Modal verbs

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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Hello Elena,

We do not comment on what other sites may say, but I will say that it is certainly not the case that 'must' is not used in spoken English. It is certainly less common than 'have to' and does, as you say, contain some suggestion of superiority or personal authority. However, I would not overemphasise this. The context and the tone of voice used are key elements, and not just the particular verb form used.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Peter, Thanks a lot for your answer! So you'll hear 'You can't park here' from the policeman and 'You have to take it' from the doctor much more often than 'You must not park here' and 'You must take it'. Did I get that right? I also quite often see 'have to' in such sentences as 'You don't have to drink all the juice' or 'Do you have to crank your player that loud?' (both like indirect prohibition) I've been thinking why 'should' is not used in these cases. Is there any subtle difference between 'have to' and 'should' in such sentences, or none? Thanks in advance, Elena

Hello Elena,

I would agree that 'must' is less likely in those sentences, with the caveat that doctors use the form 'really must' as a way of emphasising the advice they are giving:

You really must cut down on the amount of fatty food you eat.

The use of 'have to' in your other examples is quite a common one. The basic meaning is 'necessary' but the context is important here. For example, the second example has a sarcastic tone - the speaker clearly knows that it is not necessary and is emphasising in that way that it is too loud. The first sentence may also, depending on the context, have an ironic sense, suggesting that the person is drinking so much juice out of some obligation, and not because it is normal behaviour. Again, context is crucial.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

 

Hello again Peter, Thanks a lot for your explanation. It really made this use of 'must' clear for me. As for 'have to', I see the second example implies critism and irritation, but I'm still kind of confused about the first one... Well, I got an impression they frequently use 'don't have to' like indirect prohibition... e.g. Situation 1 A family and a few guests are having lunch. One of the children has already drunk a full glass of orange juice, here comes another helping, more and more. Then their parent or sibling says 'X, you don't have to drink all the juice'. It's like 'You must stop right now, or you are going to drink the whole jug. The juice wasn't meant only for you but for everybody' though less direct and somewhat more polite, or am I wrong? Situation 2 The wife is very impulsive and very easily to start fighting with. The husband witnessed her recent quarrel with their neighbour. He feels embarrassed because of that and goes 'Dear, you don't have to be so emotional all the time. Let's take it down a notch'. Again, the husband asks his wife not to lose her fiery temper in no time, but it's more of an obvious hint 'You behaviour is getting more and more embarassing. I don't want you to act that way'. On the other hand, there is no possible pressure or tension like in the phrase 'You must not do it again' But what if 'have to' is changed for 'should' in both situations? 1) 'X, you shouldn't drink all the juice' 2) 'Dear, you shouldn't be so emotional all the time. Let's take it down a notch' I'm wondering if it will make any difference (any subtle shade of meaning or something)? Thanks again for your help! Sincerely, Elena

Hello Elena,

In the first situation, I'd say it's more of a way of using irony. The child appears to want to drink all the juice (or at least too much) and so suggesting that the child were actually being obligated to drink all the juice makes the statement ironic. As Peter insists, it really depends on the context, but in the situation you describe, that's how I'd understand the sentence.

In the second situation, the use of 'don't have to' sounds to me simply like 'it's not necessary to'. It's an indirect way of asking her not to get so upset. As you suggest, it's not as forceful as using 'must not', which strikes me as a wise choice in such a situation!

You could use 'shouldn't' in both situations and it would communicate more or less the same idea, though with a different kind of force.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par KimToi le mer 02/11/2016 - 06:14

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Dear Sir Please help me to distinguish the difference in use of these words: vary, alter, transform, exchange. Thank you

Hello KimToi,

I'd suggest you look up all those words in a dictionary, or perhaps even two dictionaries. Both Cambridge and Oxford have excellent free online dictionaries. Be sure to read all the entries, and pay special attention to the example sentences.

After that, if you have a specific question, then you're welcome to ask us here. Please just make it as specific as possible and explain what you understand (or don't understand) as much as possible.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Intanimakulata le mar 01/11/2016 - 04:46

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Hello, I and my friends have trouble in pointing out the modal to fill in this sentence: Anyone ....... make a mistake whether to use can or could. the answer key show that the sentence uses could, but no explanaition. can you please give me the explanation about this case?

