Modal verbs

Learn about modal verbs and their different meanings and do the exercises to practise using them.

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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Thank you so much for your reply. How about these examples? 1. You mustn't wear casual clothes at work. 2. You can't wear casual clothes at work. 3. You don't have to wear casual clothes at work. Thank you, once again, in advance!

Hello again Timmy,

It's important to distinguish between the grammatical negative, which is simply the addition of 'not' to the modal verb, and expression of the opposite meaning, which may be expressed by grammatical negation or may require a different modal verb. My answers below describe the most likely options for expressing the opposite meaning.

1. The opposite of mustn't wear (negative obligation) could be must wear (positive obligation) or don't have to wear (lack of obligation).

2. The opposite of can't wear (no permission or no ability) could be may wear (permission) or can wear (permission or ability).

3. See my answer to 1 above. You could also use have to wear here with a similar meaning to must wear.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Sunyoung1005 on Thu, 03/09/2020 - 18:03

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Candidates may not bring calculators into the examination room. - How is it different from "must not" or "shall not"? And is there any difference between might, may, could when it comes to present/future possibility?

Hello Sunyoung1005,

You can express prohibition in various ways in English: may not, can not, are not allowed to, shall not, should not, must not can all express prohibition. There may be preferences of style or preferences dependent on particular contexts, but all are possible.

 

Could, might and may are all used to express present/future possibility and I don't think there are any distinctions between them.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by LilyLinSZ on Fri, 21/08/2020 - 04:08

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Hello! I have 3 questions: Question 1) To make the statement “I’m no angel” true, it is neither not necessary nor sufficient that I should not be a member of the set of angels. ---- Why is the meaning of "should" here? Question 2) If it rained last night the match will have been cancelled. ---- How is it different from "must"? Question 3) According to a grammar book, to make confident predictions about the present based on our knowledge or experience, we use will/won’t: It is five o’clock. Janet will be in Paris now (the speaker believes it is true). ---- My question is whether I could we use “must” instead? Is there any difference in meaning?

Hello LilyLinSZ,

1) This use of should is a variant on the present subjunctive, used for expressing things that we wish for, assume or imagine. You can read more about the subjunctive in English here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_subjunctive

 

2) In this sentence, will expresses a firm belief or certain knowledge; must expresses a strong expectation based on existing knowledge, deduction or experience. Will expresses certainty on the part of the speaker; must expresses strong expectation, but is still speculative.

 

3) The explanation here is the same as for the second question. Both will and must are possible, with the differences in meaning noted above. You could also use might, may, could and should). If you change by now to yet then the negative forms of the modals are also possible.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by hyunjoo76 on Wed, 19/08/2020 - 11:34

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Hi Teacher, I hope you are doing great! Your secretary told me that you would be coming over. Otherwise I should have felt compelled to call you at home - Why is "should have felt..." used instead of "would have felt..." I reluctantly agreed to a postponement on condition that the sale should be completed and the boat handed over by 31st August. Is the use of 'should' here considered a past tense form of "shall"?

Hi hyunjoo76,

In the first example, using should sounds more formal or official in style than would

For the second example, yes! Should here has the meaning of shall in the past tense. It's another example of should to make a statement sound official.

Does that make sense?

Best wishes,

Jonathan 

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by cms10 on Mon, 17/08/2020 - 05:56

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Hello English Team, "I thought the eclipse was today, but it must be happening tomorrow." Could I say 'will be happening' instead? Thanks.

Hi cms10,

Yes, you could use will be happening in this sentence. But, the meaning is a bit different.

  • In the original, it must be happening is a deduction (i.e. it's a conclusion that you have made, based on some evidence or information). See this modals of deduction page for more information.
  • If you say it will be happening, it's simply stating a fact (i.e. it doesn't contain the meaning that you've drawn this conclusion from some evidence).

Does that make sense?

Best wishes,

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Sat, 01/08/2020 - 20:52

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Hello. Can you help me to choose the correct answer? I think that all of them are correct, right? - (Were he - Had he - Did he have) to stay up late, he would have tomorrow off. Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

Both Were to and Had he are possible answers and both refer to hypothetical futures. Did he have is not possible as it would be only used in a question.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by patph0510 on Wed, 29/07/2020 - 18:25

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Hi teacher, What is the function of "should" in the following sentence? "We only married in order that the child should be legitimate." Thank you.

