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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




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,



The LearnEnglish Team

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

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,

The LearnEnglish Team


'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.

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,

The LearnEnglish Team

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,



The LearnEnglish Team

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

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,

Hello Livon,

Yes, that is correct.

Best wishes,



The LearnEnglish Team