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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 SonuKumar,

If we say no-one could break it then we could be speaking generally (it was not possible) or specifically (people tried and failed).

If we say no-one was able to break it then we are speaking specifically (people tried and failed). To use able to with a general meaning we would need to say no-one would be able to break it.


If you say no-one could have broken it then the possibility of breaking it must be in the past and not in the present. For example, the rope may no longer exist, or it may now be not accessible. The meaning of your last sentence is similar. The speaker is speculating about a past situation, not one which is still current.



The LearnEnglish Team

Sir, Peter,

The rope was so strong that no-one could have broken it.

Does this sentence mean that no-one could or was able to break it or does it speculate that probably no-one may have broken it ?

And what do these two sentences below mean ?

'I think no-one could have done it.'
'I don't think anyone could have saved you'

Does the speaker mean that no-one was able to or could do it or does the speaker mean that no-one may have done it ?

Likewise in the second sentence,
Does the speaker mean that no-one was able to or could save you or do they speculate that no-one may have done it ?

Hello SonuKumar,

The sentence

The rope was so strong that no-one could have broken it

describes a hypothetical situation in the past and has an implied if-clause:

The rope was so strong that no-one could have broken it (even if they had tried)


The act of breaking is in the (hypothetical) past. If you wanted to talk about the present or future then you would use a different form:

The rope was so strong that no-one could break it (even if they tried)

Note that the first verb (was) does not change as, presumably, the sentence comes from a narrative.


Both of the other sentences describe ability (no-one was able to / anyone was able to).



The LearnEnglish Team

Hello. First, I really appreciate your help. I have benefited so much from all the replies and answers of the members of your team.
Now, Which modal is correct or both? Why?
Without my glasses I can’t see what that is on the wall, but it (can - could) be a spider.
Thank you.

Could any one help me on how to ask past action questions by using "could"(Positive and negative) ?

Hello Chittineni,

We form questions with 'could' through inversion of 'could' and the subject. For example:

He couldn't sleep last night  > Couldn't he sleep last night?

She could swim well when she was a student > Could she swim well when she was a student?



The LearnEnglish Team

Hello.I would like to ask if it is wise to learn by heart all the modal verbs.
Thank you.

Hello Mina Mantzorou

We use many modal verbs quite often, so I would say that it's important to recognise them and know their main uses and meanings. It's probably better to concentrate on just a few modals at a time, as each one has different meanings and uses and it can take time to learn to really use them.

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

Hello!1) i would have been late if mr Neal did not drive, 2) i am happy that you would come if i would let you cook dinner . are these sentence correct?
i think they might also make the same sense witten in the following way:

1) i wuold have been late if Mr Neal had not driven; 2) i am happy that you would come if i let you cook dinner.


Hello rosario70,

The first sentence is rather odd. If you use did not drive then you are taking about Mr. Neal's general ability (that he knows how to drive) rather than what he did in a particular case. Therefore had not driven (talking about what Mr. Neal did on one particular journey) makes more sense.

In the second sentence you should use if I let rather than if I would let. We very rarely use would or will in the if-clause of conditonal sentences.



The LearnEnglish Team