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 melvinthio on Sun, 16/10/2022 - 16:17

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Hi Jonathan,
I would like to ask for your help and hope you're available to answer me this time.

If someone gives me a present,
I might say :

(A) How could you have known it was my birthday today ?

[1] Does the use of "could have known" in this sentence express surprise about how he could know that today is my birthday ? Or
[2] Is it a conditional sentence with the implied if clause that is not mentioned ? For example :

(B) How could you have known....if my mother had not told you ?
(No surprise is conveyed here)

[3] If we can use this pattern to express surprise, can we say this sentence ?

(C) I don't know how the thief could have known the key code, but he did (= I'm surprised how he got to know the key code).

[4] To express surprise in examples (A) and (C), can we change "could have" to "can have" ?

I would really appreciate your explanation. Thank you.

Best regards,

Hello melvinthio,

(A) is grammatically correct, but in the situation you describe in [1], a more natural statement would be 'How did you know it was my birthday today?'. Both (A) and my suggestion could certainly express surprise, though they don't necessarily do so. Even if you thought the gift giver was giving you the present for a different reason, I still don't think they'd use a sentence with 'could have known' here.

Your analysis of (B) in [2] sounds correct to me, though I don't think the grammar tells us anything about surprise. It could express simple curiosity, though it certainly can also be used to express surprise.

Similar to (A), a more natural way of saying (C) is 'I don't know how the thief knew ...' (assuming we can see evidence of the thief knowing this), but (C) is also possible here. I'd understand it to express some degree of surprise, but I don't think it has anything to do with the grammar, but rather the situation.

I think the difference between the two situations is that in (A), we see the action with our own eyes -- we've seen the person giving the gift or somehow know it came from them. In contrast, in (C), we see the result of the thief's actions -- an open safe -- but haven't seen the thief open it. It also more possible for another person to discover our birthday than it is for a thief to open a safe (at least to my mind).

As for [4], no, 'could have' better expresses the idea of an unlikely possibility. Perhaps 'can have' would be possible in some unusual situations, but in most cases and certainly in the way I've imagined them now, it wouldn't work.

Hope this helps.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by ManishSharma on Thu, 30/06/2022 - 19:13

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Hii,
I am Manish. One of my teachers told me modal are ( be and Have ) Be has 3 forms BE =1. Is/am/ are
2. Was/ were
3. Been
You are a teacher.
I am a student.
You were a child 10 years ago.
I was a child too.

Have = possession
I have a car.= I have got a car.

Was he right?

Hello Manish,

Modal verbs are verbs like should, can, could, might, will etc.

'Be' and 'have' are not modal verbs. They are normal verbs but can also be used as auxiliary verbs to form questions and other forms.

 

Base form - be  ~  have

First form (present) - am/is/are  ~  have/has

Second form (past) - was/were  ~  had

Third form (past participle) - been  ~  had

 

For possession, have and have got are alternatives.

 

You can read more about the verb 'be' on this page:

https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/grammar/english-grammar-reference/the-verb-be 

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by mivu on Thu, 26/05/2022 - 11:51

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Hi everyone, is the following sentence correct?
I can English.

When can it be accepted?
Thank you so much!

Hello mivu,

No, I'm afraid 'I can English' is not correct in any context I can think of.

It's possible to say 'I can' or 'I can do' in a short answer, but the direct object of the verb is omitted in short answers.

Hope this helps.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hey there
Well, every modal verb will be followed by another verb, which is missing in that statement. It might be the verb "to speak".
I can SPEAK English.

Submitted by MRamos on Tue, 03/05/2022 - 15:01

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Hello. I have a question.
Why is WOULD considered a modal verb? As I understand, WOULD has no meaning as the other modals verbs. It has a function, which is to make the sentence conditional. And if it is considered, why the other auxiliaries are not? Thank you very much for your help.

Hello MRamos,

'would' actually has a number of uses beyond its use in second conditional structures -- for example, it can be used to make polite requests, or to talk about frequent past events. In older styles of English, it was also used to express desires, though this is almost never heard these days.

