Modal verbs

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

MultipleChoice_MTYzNDI=

 

Take your language skills and your career to the next level
Get unlimited access to our self-study courses for only £5.99/month.

Submitted by RachTHK on Fri, 30/01/2015 - 06:47

Permalink
Hello everyone, I'm a little confused with the use of "would" and "should". Which one of the following is correct: 1. If Linda should call, please ask her to leave a message. 2. If Linda would call, please ask her to leave a message. Since both can be used to express a possible situation, are both acceptable then?

Hello RachTHK,

1 is correct and 2 is not, though it would be correct with 'calls' instead of 'would call'. Our Conditionals 1 page explains sentences with 'if', though it doesn't discuss the way 'should' is used in 1. 'should' can be used after 'if' in first conditional sentences to express the idea that something is unlikely, i.e. in this case the speaker doesn't think it's likely that Linda will call.

Best regards,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by PrashantK on Sat, 03/01/2015 - 14:03

Permalink
Hi there, I just have a small confusion..that..can "has" be used after does? i.e. "Does she has a pen?" is this sentence is grammatically correct? Or we only use "have" along with 'do' and 'does'? Please explain. Thank you.

Hello PrashantK,

No, when 'do' is used as an auxiliary verb (e.g. in 'Does she have a pen?' or 'Did she go to the bookshop?'), the rest of the verb goes in the infinitive form, in this case, 'have'. 'has' is incorrect here. See our question forms page for more on this.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by CorradoP on Mon, 29/12/2014 - 12:45

Permalink
Is it right to ask: Can I haz cheezburger? Or: Could I haz cheezburger? Thanks.

Hello Corrado,

Neither of these is correct, though the use of 'can' and 'could' in both is correct. The correct versions are:

  • Can I have a cheeseburger?
  • Could I have a cheeseburger?

Best regards,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by tripti chaturvedi on Sat, 20/12/2014 - 18:58

Permalink
hello sir i just want to know when we use ing form with modal. for example what is the different between should we move? or should we moving? please guide me.

Hello tripti chaturvedi,

We do not follow a modal with the -ing form by itself. 'Should we move' is correct, grammatically, whereas 'should we moving' is incorrect.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Rox4090 on Wed, 15/10/2014 - 01:42

Permalink
Hi, My query is about modals. Use of May- 1.Exercise may protect against depression. 2. Exercise may help to safeguard the mind against depression through previously unknown effects on working muscles,according to new study involving mice. If I replace 'May' in the above sentence with might and could , the meaning and tone of the sentences remain the same or not.

Submitted by Kirk on Wed, 15/10/2014 - 13:26

In reply to by Rox4090

Permalink

Hello Rox4090,

'may' and 'might' would mean the same thing in both of the sentences you wrote. 'might' is perhaps a bit more common in speaking and 'may' a bit more in writing, but you can see both of them written as well as hear them spoken.

'could' can be used to talk about something possible in the future, but the sentences you write are not about the future - they are general statements. 'could' is not used to indicate possibility in this way, but 'can' is. You can see more about this on our certain, probable or possible page.

So you could also use 'can' in those two sentences, and it would mean the same thing as using 'may' or 'might'.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Nuras on Thu, 21/08/2014 - 14:40

Permalink
Hello, Can you help me to know when exactly I have to use Might or could? Is the only reason to use Might the wish to be more polite or there are other reasons to use Might instead of Could and vice versa? Thank you very much Nuras

Submitted by Peter M. on Wed, 03/09/2014 - 10:05

In reply to by Nuras

Permalink

Hello Nuras,

Like all modal verbs, each of these is used with a range of meanings and for a range of functions, some similar and some different, and it is not possible to go through all of them in a short answer like this. I suggest you take a look at the pages related to different aspects of modals using the links above and if you have any specific questions regarding particular uses then we'll be happy to answer them for you. Remember that the more concrete and specific the question, ideally including a particular example, the more concrete and specific the answer we can give.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

 

Submitted by kazekagesama01 on Tue, 05/08/2014 - 14:31

Permalink
Hey, is it right to use "Could it happen?" to ask if something can happen in the future? Thanks

