Modal verbs

Level: beginner

The modal verbs are: 



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



Average: 4 (379 votes)
Profile picture for user Ahmed Imam

Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Sat, 25/11/2023 - 15:09


Hello Team. Could you please help me? Does "had to" mean that the action happened or might not? For example, is the following sentence correct? Some teachers say that it is not correct while others say it is OK, what do you say?
- I had to call my friend but I forgot.
Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

It is possible to say this. Had to does not necessarily imply that the obligation/requirement was met. For example, it's fine to say this:

I had to get there by 8.00 to go to the meeting, but unfortunately the train was delayed.



The LearnEnglish Team

"Had to" as the positive and "didn't have to" as the negative form are in the past. And therefore what I gather from your sentence is = you were supposed to call your friend but you didn't (Now, it's too late).
Bye :)

I had to call my friend but i forgot
this sentence is fine. But when ever you talk about the past, you always need two actions and a time scale. Two actions is what you have but no time scale.
I had to call my friend(when?) yesterday or last week?
I had to call my friend yesterday but I completely forgot.
Giving the sentence a little more emphasis by using an adverb (completely).

This sentence is right.I see no problem with this.

"i had to call my friend" this sentence alone can not express whether you called your friend or not but it shows that you were in urgent need or situation.

but when you added "but i forgot" then you are assuring that you didn't call your friend.

Instead of but i forgot you could have also used ,"i had forgotten".

Submitted by helenaw on Fri, 10/11/2023 - 13:58


I was reading about this online recently and someone said that their dictionary from 1982 shows the verb "can" as an auxiliary intransitive verb, which was fully congugated and the past and conditional tenses were "could" and the conditional past was "could have". Please could you tell me when the fully conjugated verb became obsolete and was replaced with the two modal verbs "can" and "could" and also why this happened? Thank you for your help!

Hi helenaw,

It's an interesting question, but one that is outside what we do on this site, which is focused on learning English as a foreign/second/additional language. For what it's worth, I'm not sure we can say "can" has ever been fully conjugated in modern English, as to my knowledge it's never had a past participle. But users of sites such as Stack Exchange may be able to shed more light on this. I hope you can find answers there to your interesting question!


LearnEnglish team

Submitted by MRamos2022 on Mon, 04/09/2023 - 17:02


I have always wondered why WILL, SHALL and WOULD are considered modal verbs as they don't have meaning and they are closer to the auxiliaries DO; DOES; DID

Hi MRamos2022,

It's an interesting question. A modal verb, as defined by the Cambridge Dictionary, is "a verb used with another verb to express an idea such as possibility that is not expressed by the main verb". Willshall and would fit this description - they are all used with another verb and cannot be used alone, and they express some kind of meaning or attitude that modifies the main verb (broadly speaking, will and shall are about willingness or beliefs about the future, and would is about unreal and hypothetical actions). For example, I like coffee is different in meaning from I would like a coffee, and I don't agree is not the same as I wouldn't agree (using "would" makes it a hypothetical disagreement, thus less direct and possibly more polite).


LearnEnglish team

Submitted by Hosseinpour on Sun, 20/08/2023 - 15:34


Dear respected team,
Even superman wouldn't be able to defeat him.
What does "would" refer to? Does it refer to possibility or point of view of the speaker?
Thank you

Hi Hosseinpour,

"Would" indicates an unreal situation. It is unreal either because Superman is a fictional character and doesn't exist in the real world, or (if this sentence comes from a story in which Superman does exist) because in the speaker's view, Superman and the other person have not yet had a fight and are not really going to fight.


LearnEnglish team

Submitted by LearningInsight on Tue, 08/08/2023 - 05:56


This is very helpful! Thanks

Submitted by Ahmed Nidal on Thu, 15/06/2023 - 09:39


Hello, I have more questions about texts from the 19th century. The text is "Mrs Hutchinson" by Nathaniel Hawthorne. My first question is about the meaning of a question appears in the subjunctive mode in the text. The author writes, "Is the prize worth her [woman's] having if she win it [fame]?" I understand "if she win it" to mean "should she win it", which in turn means that the author has doubts about "her winning it". Therefore, is it correct to conclude that Hawthorne in using the subjunctive mode is expressing a disparaging view about a woman's potential. Isn't he saying "I don't think women can win it".
The other question is from the same document, but comes from the opening statement. "The character of this female suggests a train of thoughts which will form as natural an introduction to her story as most of the prefaces to Gay's Fables or the tales of Prior, besides that the general soundness of the moral may excuse any want to present applicability". I am not sure what the author means by the second half of this sentence (after "besides"). Does he mean "in addition to that the validity of the moral point we gather from Hutchinson's character allows for an introduction here"? I interpreted "want for" to mean "preference for", not as "lack of". I am not sure how "lack of" can work in this case.
I hope that my questions don't bore you.

Hello Ahmed,

I should start off by saying that I'm not familiar with this text or the context in which the sentences you ask about occur. So please know that my answers might well be different if I were.

Re: your first question, I think that 'should she win it' is a good gloss of 'if she win it'. You could also say 'if she wins it'. I'd have to have a closer look at the text (or be more familiar with 19th-century American literature than I am) to say for sure, but I don't think the subjunctive here indicates any extra meaning. In other words, from this sentence alone, I don't think one can conclude that Hawthorne has doubts about this woman's (or women's?) ability to win fame. I think he's simply saying that she/they might win it, or she/they might not. And really what he seems to be doing isn't so much doubting whether this woman/women can win it, but whether winning fame is something worth winning.

