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.

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

Comments

Could interpret  "can" and "could" , please.
Is "could"  the past form of "can" and do we  use "could"  as "can" in the past?
Thank you!

Hello kristina26,

'Can' and 'could' are examples of modal verbs and they have many uses and meanings. In some contexts, 'could' is the past form of 'can', such as when talking about ability:

(present) I can swim / I can't swim.

(past) When I was a child, I could swim / I couldn't swim.

However, the range of meanings is much broader than this, and the relationship between 'can' and 'could' much more complex.  For example, both forms can be used in requests, with 'could' being a more polite form:

Can I have a glass of water, please?

Could I have a glass of water, please?

This page, and the other pages relating to modal verbs preceding and following it, show the various meanings of 'can' and 'could' (and other modal verbs), so my advice to you is to work through these pages and I'm sure that will help to clarify it for you.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear teacher,
I have a question about usage of could as future permission.I have found this sentence in one grammar tutorial." Could we apply for a loan again after we've found a guarantor?"-  How this sentence is right because they use present perfect tense for future permission.
 

Hello LIKHONRUMI40,

The present perfect in this sentence is in a dependent clause, and the use of some tenses is different in these clauses.  We could not say 'we've found a guarantor' with future meaning by itself; however if it is part of a dependent clause then it can have future meaning.  Following 'after' in this sentence you can use the present perfect (we've found) or the present simple (we find) with very similar meaning - the present perfect emphasises that the action is completed before the other action in the sentence (applying).

Here the dependent clause is introduced by 'after', but you can find tenses used like this with similar dependent clauses introduced by other words such as when, as soon as and until.

I hope that helps to clarify it for you.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

True Peter. That's what I know concerning dependent clause, either present perfect or present simple has similar meaning. Thank you :)

Hi Team
First of all I would like to tell you, You guys are doing excellent job, this is very helpfully to improve our English skills.
I have a question for you guys could you help me to clear this?
I used to watch many people using " He is gone and  He is excited"
I know that gone and 'ed' should be used for past tense.
Is that right to use "is " after past tense, If so, could give a more examples and 
tell me what kind of sentence is this?
 
 

Hi Mohammed Anas,
Thanks for your kind words - it's always great to hear that people like LearnEnglish.
In the sentence you mention, "He is gone and he is excited", both gone and excited are working as adjectives that come after the verb be. "He is gone" is another way of saying "he is not here now".
It's true that gone is the past participle of go, but if it were working as a verb here, it would be "he has gone" instead of "he is gone". Past participles are often used as adjectives. You can see more examples on our -ed and -ing adjectives page.
I hope this helps you understand. If it's still not clear, please ask again.
Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Kirk
Thanks for your reply on this, still I have a confused about those sentence 
"He is gone "   "IS" is a present  when we using the present tense  we normally use 
is with present participle, the sentence has  "is " after past participle  why we are 
using like that? and where we can use those sentence in our daily life?
It would be help full to me If reply to this.
Once again thanks 

Hi Mohammed Anas,
You're right that we can use the present verb be + present participle to form the present continuous.
I think what might be confusing you is the fact that the past participle is not only used to form a verb (like, for example, the present perfect: "He has gone to Lucknow"), but can also be used as an adjective. In the sentence "He is gone", gone is an adjective. You can see other examples of adjectives formed from past participles under -ed adjectives on the page I referred you to before.
Just as we can say "He is tall" (subject he + is + adjective tall), we can also say "He is gone" (subject he + is + adjective gone). This sentence could be used, for example, if someone came to my house and asked "May I speak with your father, please?" If my father were at work, for example, I could reply "I'm sorry, he is gone. Please come again later."
If you have any other questions, please let me know.
Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team
 
 

Hello Kirk,
 
It means can we use that method for all the present perfect sentences? As an example,

  1. He has gone
  2. I have done
  3. I have seen it some where.

Can we say these sentences like this. He is gone,I am done,I am seen it some where.
What about the meaning of those sentence. The same as original?
 
Thank you.

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