The modal verbs are can, could, may, might, shall, should, will and would.

The modals are used to do things like talking about ability, asking permission making requests, and so on.

Ability:

We use can to talk about someone’s skill or general abilities:

She can speak several languages.
He can swim like a fish.
They can’t dance very well.

We use can to talk about the ability to do something at a given time in the present or future:

You can make a lot of money if you are lucky.
Help. I can’t breathe.
They can run but they can’t hide.

We use could to talk about past time:

She could speak several languages.
They couldn’t dance very well.

We use could have to say that someone had the ability/opportunity to do something, but did not do it:

She could have learned Swahili, but she didn’t have time.
I could have danced all night [but didn't].

Permission:

We use can to ask for permission to do something:

Can I ask a question, please?
Can we go home now?

could is more formal and polite than can:

Could I ask a question please?
Could we go home now?

may is another more formal and polite way of asking for permission:

May I ask a question please?
May we go home now?

We use can to give permission:

You can go home now if you like.
You can borrow my pen if you like.

may is a more formal and polite way of giving permission:

You may go home now, if you like.

We use can to say that someone has permission to do something:

We can go out whenever we want.
Students can travel free.

may is a more formal and polite way of saying that someone has permission:

Students may travel free.

Instructions and requests:

We use could you and would you as polite ways of telling or asking someone to do something:

Could you take a message please?
Would you carry this for me please?
Could I have my bill please?

can and will are less polite:

Can you take a message please?
Will you carry this for me please?

Suggestions and advice:

We use should to make suggestions and give advice:

You should send an email.
We should go by train.

We use could to make suggestions:

We could meet at the weekend.
You could eat out tonight.

We use conditionals to give advice:

Dan will help you if you ask him.

Past tenses are more polite:

Dan would help you if you asked him.

Offers and invitations:

We use can I… and to make offers:

Can I help you?
Can I do that for you?

We can also use shall I …

Shall I help you with that?
Shall I call you on your mobile?

We sometime say I can ... or I could ... or I’ll (I will) ... to make an offer:

I can do that for you if you like.
I can give you a lift to the station.
I’ll do that for you if you like.
I’ll give you a lift to the station.

We use would you like (to) ... for invitations:

Would you like to come round to morrow?
Would you like another drink?

We use you must or we must for a very polite invitation:

You must come round and see us.
We must meet again soon.

Obligation and necessity

We use must to say that it is necessary to do something:

You must stop at a red light.
Everyone must bring something to eat.
You can wear what you like, but you must look neat and tidy.
I’m sorry, but you mustn’t make a noise in here.

We use had to for this if we are talking about the past:

Everyone had to bring something to eat.
We could wear what we liked, but we had to look neat and tidy.
 

Exercise

Section: 

Comments

Please, is this sentence correct? "It's unfair to judge people by their action"

thanks so much for the correction.

Hello roc1,

That is almost correct. The correct form would be:

It's unfair to judge people by their actions.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello..
I came across this sentence and I wonder if its right or not ...
"I would sit there before I asked for a permission"
It just doesn't make an sense to me....

Hello felix barndon,

That sentence is almost fine, grammatically speaking. Whether or not it makes sense will depend on the context. 'Would sit' describes typical behaviour in the past, so the speaker usually did this before...

The only thing about the sentence which seems unlikely to be correct is the use of the indefinite article 'a' before 'permission'. Permission is usually uncountable, so we would normally say 'ask for permission'.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello!
I had a question in my exam and I'm not sure how it's done.
Question: Write down a sentence that means the same as the previous sentence :
- That's not Tom who you saw yesterday. He has gone to Italy.
- It couldn't _____________________________________.
How do we answer it?

Hello Rita Rihani,

This is really a question for your teacher rather than for us. We don't usually provide answers to test questions or homework tasks because the answer may depend upon the syllabus or certain instructions provided. However, the most likely possible answer here would be 'It couldn't be Tom who/that you saw yesterday. He has gone to Italy'.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you for answering ! I appreciate your help!

Hi
can 'have to' only be used as the past form of 'must'? I mean, can't it be used as an alternative to it: 'You must wear a safety helmet' 'You have to wear a safety helmet'? Are there any differences in meaning?
Thanks in advance

Hello l.audisio,

'Have to' can be used instead of must as you suggest:

I must go now.

I have to go now.

There is a slight difference in meaning. We generally use 'must' when the obligation is a personal one: the obligation comes from us. We tend to use 'have to' when the obligation is external, from a rule or organisation, for example.

Note that this page deals with 'ability, permission, requests and advice', not obligation. You can find more information on the distinction between 'must' and 'have to' on this page.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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