ability, permission, requests and advice


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.


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].


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.




Good day sir may you help me know if you have a column that covers English Registers

Hello Lamastry,

You can find references to register, formality and polite forms all throughout LearnEnglish, but as far as I know, there is no page dedicated to the topic. I'd suggest you do an internet search for something like 'awareness of register in English' – I expect you can find some useful explanations that way.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

hello British council.
i am your new students. please tell me how can i build up my vocabulary?

Hello akaash akaash,

Welcome to LearnEnglish! The best place for you to start is our Help page, which will give you ideas and advice for how to do this, as well as other aspects of learning English.

Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team


"Iwill come" means I am determined to come, but how can we use the same sentence for simple future.... ok right, if we the same sentence for future , what would be the sentence for determination of the speaker. If external events plays a role for compulsion of speaker coming, what would be the sentence.

Hello sabago,

I'm trying to understand your question but I'm afraid it's not clear to me. It's possible for 'I will come' to refer to your determination (making it, in effect, a promise) and it necessarily refers to future time, as promises do. There are many possibilities for obligation, such as 'must' and 'have to' - the latter is generally used for external obligation.

I'm not sure if that answers your question. If not, please provide an example - a sentence - of what you mean. This will help to clarify it for us.

Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

hi peter
I am asking for first person[ I/WE] for shall.
'' I shall come'' express mere future or obligation? or both explain me with examples.

Hello sabago,

In most contexts in modern British English, 'shall' is only used in the way described on this page, i.e. for invitations and offers, and even there usually only in questions. Saying 'I shall come' would sound a bit pompous in most contexts, and so I'd not recommend using it, at least with British people. Instead you could say something like 'I plan to come', 'I'm going to come', 'I will come' – it depends on the context. See our talking about the future page for an explanation of this.

Best wishes,
The LearnEnglish Team

how can we use obligation for fist person[ I /WE] using shall with verb come... can you explian with examples?

Hello sabago,

'Shall' has a similar meaning to 'will' and is rarely used for obligation. The only way I can think that it would be used is with a heavy emphasis:

You shall come when I call you! No arguing!

However, this is unusual and would be considered quite rude. It's something that an angry parent might say to a child, for example.

Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team