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

MultipleChoice_MTYzNDI=

 

Average
Average: 4 (310 votes)
Do you need to improve your English grammar?
Join thousands of learners from around the world who are improving their English grammar with our online courses.

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

Permalink
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

Permalink
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

Permalink
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

Permalink
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" ?
Profile picture for user Peter M.

Submitted by Peter M. on Fri, 20/03/2020 - 07:08

In reply to by SonuKumar

Permalink

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

Profile picture for user Ahmed Imam

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

Permalink
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

Permalink
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

Permalink
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

Permalink
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.
Profile picture for user Ahmed Imam

Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Thu, 19/09/2019 - 21:37

Permalink
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

Permalink
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

Profile picture for user AminulIslam.

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

Permalink
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.
Profile picture for user Peter M.

Submitted by Peter M. on Wed, 27/02/2019 - 07:14

In reply to by AminulIslam.

Permalink

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

Permalink
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 ?
Profile picture for user Kirk Moore

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Wed, 20/02/2019 - 06:29

In reply to by SonuKumar

Permalink

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

Permalink
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
Profile picture for user Kirk Moore

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Wed, 02/01/2019 - 20:43

In reply to by Adya's

Permalink

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

Permalink
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.

Hi Cijo,

That rule is not correct. In 1, although 'done' is formed from the past participle, it is an adjective in this case. In 2, 'have done' is a present perfect verb. The other two forms you mention are not correct, I'm afraid.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

The correct rule goes like this: Auxiliary verbs in PRESENT PERFECT tense form are followed by verbs in past participle. Example: I have eaten She has seen You have known.

Submitted by ifencing on Fri, 21/12/2018 - 20:06

Permalink
Can you tell me if these two sentenses correct? - Children have to greet their teachers. - All children are to gather in the school hall at once! In these sentences I compare two modal verbs have to and be to. As the book says the first one means - customary obligation, the general rule and the second one means an order. Are they grammatically and lexically correct?

Hello ifencing,

Both sentences are fine.

'Have to' can be used with both meanings, so you could use 'have to' in the second sentence as well.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by rosario70 on Sun, 28/10/2018 - 13:25

Permalink
Hi teachers. I made up The following sentence :The manager asked if someone of us would be provided To go morocco he would be awarded The raise money. I was wondering if It is proper. Thanks in advance.

Hi rosario70,

I'm afraid that's not grammatically correct. If I understand what you mean, then I would recommend something like: 'The manager asked if one of us was willing to go to Morocco. The person who goes will be given a raise'.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Patricia MacDougall on Fri, 28/09/2018 - 09:34

Permalink
I am trying to explain to professional colleagues who are translating into Spanish the difference in the use of SHALL in the following two phrases: "Any requirement shall be permitted to be modified..." "..the stories in the building shall be determined as follows.." The former being optional, given the use of the verb permit, vs. the latter which is a mandatory requirement. I have looked at modal verb entries, but not being a professional language teacher, I just don't know how to explain how the difference in the use of "shall" when it modifies the verb permit vs when it is used alone. The colleague insists that the use of "shall" makes the modification a requirement, and ignores the verb "permitted". This issue has to do with building codes. Thank you for any help you may be able to offer.

Hello Patricia MacDougall,

In most cases, 'shall' and 'will' are interchangeable. However, when used in contracts there can be a difference. 'Will' refers simply to a future time, while 'shall' represents an obligation, requirement or duty.

The topic is discussed on this page, which I think will clarify it for you:

https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/3389/shall-and-will-in-legal-requirements

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you for the reference and your quick reply, Peter. I see that in legal terms "shall" is complicated. It seems the case especially when translated. I had discovered various references to the "shall/must" argument and the link you have given me supports the ambiguity argument. Finally, with many examples in the same building code between "shall be permitted" vs "shall" I was able to convince the colleagues that the former is an optional provision, while the latter is an obligatory requirement.
Hi Patricia, I fear you may have over-analysed this. The word 'shall' in both of your examples does indeed imply a mandatory requirement. In the case of "shall be permitted", the 'shall' simply refers to the obligation that permission be granted (should it be requested). There is no ambiguity in the value of the word itself, only a difference in context. Buena suerte con los colegas.

Submitted by shani on Fri, 21/09/2018 - 13:35

Permalink
Hi, I have a question. Would 'depending on' be considered a modal verb? As in 'I might go for a walk, depending on how the weather holds out'. Having trouble working out which grammatical category this fits into. Thanks.

Hello shani,

'Depending on' is a participle phrase, not a phrasal verb. The verb is 'depend' and it is often followed by a preposition ('depend on') but it can also be used by itself:

  • Our answer depends on the cost.
  • Are you going to buy it? It depends how much it costs.

You can see a list of common verbs which are followed by prepositions on this page.

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Peter, That's very helpful, thanks! Shani

Submitted by amol on Thu, 20/09/2018 - 08:22

Permalink
I was to have left on Thursday. But on Thursday I had a terrible cold so I decided to wait till Saturday. In the above example, can I use "had to" in place of *was to have left"

Hello amol,

In terms of grammar, you can say 'I was to have left' or 'I had to leave', but the meaning is slightly different.

'I was to have left' means the same as 'I was supposed to leave'. It describes a plan or intention which was not completed.

'I had to leave' describes an obligation. It suggests that something made it necessary for you to leave. This may have been something you know in advance or something which surprised you.

There is a problem with the sense of the second sentence, however. 'I had to leave' suggests you had no choice, but the second part of the sentence makes it clear that you did have a choice, because a cold was enough to change your mind. This would appear to be contradictory.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by SonuKumar on Sat, 04/08/2018 - 20:41

Permalink
Sir, while asking a question to someone for future, should we use 'Wll'or 'Going To' ? When will you buy a car or when are you going to buy a car and when will you come or go or when are you going to come or go ?
Profile picture for user Peter M.

Submitted by Peter M. on Sun, 05/08/2018 - 07:03

In reply to by SonuKumar

Permalink

Hello SonuKumar,

Both are possible.

There are many ways of talking about future time. If we are asking about a person's intention or plan then 'going to' is appropriate. If we are asking about a decision made at the moment of speaking then 'will' is more likely.

You can read about future forms on our page on the topic.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Amaavee on Sat, 23/06/2018 - 04:07

Permalink
Please tell me, when I do exercises how I drag the words into the answer box if there is more than one word?

Hello Amaavee,

Moving items is done by clicking rather than dragging. Click once on the item and then click again on the box where you wish it to go. If you click on an item already in the box you will swap it for the new item; if you click on the box itself you will add the item.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by jitu_jaga on Wed, 13/06/2018 - 18:02

Permalink
Hi, I was watching a movie and I found one girl says to a boy 'I promised my mother not to do this' and then the the boy says to the girl ' why would you say this?' Here, does this sentence mean 'Why did you say this?' or 'Would' has a different meaning like in 2nd conditional sentence? I don't understand? Please explain with some further examples?