Modal verbs

Learn about modal verbs and their different meanings and do the exercises to practise using them.

Level: beginner

The modal verbs are: 

can
may
must
shall
will
could
might

should
would

We use modals to show if we believe something is certain, possible or impossible:

My keys must be in the car.
It might rain tomorrow.
That can't be Peter's coat. It's too small.

We also use them to do things like talk about ability, ask permission, and make requests and offers:

I can't swim.
May I ask a question?
Could I have some tea, please?
Would you like some help?

Modal verbs

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Submitted by rosario70 on Sun, 28/10/2018 - 13:25

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Hi teachers. I made up The following sentence :The manager asked if someone of us would be provided To go morocco he would be awarded The raise money. I was wondering if It is proper. Thanks in advance.

Hi rosario70,

I'm afraid that's not grammatically correct. If I understand what you mean, then I would recommend something like: 'The manager asked if one of us was willing to go to Morocco. The person who goes will be given a raise'.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Patricia MacDougall on Fri, 28/09/2018 - 09:34

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I am trying to explain to professional colleagues who are translating into Spanish the difference in the use of SHALL in the following two phrases: "Any requirement shall be permitted to be modified..." "..the stories in the building shall be determined as follows.." The former being optional, given the use of the verb permit, vs. the latter which is a mandatory requirement. I have looked at modal verb entries, but not being a professional language teacher, I just don't know how to explain how the difference in the use of "shall" when it modifies the verb permit vs when it is used alone. The colleague insists that the use of "shall" makes the modification a requirement, and ignores the verb "permitted". This issue has to do with building codes. Thank you for any help you may be able to offer.

Hello Patricia MacDougall,

In most cases, 'shall' and 'will' are interchangeable. However, when used in contracts there can be a difference. 'Will' refers simply to a future time, while 'shall' represents an obligation, requirement or duty.

The topic is discussed on this page, which I think will clarify it for you:

https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/3389/shall-and-will-in-legal-requirements

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you for the reference and your quick reply, Peter. I see that in legal terms "shall" is complicated. It seems the case especially when translated. I had discovered various references to the "shall/must" argument and the link you have given me supports the ambiguity argument. Finally, with many examples in the same building code between "shall be permitted" vs "shall" I was able to convince the colleagues that the former is an optional provision, while the latter is an obligatory requirement.
Hi Patricia, I fear you may have over-analysed this. The word 'shall' in both of your examples does indeed imply a mandatory requirement. In the case of "shall be permitted", the 'shall' simply refers to the obligation that permission be granted (should it be requested). There is no ambiguity in the value of the word itself, only a difference in context. Buena suerte con los colegas.

Submitted by shani on Fri, 21/09/2018 - 13:35

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Hi, I have a question. Would 'depending on' be considered a modal verb? As in 'I might go for a walk, depending on how the weather holds out'. Having trouble working out which grammatical category this fits into. Thanks.

Hello shani,

'Depending on' is a participle phrase, not a phrasal verb. The verb is 'depend' and it is often followed by a preposition ('depend on') but it can also be used by itself:

Our answer depends on the cost.

Are you going to buy it? It depends how much it costs.

 

You can see a list of common verbs which are followed by prepositions on this page.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Peter, That's very helpful, thanks! Shani

Submitted by amol on Thu, 20/09/2018 - 08:22

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I was to have left on Thursday. But on Thursday I had a terrible cold so I decided to wait till Saturday. In the above example, can I use "had to" in place of *was to have left"

Hello amol,

In terms of grammar, you can say 'I was to have left' or 'I had to leave', but the meaning is slightly different.

'I was to have left' means the same as 'I was supposed to leave'. It describes a plan or intention which was not completed.

'I had to leave' describes an obligation. It suggests that something made it necessary for you to leave. This may have been something you know in advance or something which surprised you.

There is a problem with the sense of the second sentence, however. 'I had to leave' suggests you had no choice, but the second part of the sentence makes it clear that you did have a choice, because a cold was enough to change your mind. This would appear to be contradictory.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by SonuKumar on Sat, 04/08/2018 - 20:41

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Sir, while asking a question to someone for future, should we use 'Wll'or 'Going To' ? When will you buy a car or when are you going to buy a car and when will you come or go or when are you going to come or go ?
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Submitted by Peter M. on Sun, 05/08/2018 - 07:03

In reply to by SonuKumar

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Hello SonuKumar,

Both are possible.