Hello Intanimakulata,

Both can and could are possible in this sentence; which is correct will depend upon the context.

Is this a question from LearnEnglish? If so then please let us know which page it is from and we will check it. If not, then you will need to contact the author of the task for an explanation. We do not comment on tasks and exercises from elsewhere as we cannot be sure of the intention or qualifications of the author.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you for replying and I think I agree with you that there must be context to limit the meaning of the setntence. This is not question from LearnEnglish, actually it is from our English module. I will contact the author of the task for more explanation.

Soumis par Marilia le ven 16/09/2016 - 11:37

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Hi! I read the following answer in the ECPE exam and i have a question! -Why did he take the day off work? He needed it...............take his mother to the hospital.- The correct answer is 'so could he'. Please, could you please explain the meaning of that? Is tha really correct? It's the key's answer!

Hello Marilia,

I'm afraid we don't give feedback on exams. In 'so he could take', 'so' is a conjunction that introduces a clause that explains something, i.e. the reason he took a day off work.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par pyramid le mer 27/07/2016 - 08:31

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dear sir/madam, for past discontinued habit we use USED TO/WOULD for making negative we can use NOT eg. i used to have i used not to have is it possible for us to use DID NOT eg i used to have i did not use to have my opinion is we should not use DID because it is not regular simple past and the verb useD is not ordinary verb when we use for past discontinued habit. please help

Soumis par faiza zaka le sam 16/07/2016 - 08:26

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what, when we change modal verbs containing sentences into negative or interrogative, for example, You must say hello. how to change it in interrogative, or you might find the book . like sentences
you must say hello..............positive you must not say hello........negative must you say hello................positive yes/no question must you not say hello.........negative yes no question why must you say hello .....+ wh question why must you not say hello .........negative question

Soumis par Joann le lun 20/06/2016 - 13:50

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Hey, is there someboby who could help me with this task? . Choose the appropriate form of the Subjunctive Mood: 1. If only they __ happy when they were married! a) would have been b) were c) had been d) should have been 2. Everyone __ his films better unless he __ that actor so often. a) would like, invited b) should like, didn’t invite c) would like, didn’t invite d) liked, would invite 3. I __ that contract if there __ any information about his going bankrupt. a) shouldn’t have signed, was b) wouldn’t have signed, had been c) hadn’t signed, would have been d) had signed, wouldn’t have been 4. Reread this phrase lest(щоб не) you __ the same mistake again. a) shouldn’t make b) didn’t make c)made d) should make 5. When he entered, everyone in the room looked up as if they __ a ghost. a) were seen b) would have seen c) had seen d) should have seen 6. It is recommended that you __ your tutor about your progress. a) inform b) informed c) would inform d) were informed 7. I wish you __ so much curiosity. It wasn’t proper. a) wouldn’t have shown b) hadn’t shown c) didn’t show d) weren’t shown 8. It’s high time the problem __ . a) were dealt with b) dealt with c) would deal with d) would be dealt with 9. I propose that he __ one more chance. a) were given b) should be given c) would be given d) had been given 10. Except for his help we __ still __ on this problem. a) would __ be working b) should be __ working c) were __ working d) had __ been working

Hello Joann,

I'm afraid we don't provide help with homework or similar tasks. We're happy to try to clarify particular points as best as we can or to explain things from our own pages, but we can't help with these kinds of tasks.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Nu barcelona le jeu 02/06/2016 - 17:53

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I have a question . when I say ''His smoking so often makes me feel angry about him'' can we think that it is a compound modal nominal predicate, I somehow feel that ''makes'' has a modal meaning in the sentence. but still I have some doubts.

Hello Nu barcelona,

I'm afraid this goes beyond the focus of this site. Our focus here is on learning English and helping our users to learn English, not on linguistics and this kind of linguistic analysis. For this kind of question you need a linguistics site.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par VIcKtoRas le jeu 26/05/2016 - 19:02

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hey, i want to ask:Only these 8 are modal verbs? WHAt about must?

