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.



Hi British Council,
I am a bit confused of tenses used in asking questions.
Like a few days ago, I went to a cafe to buy drink, the worker asked me "what was your name?"
I am wondering why this question uses past tense instead of present tense. I thought name is something that is always true, so present tense (what is your name) should be used.

Best regards,

Hi SooTW,

The past form in English has many uses and one of these is for politeness. I don't know the full context of your conversation but one possible reason is that 'What was your name?' sounded more polite. It could also be that you told the other person your name previously and they were thinking back to that time.

Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

I am not clear about using must for very polite invitation. I knew that must is very strong and some time must is used to give instruction. So, could you explain about how to use or where to use must for polite invitation in detail and more examples?

Hello HtetMMyint,

There is no grammatical difference in use, thought for polite invitations we often add 'really' as in 'You really must...'

The meaning is clear only through the context and, if spoken, through polite intonation. I think it's quite easy to tell from the context whether someone is politely inviting or ordering a person to do something.

Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Kirk and Perter,
would you please tell me the difference in meanings of these three nouns,
and the difference in using their verbs.
best regards

Hello Misam,

Thanks for your comment. To give you a complete answer would take some time, so it would be best if you first look up these words in a dictionary, for example using Cambridge Dictionaries Online box on the right side of this page. That should give you answers to some of your questions and if there are still specific questions you have, we'd be happy to answer them.

Best wishes,
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Kirk
whenever i write anything so i have a feeling of incorrect
what should i do?

Hello Muhammad,

On the one hand, this can be valuable, as it can encourage you to check your work and to learn accurate grammar, vocabulary and collocations. On the other hand, making mistakes is a perfectly natural part of learning, and if this feeling gets too strong, it could discourage you from using new and more advanced forms. Without knowing you better, it's impossible for me to recommend anything more specific, but please keep this in mind as you think about this. Finally, you might find it useful to read the advice on our Help page.

I hope this helps you!

Best regards,
The LearnEnglish Team