There are many ways of talking about future time. If we are asking about a person's intention or plan then 'going to' is appropriate. If we are asking about a decision made at the moment of speaking then 'will' is more likely.

You can read about future forms on our page on the topic.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Amaavee on Sat, 23/06/2018 - 04:07

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Please tell me, when I do exercises how I drag the words into the answer box if there is more than one word?

Hello Amaavee,

Moving items is done by clicking rather than dragging. Click once on the item and then click again on the box where you wish it to go. If you click on an item already in the box you will swap it for the new item; if you click on the box itself you will add the item.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by jitu_jaga on Wed, 13/06/2018 - 18:02

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Hi, I was watching a movie and I found one girl says to a boy 'I promised my mother not to do this' and then the the boy says to the girl ' why would you say this?' Here, does this sentence mean 'Why did you say this?' or 'Would' has a different meaning like in 2nd conditional sentence? I don't understand? Please explain with some further examples?

Hello jitu_jaga,

'would' can be used to speak about willingness to do something in the past – that is how I would understand this here. It's another way of saying 'Why did you want to say this?'

'would' is also used to express a hypothetical situation; perhaps one could argue that that is how the boy was thinking about it, but in this context I'd say it's more an expression of willingness.

In any case, it's clear that it means the same thing as the past simple form you suggest in this context.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by SonuKumar on Tue, 29/05/2018 - 17:47

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Sir, I had to wash a lot of clothes. This sentence means that I did wash the clothes, but if I say " I had to wash a lot of clothes, and then add, but I couldn't or didn't". This means that I didn't wash the clothes. Now The question is, Should I use 'Had to' if I didn't wash clothes adding 'I couldn't or I didn't ' or Should I use 'Supposed to' like this - I was supposed to wash a lot of clothes, but I couldn't or I didn't ? Do they both mean the same thing or Is one of them not correct ? while the other is correct.

Hello SonuKumar,

If you say I had to wash a lot of clothes then we do not know if you washed them or not; we know only that you had this obligation. We may guess what you did, but the sentence does not tell us.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Carmen M5 on Sat, 12/05/2018 - 22:01

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Hello! I have a question regarding some examples with modal verbs if you could help me. Examples: 1.They took some extra blankets în case they should get cold. 2.It's essential that everyone should arrive on time. 3.They were going to call this morning, so he should know about the job by now. Why can't we put, in all the sentences,'would' instead of 'should'?

Hi Carmen,

There structures in these three sentences are different. In 1, 'in case' is not followed by 'would', but rather by a past tense verb. In this case, the verb should be in the past simple, since this sentence refers to the past. I can see how 'would' would seem to make sense here, as it speaks about a hypothetical situation, but 'would' isn't used in a clause beginning with 'in case'.

In 2, 'It's essential that' begins a clause that speaks of necessity. Although 'should' is not exactly wrong here, a subjunctive form such as 'arrive' is more common. 'would' isn't used here.

In 3, 'should' indicates what we expect to communicate probability. 'would' can be used to indicate probability in some cases, but this form is a little unusual and is not usually used in one clause connected to another clause.

I hope that helps you.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Adya's on Wed, 09/05/2018 - 03:23

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Hi Thanks for the prompt response. As regards the use of 'would' to refer to future events by some publications, I would have sent you the snapshots/screenshots of such usages so that you could appreciate the context of the use. But posting pictures in response box is not possible on your site. I think, this is probably due to the use of 'could' and 'might' as tentative versions of 'can' and 'may' respectively that 'would' is used in the same vein as a weak version of 'will' and used for real future references. You can throw better light on it. Eager to hear from you on this topic. Regards
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Submitted by Peter M. on Wed, 09/05/2018 - 07:27

In reply to by Adya's

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Hi Adya's,

The examples you provided are inconsistent in my opinion. As you mention, the problem is the use of would for real or certain future events. There needs to be an explicit or implied qualification of some kind to make the event unlikely or uncertain.