Hello VIcKtoRas,

Thanks very much for pointing this out to us! You are of course correct – 'must' is a modal verb. Although it's not listed at the top of this page, it is mentioned further down the page under Obligation and necessity. You can also find more about 'must' on our Modals 1 page.

We'll get this fixed soon. Thanks again for alerting us to it!

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par aris le mer 18/05/2016 - 11:13

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Dea Mr. Kirk hello again and one more question 1-why is this sentence correct? i think what needs to be done is increase(why not is to increase) can we also use is to increase/increasing 2- what should be done is increase(after modal verb should, here we have be and done, so I think they need to be in base form not increase)

Hello again aris,

You can say either 'to increase' or 'increase' in sentence 1. 'what needs to be done' is a relative clause that is the subject of the verb 'is' and then you can use either a base form or an infinitive with 'to' in the complement. By the way, sentences that use a relative clause in this way are called 'cleft sentences'. I don't think we have a page on these on our site, but I'm sure you can find more about them on the internet.

Sentence 2 has essentially the same structure as sentence 1. It uses, of course 'should' instead of 'needs', and so since 'should' is a modal verb, a base form follows it. 'be' is the base form of the passive infinitive 'be done'. 'what should be done', like in sentence 1, is the subject, 'is' is the verb and 'increase' (or you could say 'to increase') is the complement.

I hope this clears it up for you.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par aris le mer 18/05/2016 - 11:08

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dear Mr. Kirk hello and thank you very much for your help sir.

Soumis par aris le lun 16/05/2016 - 16:44

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Dear Sir Hello, and thank you for answering our questions. I have come across this: I think what should be done is increase services I know after a modal we use base forms. but here we have need after the modal. is this also correct if we use I think what needs to be done is increase services. one more question can we use both to+verb/verbing in sentences abov thank you very much again

Hello aris,

I'm afraid I'm not entirely sure I understand your question. I don't see, for example, the word 'need' in the first sentence you ask about – rather there is the verb 'be' (in base form) after the modal verb 'should'. 'need' is not a modal verb, but 'I think what needs to be done is increase services' is correct, so good work there! 

By the way, when you ask about words or sentences in English, I'd recommend using inverted commas to show what words you're asking about. For example, the first sentence you write about is 'I think what should be done is increase services'. By using the inverted commas (' '), it's easier to understand your question.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Ellie Nguyen le dim 15/05/2016 - 11:20

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Hi teachers,thanks for your useful lessons. I'm having a homework about exception cases of Can/Could (be able to) are written or used in some special contexts. I tried to search many times at Google but I couldn't find. Could you guide me the way to find them?

Hi Ellie Nguyen,

LIke most modal verbs, 'can' and 'could' have many meanings. They are used, for example, to express ability, permission, probability, possibility and more. In this section (on modal verbs) we organise the information both according to its use (so you can see pages on the above concepts) and its form (so you can see a page on can and could here and here, for example). You can also find more information on modals here.

I hope those pages are helpful.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par rosario70 le mar 29/03/2016 - 11:07

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hi teachers, i have a question for you! i noticed this expression lately:overhead locker space is limited on busy flights your cabin bag may have to go on hands. i was wondering which of this sentence is right 1)the weather is going be bad next week the race may have to bring forward to this one or in this another way ..2)the weather is going be bad next week the race may have to be brought forward to this one. thank you early.

Hello rosario,

Did you have a question regarding the first sentence? That is a standard phrase in air travel, though I've usually heard it end a bit differently, e.g. '... your cabin bag may have to go under the seat in front of you'. Regarding the other two sentences, only 2 is correct – the past participle 'brought' is needed to form the passive infinitive 'to be brought forward'.

By the way, people usually say 'Thank you in advance' instead of 'thank you early'.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Bighug le lun 18/01/2016 - 10:18

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Hi, I was wondering about the complete list of modal words. It appears as this isn't complete. ------ suggests that the modal verbs are "can, could, may, might, must, ought to, shall, should, will, would". Is that correct and is that the complete list?

Hello Bighug,

'ought to' is generally considered a semi-modal verb and that's why it's not in the list on our page. English teachers often present 'ought to' with modal verbs, however, because it's very similar. In the end, whether it is a modal verb or not isn't important for most purposes, but if you're interested in the topic I'd suggest you consult the wikipedia entry on English modal verbs.