In general, modal verbs add different kinds of meaning to a statement -- for example, certainty, possibility or obligation. I'd suggest having a look at our Modal verbs page, where you can see more on this, and you might also find the Cambridge Dictionary Grammar's page on Modal verbs and modality useful.

Hope this helps.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Mussorie on Tue, 04/05/2021 - 07:30

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Please explain the difference between the two sentences and provide some details about the structure and meaning. 1.Do you mind me being here while you’re working? 2.Do you mind my being here while you’re working?

Hello Mussorie,

There is no difference in meaning here. In this and similar constructions you can use either the object pronoun or the possessive adjective with the -ing form. Both are in common use and are acceptable but I think the form with the object pronoun (me) is more informal and less likely to be used in formal contexts.

 

You can read a brief discussion of the topic here:

https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/515247/my-ing-possessive-form-ing-vs-me-ing-object-form-ing

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Mussorie on Mon, 03/05/2021 - 12:35

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Please explain the difference. 1.I phoned at six o'clock. I knew he would have got home by then. 2.I phoned at six o'clock. I knew he had got home by then. And one more question regarding the usage of "will have" in the context of looking back from the present. 1.it is 6:00 clock. The match will have started. Why don't we use would instead of will here? Because it seems like the activity of the match started in the past from the present, then it should be would, right. Please explain to me the details of the question.

Hello Mussorie,

In both 1 and 2, you are reporting that the thing you imagined has been confirmed, but the verb form in 1 suggests that someone else was doubting your supposition.

In the other sentence, 'will have started' is used because the time reference point is the present time (6:00). We use 'would' to speak about the future from the perspective of the past, but the time reference point here is present. The beginning of the match in the past is suggested, but not stated.

Hope this helps.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Nevı on Thu, 22/04/2021 - 08:46

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Hi team, I want to know one more thing. I am trying to learn 'reduced adjective clauses' and I am confused about one thing. Can I reduce the clause containing modal verbs(can, will, may, might, etc.) ? İf it is yes, is it a common? I want to give an example sentences can I say The man who can fix your roof is my friend. =The man fixing your roof is my friend. Thank you and best wishes!
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Submitted by Kirk on Thu, 22/04/2021 - 09:22

In reply to by Nevı

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Hello Nevı,

No, I'm afraid that doesn't work. Normally the verb forms in reduced relative clauses replace non-modal verbs, usually in the present continuous, present simple or past simple.

Best wishes,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

You've been really helpful.I really appreciate it.

Submitted by HEMAM on Thu, 11/02/2021 - 06:36

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Hello I have a couple question please..! what the deference between these sentences: The car wouldn't start this morning The car didn't start this morning & also what is the exactly meaning of the sentence Reddington wouldn't tell us who abducted him THANK YOU SO MUCH..!!
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Submitted by Kirk on Fri, 12/02/2021 - 10:46

In reply to by HEMAM

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Hello Hemam,

'would' (and 'wouldn't') can be used to express unwillingness, in other words, the idea that someone or something doesn't want to do something. So in the first sentence, the idea is that the car didn't want to start. Most people don't actually believe that a car has desires, but sometimes when we feel we are unlucky, we speak this way to show the feeling of being unlucky. Other than this, these two sentences mean the same thing.

The sentence about Reddington could mean that we think he would never tell us this in any circumstance (here 'would' refers to hypothetical situations) or, if it's speaking about the past, it could mean that Redding refused to tell us. Which meaning it has depends on the context.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Sat, 30/01/2021 - 11:09

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Hello. Which modal is correct to use in the following sentence? - He will help you if you ask him, but I am not sure. - He might help you if you ask him, but I am not sure. Thank you.

Hi Ahmed Imam,

Might is the correct option. Might means there is some uncertainty about whether he will help you or not, and we know that the speaker is uncertain since he/she says 'I am not sure'. 

Will doesn't fit here, because it means the speaker is certain.

