stronger sense of obligation or intensity.
  • Must (or mustn't) makes a conjecture, but with some certainty. It also makes a command in a more respectful way, and it is used in similar contexts to should and ought to, but with a sense of external obligation. It can also express prohibition in the negative form.

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