Hello kazekagesama01,

Yes, 'Could it happen?' can be used to ask if it is possible for something to happen in the present or in the future. This is explained on the certain, probably or possible page, which I suggest you read to see some other examples.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Glauci on Mon, 09/06/2014 - 17:12

Permalink
Hello, I have a doubt: for requests in formal order of polite, I use can, could, may and might? Thanks

Submitted by Peter M. on Tue, 10/06/2014 - 08:25

In reply to by Glauci

Permalink

Hello Glauci,

You can find information on requests on this page.  You can find an exercise on requests and offers on this page [offers and requests are often put together].

Remember that making requests is a functional use of the language rather than a grammatical system. There are many ways of making requests, some of them purely reliant on intonation.  For example, the sentence 'It's hot' could be a statement of fact, an exclamation of surprise, a question or a request for a drink, depending on the context and the intonation used.

Intonation is also key to politeness.  The same sentence can be polite or rude, depending on how it is said.  For this reason, it is very difficult to say which modals, for example, are more or less polite.  All of them can be used politely if the intonation is appropriate.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team 

Submitted by Yadraj on Wed, 23/04/2014 - 19:22

Permalink
could someone tell me the we can use can,could,may and would for request. Then what is the difference in the uses of these for requesting. Please explain with nice examples.

Hello Yadraj,

Our grammar pages have explanations of the various uses of the different modal verbs. Please take a look at them - for example, ability, permission, requests and advice. There you will find both explanations and examples. After you've done that, you're welcome to ask us questions that aren't already answered there.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by akhi on Mon, 07/04/2014 - 13:46

Permalink
Hello sir, Could you tell me difference between the following sentences. 1. You must not speak when the teacher is speaking. 2 you have not to speak when the teacher is speaking. Are these sentences meaning same? I think in both sentences obligations have come.

Hi akhi,

I'm afraid that sentence 2 is not correct in standard English. must not can be used to indicate a prohibition, but have to in the negative (don't have to) only indicates the lack of necessity (not prohibition).

You mustn't speak (= it is prohibited to speak)
You don't have to speak (= it is not necessary to speak)

Best wishes,

Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by lucianombs on Wed, 26/03/2014 - 17:15

Permalink
Hi, I'm glad to join you and I've read all the answers about the modals before to ask that but I still have a doubt. I'm studying Present perfect and I want to know if it's possible to use 'might' meaning 'could'. For instance, what's the difference between the following sentences: 1. It might have done. 2. It could have done. Thanks, Luciano.

Hello lucianombs,

These are example of modals of deduction in the past and they are essentially interchangeable.  You can think of three levels of certainty with these kinds of modals:

It must have done. [I'm very confident that it did]

It could/might/may have done. [I'm not sure if it did or not]

It can't have done. [I'm very confident that it didn't]

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Françoise Garampon on Wed, 12/03/2014 - 09:35

Permalink
Hi LearnEnglish Team ! Any chance I can find a lesson on "NEED" (as a modal and/or ordinary verb) somewhere in your site ?(I have done a bit of searching but I could not find a specific lesson). Thank you in advance for your help. Best regards

Hi Françoise,

You can find an explanation of different uses of 'need' and some exercises on this language page from Word on the Street - but I recommend you work through the whole episode, which you can find here.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you Peter, it's a good way to begin with...

Submitted by saman toor on Tue, 04/03/2014 - 22:54

Permalink
Thanks Peter, This site is really a great help. Thanks to all you people helping us. I have just looked at the side bar help, lot of grammar indeed, but I may use this opportunity to ask about "use of prepositions". More specifically would you please send me the link where can I find detailed discussion about the use of preposition. Particularly, the verbs with preposition and discussions about signpost. Thanks

Hello Saman Toor,

We have a page devoted to prepositional phrases, which I think will be just what you are looking for.  There are also many activities on prepositions on other pages, such as on pages related to different listening or reading materials.  You can find these by using the search window on the right - type in 'prepositions' and you'll see many exercises in the results.