Best wishes,

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Sat, 23/01/2021 - 17:18

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Hello. Which modal is correct and formal in the following sentence? 1- You have to phone him now. It’s very urgent. 2- You must phone him now. It’s very urgent. Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

Both sentences look fine to me and I don't see any difference in formality. Without any context there's no way to say which would be more suitable.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Nuro on Mon, 18/01/2021 - 19:34

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Hi teacher Peter, I have 2 questions about in this sentence. "Donations to charities can be offset against tax." 1)Could we add agent(like by sth.)?Could you give an example 2)Here,can we say directly "Donations to charities can offset against tax." If so,why we don't say in active voice obviously ?

Hi Nuro,

1) Yes, you could add a phrase with by to the sentence:

Donations to charities can be offset against tax by both private individuals and companies.

2) Active voice does not work here as the donations are the object of the verb offset. The person paying tax offsets the donations.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Sat, 16/01/2021 - 18:15

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Hello. Please, could you tell me which modal is suitable in the following sentence. Why? - Do you know if we have to have a visa to visit North Korea? - Do you know if we must have a visa to visit North Korea? Thanks for your great efforts.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

I think have to is the most likely choice here as the question is about an external rule rather than a self-imposed obligation.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Nuro on Mon, 04/01/2021 - 19:27

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Hi team I have questions, 1-"Tina gave me a shopping list so that I wouldn't forget anything." In this sentence, can we say " ...so that I didn't forget anything."? what's the difference 2 of them?

Hi Nuro,

Both forms are possible here. If you imagine what Tina said then both don't forget and won't forget are possible:

I'll give you a shopping list so you won't forget anything.

I'll give you a shopping list so you don't forget anything.

It may seem strange to use the present simple (don't forget) with future meaning here, especially when 'will' is used in the first clause, but there are certain contexts in which this is possible: in sentences like the one above and after the phrase 'in case', for example.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Nuro on Tue, 05/01/2021 - 09:45

In reply to by Peter M.

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Thanks teacher, I have been thinking this strange situation that you mentioned for 4 days. I mean why we use simple present or modals instead of will to future events?Can you explain more detail? I am soo confused:(

Hello again Nuro,

It's actually a common feature of English. Remember that English does not have a grammatical future tense, but rather uses different grammatical structures to express future time: present forms (simple and continuous), modal verbs (including 'will'), going to and even past forms (for hypothetical futures).

 

You can read more about expressing future time on this page:

https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/english-grammar-reference/talking-about-the-future

 

And you can read about verbs used in time clauses here:

https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/english-grammar-reference/verbs-in-time-clauses-and-if-clauses

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Sat, 02/01/2021 - 10:55

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Hello. Can we use "hasn't got to" instead of "doesn't have to" to express lack of necessity? Also, in questions, can we use "has she got to" instead of "Does she have to"? Is the following sentence correct? - She hasn't got to do all this work today because she can do it next morning. Thank you

Hi Ahmed Imam,

Yes! It is possible to use hasn't got to for this meaning, and your sentence is correct. But, hasn't got to is less commonly used than doesn't have to.

In questions, that's right - we can use Has she got to ... instead of Does she have to ... .

Best wishes,

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by meylin on Thu, 17/12/2020 - 14:41

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Hello! I have a question, what happens with : make ( obligation) and must or musn't ( obligation) are the same? thanks!

Hello meylin,

They're similar but a bit different. You can read a bit more about 'must' and 'mustn't' in the Obligations section of our Suggestions and obligations page, but basically they express the idea that it is necessary to do something ('must', e.g. 'You must wear a mask on the bus') or that it is necessary not to do something ('mustn't', e.g. 'You mustn't be late'). Notice that it's not clear whether we actually do the action that is considered necessary (or not necessary) -- the rule is that we wear a mask on the bus, but maybe we don't actually do that.

A sentence with causative 'make' is similar in that it expresses obligation, but it also shows that the action was performed. For example, 'I must do my homework' means I need to do my homework, but it doesn't mean that I did it. But 'My father makes me do my homework' clearly shows that I do my homework.

Does that help?