In your examples we have the opposite. We have decided introduces a decision which has been taken and is, therefore, necessarily real; will is needed here, not would. In the second example the phrase if you buy today makes it clear that a real or likely situation is in mind and so would is inconsistent.

I can't really think of a context in which would would be appropriate here, and I think it is far more likely that these are simply inaccurate sentences and that the newspapers in which they were published would benefit from better proofreaders!

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Adya's on Tue, 08/05/2018 - 04:40

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Hello This question has been baffling me for some time. Even in standard newspapers I find frequent use of 'would' to refer to future events. There is no indirect speech reporting with a past tense reporting verb, yet 'would' is used to describe future events! For example, "We have decided that we would not attend the meeting". Or like, "If you buy today, we would give you a good discount". Is it correct to do so? Please respond and clarify my doubts. Regards
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Submitted by Peter M. on Tue, 08/05/2018 - 08:01

In reply to by Adya's

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Hello Adya's,

Those do not look like standard sentences to me. I can't comment on their use because I don't know the source or context but I would not say that those are correct examples.

Remember that people do not always speak in fully grammatical forms. We make mistakes or change our minds in the process of expressing ourselves. This may be the issue if these are direct quotations from people.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Learner Kid on Thu, 29/03/2018 - 18:42

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Hello sir, please help me. Look at this sentence,, You need not have gone there. Here 'need' is use as a modal auxiliary or regular verb!

Hello Learner Kid,

This is an example of the modal use of 'need'. A test is to try to replace the word with other modal verbs:

You need not have gone there.

You could not have gone there.

You should not have gone there.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by SonuKumar on Mon, 26/02/2018 - 06:57

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Sir, It has to be the same, something or whatever. It should be the same, something or whatever. I think the first one says there's obligation that it has or is to be the same. The second one says It will probably be the same. it shows the probability and a reason to believe. Right ?

Hello SonuKumar,

As you know, modal verbs are very much context dependent in terms of meaning so it's not really possible to give an answer to this question without guessing what the context might be. In general, 'has to' suggests that something is necessary, required or obligatory while 'should' could suggest a preference or an expectation.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Manshuk on Wed, 17/01/2018 - 12:23

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Sorry,where can I find exercises about this theme?

Hello Manshuk,

This page is a general page on modal verbs. You can find exercises on the pages devoted to particular modal verbs or concepts. You can see links to these pages above the comments section or in the list on the right.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Sash on Thu, 11/01/2018 - 20:27

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Could you please help me understand what does seldom direct mean hear? Documentation is a critical step in the revitalization process of a language, but the path from documentation to producing new speakers is seldom direct.

Hello Sash,

The phrase 'the path... is seldom direct' means that the process is usually a complex one.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Hamdy Ali on Wed, 03/01/2018 - 18:54

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Hi I just want to check the answers 1-There is a lot of traffic.We(must-might)be late. The author chose might but I think must can be the correct answer 2-The tour guide said that ten is the (fewest-least) number of tourists she can take on the boat trip. the writer chose least but I think it is fewest is the correct answer
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Submitted by Peter M. on Thu, 04/01/2018 - 08:36

In reply to by Hamdy Ali

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Hi Hamdy Ali,

In the first example 'might' is correct. We can use 'must' to speculate about the present (so we could say 'they must be getting worried now') but not to guess about the future.

In the second example I would say that 'the fewest tourists' or 'the lowest number of tourists' would be the most natural options. You could say 'the least number of tourists', though it is unusual and not the most common/standard option. 'The fewest number of' is not correct.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Hamdy Ali on Tue, 02/01/2018 - 14:50

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How do you do? Choose 1-There is a lot of traffic.We(must-might)be late. 2-The tour guide said that ten is the (fewest-least) number of tourists she can take on the boat trip .

Hello Hamdy Ali,

I'm afraid we don't provide answers to questions from elsewhere. If we tried to do this then we would end up trying to do everyone's homework or tests for them! We're happy to explain things and provide as much help as we can but we don't give answers to tasks from elsewhere.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team