Re: your second question, I'm afraid I'd need to know more about what's Hawthorne's talking about (the woman, her story, her train of thoughts, the moral, etc.) to make any useful sense of this sentence. Perhaps you have a teacher you could ask about this?

All the best,
LearnEnglish team

Submitted by Ahmed Nidal on Thu, 16/02/2023 - 18:19


In reading 19th century prose, I have often come across a strange usage of "would". Take for instance the following sentence: "Even on a small scale, how often will it happen that the term best corresponding to a new world in the original will be one that in our language is already old and worn out, so that the translator, would he show the work's contribution to the development of the language, will be forced to introduce foreign content into the passage, deviating into the realm of imitation!" Am I right to think of "would he show" to mean "if he wants to show"? Also, under what subtopic in modals can I find more about this usage?

Hi Ahmed Nidal,

Yes, that's right. The meaning of "would" here is the desire to do something, and this meaning is rarely used today. The conditional meaning ("if") comes from the subject/modal inversion, rather than from "would".

It is meaning 2.8 on this Wiktionary page. I hope that helps.


LearnEnglish team

Submitted by Mordhvaj on Mon, 13/02/2023 - 17:24


Hello Sir,
"We may have to live with the coronavirus."
1. In this sentence 'have' is main verb or it is modal verb(have to)
2. Can we place two modal verbs (may & have to) together
3. Further, 'to' is attached to 'have'(have to) or it is attached to 'live'(to live)

Hello Mordhvaj,

The main verb in this sentence is 'live'.

'May' is a modal verb. 'Have to' is sometimes called a semi-modal verb in that it has some elements of modality but not others. The wikipedia page for modal verbs describes it thus:

...there are numerous other verbs that can be viewed as modal verbs insofar as they clearly express modality in the same way that the verbs in this list do, e.g. appear, have to, seem etc. In the strict sense, though, these other verbs do not qualify as modal verbs in English because they do not allow subject-auxiliary inversion, nor do they allow negation with not. Verbs such as be able to and be about to allow subject-auxiliary inversion and do not require do-support in negatives but these are rarely classified as modal verbs because they inflect and are a modal construction involving the verb to be which itself is not a modal verb. If, however, one defines modal verb entirely in terms of meaning contribution, then these other verbs would also be modals and so the list here would have to be greatly expanded.


It is possible to use a modal verb before 'have to', but it is not possible to use 'have to' before a modal verb. Thus, 'we may have to...' is fine, but *'we have to may...'* is incorrect.


We describe the form as have to + verb rather than have + to verb. The 'to' is still included when the verb is omitted:

We need to leave for the party.

Is it really important I go?

Yes, you have to. No complaining!



The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Sir,
I feel honoured to have my question answered by you. Point by point you have cleared each and every doubt of mine.
I have always been a big fan of your answers. It is almost a miracle to have one's answer 'succinct' and 'detailed' simultaneously; and you are a wizard who can do that miracle.

Hello Mordhvaj,

It's nice of you to say so. We're a small team here but we try our best!



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Howard Manzi on Sun, 29/01/2023 - 13:03


Hello, thanks for the grammar. I have a question in relation to adverbs of frequency, and modal verbs. These two sentences:
They could never divide us.
They never could divide us.
Which one is grammatically correct? Also are there some situations you could use the second one, and it would be correct? Thanks.

Hi Howard Manzi,

Thanks for your question :) They are both grammatically correct. The typical position is as in sentence 1, between the modal verb and the main verb. Sentence 2 is grammatical too, but the position of "never" seems to make it more emphatic than in sentence 1. Somebody may say this if they really want to emphasise "never".

"Never" can also be emphasised by putting it as the first word in the sentence (this also needs an inversion of subject and modal verb): Never could they divide us.

I hope that helps.


LearnEnglish team

Submitted by Jiwon LEE on Fri, 06/01/2023 - 13:03



"May" has PERMISSION meaning also "Might" has?

I found this following question on this web page.

->I know you're busy, but MIGHT I ask you a quick question?
(and right answer of meaning is PERMISSION)

I understood that "MIGHT" doesn't have PERMISSION meaning. So I am confused..

Thank you.

Hello Jiwon LEE,

As is explained on our 'may' and 'might' page, 'might' can be used to ask for permission in a very polite way.

This use is quite rare in ordinary speaking and many grammars don't even mention it. 'may' and 'can' are far more commonly used.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

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


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,
The LearnEnglish Team

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


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: 



The LearnEnglish Team

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


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,
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


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,
The LearnEnglish Team

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

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:



The LearnEnglish Team

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

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. 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,


The LearnEnglish Team

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

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!
Profile picture for user Kirk Moore

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Thu, 22/04/2021 - 09:22

In reply to by Nevı


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,


The LearnEnglish Team

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

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

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..!!
Profile picture for user Kirk Moore

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Fri, 12/02/2021 - 10:46

In reply to by HEMAM


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,


The LearnEnglish Team

Profile picture for user Ahmed Imam

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

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.