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Mosikvd on Wed, 09/12/2020 - 13:50

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Hello I have a question. "Luke could/was able to read when he was only three years old" Which one of them is true? Thanks for helping
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Submitted by Peter M. on Thu, 10/12/2020 - 07:51

In reply to by Mosikvd

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Hello Mosikvd,

Both forms are possible here and there is no difference in meaning in this context.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Noor Muhammad on Tue, 01/12/2020 - 05:16

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What are the "have to,has to,had to,ought to,be able to ,need,needn't, dare etc are called in grammar? Are they semi-modals?

Hello Noor Muhammad,

The principal modal auxiliary verbs in English are can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will and would. They are sometimes called full modals as they have all of the characteristics of modal verbs in terms of meaning (expressing modality) and form (they have no inflection, no infinitive form, no participle form, are negated by the addition of 'not' and form questions by inversion rather than with another auxiliary verb).

The verbs you mention, plus others such as had better, are characterised by having some of the elements of full modal but not all of them. Thus, they may express modality but have inflections in the third person present simple, for example (you need > he needs). These are sometimes called semi-modals, quasi-modals or pseudo-modals.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Timmy Ferrer on Thu, 05/11/2020 - 09:30

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Hello! I'd like to seek explanation on the following examples from a book. These pertain to school rules: A. Students MAY bring drinks to school, but we CAN'T drink them during classes. Students CAN'T come to school by motorcycle. We MUSTN'T use mobile phones during classes. We CAN work part-time. We CAN'T get a driver's license. We CAN have lunch at the school yard. B. Students MUST wear their uniform correctly everyday at school. We MUST wear our indoor shoes. QUESTIONS: For the (A) sentences: Is MAY interchangeable with CAN, vice versa? Are CAN'T, MAY NOT, and MUSTN'T also interchangeable? If they are, how can we know which modal verb to use, especially in sentences like these? Does it matter if we use one instead of the other? What implications do they have? For (B): What should be our basis for using whether "MUST" or "HAVE TO"? Hoping to hear your feedback. Thank you so much in advance!

Hello Timmy Ferrer,

I believe that all of your questions about the (A) sentences are answered on the Permission and Suggestions and obligations pages in this section. Please have a look there and if anything is still not clear after that, you are welcome to ask us again.

'you have to do something' means it is necessary to do it or that you are obliged to do it. 'you must do something' has a similar meaning, but it used more often in written rules and instructions (particularly in British English -- this use is less frequent in American English) and is also used to express your opinion about an action. For example, if we are speaking about a new film and I tell you 'You must see it', this doesn't mean you are obliged to see it -- it's a way that I can express my opinion -- in this case in the form of a strong recommendation.

So in the (B) sentences, both 'must' and 'have to' are possible. 'must' would be particularly common in writing, especially in British English, and 'have to' works as well and has the same meaning.

Hope this helps you make sense of it.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Wed, 04/11/2020 - 05:04

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Hello. Is the following sentence OK? - It is necessary not to play in the street. Does it mean : You must not play in the street. Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

In general, yes, it means that. It's slightly awkward to say 'It is necessary not' to do something, though, because it means you should do something, but that something is not doing something.

I'd suggest using your sentence with 'must' or 'You are not allowed to play in the street' instead.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Thu, 29/10/2020 - 09:22

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Hello. Could you please help me? Are two modals OK? - By the ages of five, I (could - couldn't) swim 100 metres. Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

Only could is possible here. The phrase by the age of suggests a change and an achievement; not being able to swim is simply a continuation and certainly not an achievement.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by fdrewaserera on Thu, 01/10/2020 - 03:13

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Hi How can i use gerund form and to infinitive with go I found out in cambridge dictionary that go is used with ing when we speak about general activities that involve movement And If the activities have a clear beginning and end, then go + to-infinitive is used I also found out on another dictionary that go gurend used with activities and we donnot use go to inf with activities In another dictionary we use go to inf to move ot travel place for a particular purpose and they suggest we use shopping or fishing or dancing with go But why we do use shopping with go ?and not say go to shop or go to dance ot go to watch or go watching can you explain As for me, they are the same, and I do not understand what these dictionaries mean. How do I know to differentiate between them and use them in a correct way