I hope those links are useful.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by bimsara on Sat, 01/03/2014 - 02:35

Permalink
Hello there! I'm back here after nearly 2 months.So it's great to be here again. I want to know that can we say some sentences without modal verbs? as an example 1)interpretation would always have to be done. Can we sat that 'interpretation always have to be done?' Please explain this and now i cant see that features had in here.bold,italic,bulletin. Thank you.

Hello bimsara and welcome back!

Both sentences are possible (but note that 'interpretation' is singular and therefore we would say 'has' not 'have' in the second example), but they have different meanings.

The second sentence '...always has to be...' describes a fact about the world.  The first sentence is actually a conditional form where the condition is not stated:

Interpretation would always have to be done if the boss asked for it.

This is not especially unusual in English.  We frequently miss out the conditional clause if it is obvious from the context, for example.

I hope that clarifies it for you.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by chandini on Thu, 06/02/2014 - 06:30

Permalink
Hello! Sir, Would you please tell me which one is correct and what's the difference between these two? What you mean? What do you mean?

Hello chandini,

"What you mean?" is not correct in standard English - the correct form is "What do you mean?" The formation of such questions is explained on our present simple page.

Best wishes,

Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by iamsam1987 on Wed, 22/01/2014 - 09:31

Permalink

Dear Sir,

               Could you please tell us or enlist the Semi modals ? I have read somewhere that Semi-auxiliaries include be about to, be able to, be going to, be likely to, be supposed to, had better, have to, ought to, used to and would rather. Is it correct ? Thank you so much in advance, Sir.

With Regards,

Sam 

Hi Sumeet,

This is an interesting question, but I'm afraid it falls outside the scope of what we do at LearnEnglish. We are principally concerned with helping members make the best use they can of our site. In addition, your request is very broad. We do our best to answer questions about specific points, but we are a very small team answering questions from millions of users - we simply don't have the time to provide lessons on demand.

You can find information on this topic by doing an internet search - one good place to start might be the wikipedia page on modal verbs.

Best wishes,

Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by iamsam1987 on Wed, 15/01/2014 - 08:19

Permalink

Dear Sir, 

               First of all I would like to express my gratitude to you all and to British Council who have been doing a great favor to all the English learners. Thanks a lot.

Could you please tell us the difference between Probability and Possibility with some examples? Thank you so much in advance.

Hello Sumeet,

You can find the difference by using the Cambridge Dictionaries Online tool:

Possibility: a chance that something may happen or be true

Probability: the level of possibility of something happening or being true

In other words, if something is possible then there is a chance of it happening, but it is not certain.  When we talk about probability, we are also say how likely it is - very likely, quite likely, unlikely etc.

You can find examples of both probability and possibility on this page.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by iamsam1987 on Fri, 10/01/2014 - 11:07

Permalink

Dear Sir,

               This is Sumeet. I have got some questions related to Modals. How can we distinguish the usage of can and be able to? Is the present / past continuous of be able to is grammatically correct and formal?

Are you being able to comprehend what is being taught to you? 

Is it grammatically correct ? Thank you so much, Sir. 

With regards,

Sumeet

Submitted by Peter M. on Sat, 11/01/2014 - 13:45

In reply to by iamsam1987

Permalink

Hello Sumeet,

Both of these can be used to talk about ability, but 'can' has other uses as well (see here for more information).  When talking about ability in the present, the two are largely interchangeable, though 'can' is more common and 'be able to' a little more formal.  There are some differences between the two when we talk about future and past meaning, however:

If we do not have the ability now but will have it in the future then we use 'be able to':

I will be able to swim after I finish my lessons. [I do not know how to swim now, but am learning OR I know how to swim but am busy with lessons now]

The future meaning of 'can' is more limited:

I can swim after I finish my lessons. [I know how to swim but am busy with lessons now]

In the past, we can use both 'be able to' and 'could' (the past form of 'can') to talk about general ability:

When I was young I could ski really well.

When I was young I was able to ski really well.