Hi patph0510,

The phrase '...in order that the child shoud be...' means the same as '...so that the child would be...'

This use of should is very formal and rather archaic. It is highly unusual in modern English.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by nitishpandey9814 on Wed, 08/07/2020 - 13:51

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Hi team, I am very confused about the use of 'Could'. I was watching one of learning videos and I saw the use of below statement : Could you say that again, please? Here in above statement , why we used 'Could'. We can say like : Can you say that again , please?
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Submitted by Kirk on Wed, 08/07/2020 - 14:45

In reply to by nitishpandey9814

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Hello nitishpandey9814,

Both 'can' and 'could' are often used to make requests, ask permission and for many other reasons. 'could' is generally a bit more polite than 'can' but otherwise means exactly the same thing here.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Peter M. on Thu, 09/07/2020 - 07:30

In reply to by nitishpandey9814

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Hello nitishpandey9814,

Yes, that's fine. Both are polite, but perhaps could is a little more polite. That said, how polite the setnence is really depends more on how you say it.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Sat, 16/05/2020 - 21:57

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Hello. Could you please help me? Some English teacher are for "have to" but others are for "must". What do you thin? - You (must - have to) get a licence if you want to drive a car. Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

Both forms are possible here. It entirely depends on how the speaker sees the situation: more as a legal requirement or more as something a person should (morally, sensibly) choose to do.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by rosario70 on Wed, 13/05/2020 - 21:36

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Good evening Teachers, i have a couple of questions for you: 1) if i were to go on Holiday i would visit colorado spring next summer; if i was gonna go on Holiday i would visit colorado spring next summer I think they have different meanings , don't they? 2) i was never gonna do that ; i should never have done that. here i guess they have the same meaning instead. thanks in advance.

Hello rosario70

The first two sentences you ask about mean pretty much the same thing, though the second one is very informal and the second is slightly more formal. 

There is a difference between the second pair of sentences you ask about. The first one doesn't make it clear whether you did the action or not -- it expresses the idea that you didn't have the intention of doing something, but doesn't state whether you actually did it or not. The second one makes it clear that you did carry out the action and that you regret it.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello! 1. 'gonna' is not formal written English. When you hear this word, people are shortening 'going to'. So you could use your first example, which is correct, OR, change your second example to: if I was going to go... 2. The same applies - i was never going to do that... I hope this helps Paul

Submitted by Pana Elena on Sat, 09/05/2020 - 18:08

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Hi. I would like to ask if there can be a modal verb and "was" in the same sentence.

Hello Pana Elena,

Yes, you can. You could have them in separate clauses, for example. However, that does not mean that the examples you are thinking about are correct. Perhaps you could tell us the example(s) you have in mind, and we'll better understand what you are really asking about.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by mlherrera on Tue, 24/03/2020 - 05:23

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Hi! I'm Maria, I would like to know why "ought to" isn't listed, and what is the difference between "should" and "ought to? Thank you!

Hello mlherrera

Most grammars consider 'ought to' a 'semi-modal', that is, a verb that is in some ways like a modal and in other ways like a main verb. In the Cambridge Dictionary grammar, there is a good explanation of the difference between 'should' and 'ought to'.

Please let us know if you have any other specific questions.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

 

Submitted by SonuKumar on Thu, 19/03/2020 - 12:50

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Sir, The rope was so strong that no one could break it or no one was able to break it. These last two sentences mean that everyone tried to break the rope but no one succeeded. But does this sentence 'No one could have broken it' mean anything different ? And what does it mean "I don't think anyone could have done it" ?
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Submitted by Peter M. on Fri, 20/03/2020 - 07:08

In reply to by SonuKumar

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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.

 

Peter

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).

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Wed, 22/01/2020 - 18:50

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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.

Submitted by Chittineni on Fri, 03/01/2020 - 14:58

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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?

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Mina Mantzorou on Tue, 19/11/2019 - 20:00

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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

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by rosario70 on Thu, 10/10/2019 - 10:38

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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. Thanks.