By the way, the link you wrote was deleted because we don't generally publish links to other sites. This is simply because we don't have the time to investigate what people link to; you don't need to worry, I just wanted to explain why the link was missing.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par surendra kumar le jeu 24/12/2015 - 13:59

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Hello Sir,for requests which modal verb is used for more politeness -will or would or could?

Hello surendra kumar,

In general, 'would' and 'could' are more polite than 'will', but please read our pages on these modal verbs for more information.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par surendra kumar le jeu 24/12/2015 - 02:04

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If we are to fill in the blank correct modal verb for asking permission and we are not sure about the situation being formal or informal,which one is better to be used-can or may? Please explain,Sir.

Hello surendra kumar,

'can' is appropriate in a wider variety of contexts, so I'd recommend using 'can' over 'may', but that really depends on who's correcting the gaps. In many social situations (i.e. outside of class), though, sometimes it's better to be too formal than it is to be too informal, so 'may' might be more appropriate then. It really depends on the context and the on the relationship between the speakers.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par aneeshtk le ven 11/12/2015 - 05:03

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I would like to know more about "Auxiliary Verbs" please.

Hello aneeshtk,

Auxiliary verbs are also called 'helping verbs'. They are used only with another verb (the main verb) in order to make various tense, aspects, voices, or to make questions and negatives, or to add modality - modal verbs are auxiliary verbs too, and are followed by a main verb.

You can learn a little more about how the English verb phrase is constructed here.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par QuestionsForSchool le mar 01/12/2015 - 13:04

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Can anybody help me with a question I have for modal verbs? we were given the example, 'I'll kill you'. I wrote that this was the simple future tense but was marked down and told it was wrong as will is a modal verb. I just don't get it! any explanations welcome! thanks in advance

Hello QuestionsForSchool,

There is no 'simple future' tense in English. English has two tenses (past and present), two aspects (continuous and perfective), plus active and passive voice.

To talk about the future, English uses a range of devices including modal verbs ('will' is one example, but 'may', 'might', 'should', 'can' and so on all can have future meanings), the present simple, the present continuous, past forms (in hypothetical statements) and more.

For more information about talking about the future please take a look at this page.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Elka0507 le sam 28/11/2015 - 16:08

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Hello the LearnEnglish Team, I read that nowadays ‘may’ is almost exclusively used in situations ‘a child – a parent’, ‘a pupil – a teacher’, ‘an employee – a manager’, i. e. when one of the interlocutors has got higher social status than the other. I also came across the statement the answer “Yes, you may / No, you may not” sounds extremely bossy. Is it true? Can ‘may’ be heard in modern BrE when peers are talking? Is it often used in business negotiations? Thans in advance, Elena

Hello Elena,

You can certainly hear 'may' used in this way in modern British English, though 'can' is used much more commonly. It's difficult to predict how other people would react if you used 'may' to give or deny permission, but some people certainly could interpret your use of it as you thinking that you are in a hierarchically superior position to them (e.g. a strict teacher speaking to a student who is misbehaving). Depending on what the situation is in a business context, you might or might not want to communicate this hierarchy, but in the vast majority of contexts, I'd say using 'can' instead of 'may' is probably best.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par aichoucha adkefi le ven 13/11/2015 - 15:44

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Thanks a lot Mr Kirk. I really appreciate your explanation . thanks again

Soumis par aichoucha adkefi le mar 10/11/2015 - 10:56

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I would like to understant this sentence please help me - It is vital that she be warned before it is too late--- is it possible to put "be warned"???....it is really confusing . PLEASE help me.THANKS

Hello aichoucha adkefi,

Yes, that is correct. It is a subjunctive form, which is used after phrases such as 'it is vital that ...' Another example is 'It is vital that she go home immediately.' Normally, she would take the form 'goes', but here the subjunctive form is used. In this case, the subjunctive = the bare infinitive of the verb.

I hope this helps clarify it a bit for you.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Lamastry le dim 11/10/2015 - 08:21

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Hello may I know which tense comes after a modal verb past or present