However, when we talk about single events in the past we use 'be able to':

One Christmas I was able to beat my brother in a race! [NOT '...I could beat...']

However, we can use the negative forms 'not be able to' and 'couldn't' for both general ability and single events in the past:

When I was young I couldn't ski very well.

When I was young I wasn't able to ski very well.

One Christmas my brother couldn't beat me!

One Christmas my brother wasn't able to beat me!

I hope that helps to clarify it for you.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by iamsam1987 on Mon, 06/01/2014 - 21:44

Permalink

Dear Sir,

                 My name is Sumeet. I have come across the following patterns in which WOULD RATHER can be used. Are they grammatically correct, Sir?

Would  rather + simple past … (TO REFER TO THE PRESENT/ FUTURE)

Would rather + past perfect … (TO REFER TO THE PAST )

Regards and Thanks

Sumeet

Hi Sumeet,

Yes, those patterns are correct, though it's important to note that the subject of would rather and the subject of the second verb are different people, e.g.:

I would rather you didn't tell him my phone number.
I'd rather you hadn't told him my phone number.

Best wishes,

Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

 

Submitted by bimsara on Sat, 04/01/2014 - 01:06

Permalink

Hello,

 

'It may sound strange to you'. In this sentence there isn't a infinitive after the modal verb 'may'.I learned after a modal verb definitely there is a infinitive.But here I can't see verb.Can you explain this?

 

Thank you.

Submitted by Kirk on Sat, 04/01/2014 - 07:57

In reply to by bimsara

Permalink

Hi bimsara,

Modal verbs are followed by a bare infinitive, which lacks "to". In this sentence, "sound" is the verb (it can also be a noun) in its bare infinitive form.

Best wishes,

Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by iamsam1987 on Thu, 26/12/2013 - 05:19

Permalink

Greetings to all,

My name is Sumeet. I have got the following queries -

Q 1. Can I introduce “had better” in Passive Voice like other Modal verbs? If yes, then please give me examples of its affirmative, negative, interrogative and interro-negative like any other modal.

Q 2. What is “ is to/am to / are to ?

Thank you very much Sir. 

Hello iamsam1987,

The expression 'had better' is not a true modal verb, but like modal verbs it is followed by  the infinitive without 'to'.  To make a passive form we use a passive infinitive (without 'to'):

You had better do it. [active]

It had better be done. [passive]

To form questions we use inversion:

Had it better be done?

Hadn't it better be done?

To form negatives we add 'not' to the infinitive:

You had better not do it.

It had better not be done.

The phrase 'had rather' works in a similar way.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Greetings to all. I am very thankful to you Peter. Thanks for resolving my queries. 

Submitted by Livon4090 on Thu, 26/12/2013 - 04:50

Permalink

Dear Teachers,

Please check if I am correct in my guess about a sentence written below.

  1. Stay calm. Don't argue with an intoxicated guest. A fight could break out easily.

In the last sentence, writer used could as it is expressing a possibility.

Best wishes,

Livon

Hello Livon,

Yes, that is correct.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks Pete ,

Please keep up the good work.

Best wishes,

Livon

Submitted by Livon4090 on Tue, 17/12/2013 - 17:08

Permalink

Dear Teachers,

Firstly,could you please tell me the difference between possibility and probability.The bottom line is that I cannot figure out between the possibility and probability. How do you get a feel that its is a possibility or a probability ?

Would you please provide some lucid examples with explanations.

Best wishes,

Livon

Hi Livon,

Possibility and probability refer to how likely we think something is true. Imagine, for example, that you and I are in a park and we see a family wearing party hats and eating cake. We see the same situation and both speculate on the reasons for the party. Let's say that I'm convinced (see as probable) that the family is celebrating one of the children's birthday, whereas you aren't sure - you think it could possibly be a celebration of the parents' wedding anniversary.

In such a case, I could say, "They must be celebrating a birthday" (must indicates I am certain or view this as very probable). You could say, "Perhaps, but they might be celebrating a wedding anniversary" (might indicates that you think this is possible).

Does this help you?

Best wishes,

Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team