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.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

That's all right, now it's clear . Those ones also sounded strange to me and i had some doubt , even though i'd heard that in a american movie. Thanks again.
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Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Thu, 19/09/2019 - 21:37

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Hello. Some of my colleagues, teachers of English, say that in the following sentence, "must" is wrong and they use "have to", or "need to". Please, which one is correct? In England, most people must work until they are 67. Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

The sentence describes an external obligation rather than something we impose on ourselves, so 'have to' is a more natural choice. However, the distinction between 'must' and 'have to' is a subtle one and I would not say that 'must' is wrong here.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by autumn on Sun, 28/07/2019 - 04:58

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Hello. Can you please help me construct a sentence in following situation - I have been invited to an event in the future (2 weeks from now). I didn't immediately rsvp because I didn't know if I was going to be in town on that date. Now I know that I am in town so I write to the person who invited me the following - Sorry for the delay in getting back. But there was a possibility that I could have been out of town on that weekend but not anymore. So I will attend the event. Is the use of modal verb could have been - correct? Normally modal verb + have is only used for past possibility whereas here I am trying to communicate that there was something possible in the future but not anymore. Greatly appreciate your response.

Hello autumn

I'd say 'Sorry for the delay in getting back to you. There was a chance I was going to be out of town that weekend, but now I know I will be here. I would love to attend.' Maybe I've been too enthusastic at the end by saying 'I would love to attend' but you can change that to what you suggested.

You are right about 'could have'. Here it's a case of the future in the past (see the section called The future in the past on this page). We often use 'would' here, and you could say 'would' instead of 'was going to', but that's what came first to mind. There's no real difference in meaning between 'would' and 'was going to' in this case.

I hope you enjoy attending the event!

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by AminulIslam. on Tue, 26/02/2019 - 14:28

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Sir, I have learned a rule that states - Can refers to a theoretical possibility while may refers to future possibility. Such as... 1.I think you can win the competition. 2.There can be cold at night so take your jacket. May I tell... I think you may win competition. What is the difference. Thanks in advance.
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Submitted by Peter M. on Wed, 27/02/2019 - 07:14

In reply to by AminulIslam.

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Hello AminulIslam.,

In some contexts the difference between can and may is very slight. For example:

I think you can win the competition. [it is possible]

I think you can win the competition. [there is a chance of this]

 

The first sentence could mean 'it is possible because you are allowed to enter', a different meaning to the second sentence. But it could also mean 'it is possible because you are good enough', which is very similar to the second sentence. The context is key here.

 

The other sentence is not correct as it stands. We would say this:

It can be cold at night so take your jacket. [low temperatures are possible]

It may be cold at night so take your jacket. [there is a chance of low temperatures]

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by SonuKumar on Tue, 19/02/2019 - 19:24

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Sir, You may know this. You must know this. I think these sentences may have different meanings depanding on the context can't they ? In one context these sentense can mean that a person is saying on logical conclusions or bases that the other person probably knows this. While in the other one they can mean that a person is suggesting or giving advice to the other person that they should definately know this or they can or could know it if they want to. and I think sometimes to erase out this confussion we say something like "you may be aware of this or you must be knowing this" as these sentences have an only particuler meaning. what is your take on this ?
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Submitted by Kirk on Wed, 20/02/2019 - 06:29

In reply to by SonuKumar

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Hi SonuKumar

Yes, the context is key to understanding these sentences. English modal verbs (like 'may' and 'must') are used to mean different things in different contexts and so without knowing the context for these two statements, I can't say for sure what they mean. The sentence with 'must', for example, can mean 'You really need to know this' or 'I can't believe that you don't know this' (meaning I think you do know it).

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Adya's on Wed, 02/01/2019 - 14:57

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Hi As 'could' and 'might' are said to be the weak or tentative versions of 'can' and 'may' respectively, is it correct to use 'would' in the same sense for 'will'? Regards
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Submitted by Kirk on Wed, 02/01/2019 - 20:43

In reply to by Adya's

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Hello Adya's

Modal verbs in English are used in so many different ways that it's difficult for a statement like the one you mention to be accurate in all circumstances. Could you give a specific example? We could help you out with a specific case, but I'm hesitant to make any generalisations for fear of missing something out.

All the best

Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

 

Submitted by CIJO on Sat, 22/12/2018 - 10:02

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Pls I Need More Clarity On This Rule Of Auxiliary Verb I Came Across While Studying: Auxiliary Verbs In Simple Present Tense Forms Are Followed By Verbs In Past Participial Forms. For Example: 1) I Am Done With The Assignment. 2) I Have Finished Cooking. I Discovered That This Rule Is Unequally Yoked With These Examples: 1) I Do Known Him. 2) I Can Sung. Pls Explain.