The modal verbs are can, could, may, might, mustshall, 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 tomorrow?
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 you please help me?
What is the difference between "didn't have to do" and "needn't have done"?
We didn’t have to run to the museum because it was already closed when we got there.
We needn’t have run to the museum because it was already closed when we got there.
Thank you. I appreciate your helping me.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

When we use needn't have it means we did something and it was not necessary.

When we use didn't need to it is not clear if we did something or not.

 

For example:

I didn't need to go to work. [we don't know if I went to work or not]

I needn't have gone to work. [I went to work and it was not necessary]

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Do we use 'shall' instead of 'should'? For instance we talk about the result of drizzling that it causes mess on streets. We know that streets are in bad condition so there is a mess on the streets due to their bad condition itself, not because of the drizzling. So can we say: Therefore, drizzling shall not be called a distress. Our streets shall be called a distress.

Hello Zeeshan Siddiqii

I would recommend saying 'we shouldn't call our streets a mess' or something similar here. 'should' works better because you are describing the best thing to talk about the streets in this situation. Note that 'distress' isn't really appropriate in this context in standard British English -- I think 'mess', the word you used earlier, works better here.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

I'm really confused and I need your help with these modals.
You ……… have the car inspected next week. The registration expires soon.
(must - have to - need to)
Are all correct in this context?
Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

All three options are grammatically correct.

I think the third option (need to) is the best, but the second (have to) is also possible. The first option (must) does not seem a natural choice in any normal context.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

sorry, I don't understand the point related to "must". Is "must" correct here or not.
Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

In the context you provided, we would not use must.

Please note that we generally do not comment on questions from other sources. We're happy to answer questions about our own material or about the language generally, but we don't check exercises or questions from textbooks or similar sources.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

I'm sorry for disturbing you but I just try to improve my English. I am a teacher of English in Egypt and I sometimes face some exercises in our outside books which really confuse me. You are a reliable and trusted source so I hope you still receive my notes. Thank you so much.

Hello,
I am struggling to understand the use of modal verbs in the following situation. The situation is I am having a chat with someone about a friend's mother who was to arrive to the city I live in last week. Here are the three ways that I thought this could be conveyed but i would really appreciate your guidance.
1) She must have arrived now 2) She will have arrived now 3) She should have arrived now.
In the situation that I have provided, which of the above three sentences is most appropriate to use and if all three can be used then what is the difference among them?
Thank you so much.

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