VerbAbout VerbsAction VerbsCausative VerbsContractionsDo and MakeFinite and Nonfinite VerbsGerundInfinitive FormInversionLinking VerbsModal VerbsMay and MightMoodsPhrasal VerbsSay and TellShallStative VerbsThird Person SingularUsed toRegular VerbsIrregular VerbsVerb FormsCompound Verbs
ConditionalConditionalZero ConditionalFirst ConditionalSecond ConditionalThird ConditionalMixed ConditionalInversion in Conditional Sentences
Passive VoicePassive VoicePresent Simple PassivePresent Continuous PassivePast Simple PassivePast Continuous PassivePerfect Tenses PassiveFuture Simple PassiveGoing to PassiveSay / Believe / SupposeGet + Participle
Adverbs of FrequencyAdverbs of FrequencyAdverbs of Frequency - Position in Sentence
QuestionsQuestion TagsRhetorical QuestionsEcho Questions
Reported SpeechReported SpeechModals in Reported SpeechReported Commands and RequestsReported QuestionsPresent Perfect in Reported SpeechFuture Perfect in Reported Speech
Irregular VerbsIrregular Verbs - GroupsIrregular Verbs - Forms
ParticiplesPresent ParticiplePast ParticiplePerfect Participle
Other TopicsWill vs. Going toIf / Even if / Whether / Unless If + Were or If + WasAs If / As Though + Past SubjunctiveHabits Expressed by Will and WouldHad BetterSubject
Read MoreAuxiliary VerbsAuxiliary Verbs: To BeAuxiliary Verbs: To HaveAuxiliary Verbs: To DoWhen To Use the Verb To Be
Grammar

Modal Verbs

The characteristic of modal verbs is they sometimes have many similar meanings, and they are used in many diffrent contexts.
Generally, we use modals to express ability, possibility, request, permission, deny permission, order, etc.

The English modals are:

  • can, could, be able to

  • may, might

  • must, have to

  • should, ought to

  • will

Let's start from a few general rules.

1. You don't have to conjugate them:

  • You can swim well.
  • He can swim well.
  • They can swim well.

2. After modals we use infinitive without to (so called bare infinitive). The only exception is ought to:

  • You can dance.
  • The kids must be quiet.
  • You may open the door.
  • He ought to be more polite.

3. Modals are not used with auxiliary verbs. In negation we add not and in questions we employ inversion:

  • You shouldn't (should not) go with him.
  • Jane couldn't (could not) hear you.
  • May I offer you a cup of tea?
  • Should I go to the dentist?

4. They can occur as a continuous form: be + verb + -ing:

  • I should be going now.
  • He must be driving now.
  • Kids must be sleeping.

Can, Could, Be Able to

Use 1: To express ability

  • I can speak French.
  • Steve can ride a horse.
  • Can you sing?

In negation we use can't (can + not) or cannot:

  • I can't /cannot speak Spanish.
  • Steve can't ride a horse
  • They cannot sing at all.

Talking about the past we use could or be (was/were) able to.

Could informs generally about an ability whereas be able to relates to a specific situation.

We often connect could with such expressions as see, hear, smell, taste, feel, remember, understand:

  • Jane could play tennis very well when she was younger.
  • When the accident happened, I wasn't able to help the injured people.
  • Because of the rush hour, I wasn't able to get to the cinema on time.
  • We could smell alcohol on him.
  • When I was younger, I could remember everything.

The expression be able to replaces can and could in all other tenses (except present simple and past simple):

  • I hope I will be able to come to the party on Saturday.
  • So far, the doctors haven't been able to help the patient.

Use 2: To express possibility

Talking about possibility both forms can and could are allowed (although the past form could decreases degree of probability):

  • Look, someone's at the door. It could be Tom.
  • Holidays in Rome can/could be great.

In relation to the past we use could + have + past participle:

  • Jerry, you could have killed yourself on that bike!

Using can't we can express that something isn't possible (because we know that for sure):

  • Someone's at the door. It can't be Tom. He's in Venice now.

Use 3: Ask about permission, giving permission or deny permission

Remember that could is more polite than can:

  • Can/could I use your mobile?
  • Can/could you help me?
  • Mum, can I go to the cinema with Josh?
  • I could lend you some money, but I have to ask my parents first.
  • Sorry, you can't go out.
  • Ann, you can't make up, you are too young.

Use 4: To express suggestion

  • Can/could we go to the cinema tonight?

Use 5: When we want to help someone

  • Could I carry your suitcase?
  • I could look after the kids tonight.

May, Might

Use 1: Probability and guesses

In this case may and might can be used interchangeably; however, might means less probability:

  • - Where is she?
  • - She may be at home or she may be still at work.
  • Alex may/might still be learning.
  • We may/might be tired after this evening's swimming practice.

Talking about past we use may/might + have + past participle:

  • They may have already sold the house, but we we're not sure. 
  • Jessica may/might have already told her husband the truth.

Use 2: Probability and possibility in the future

May and might are also used interchangeably:

  • It may rain tomorrow.
  • Breakfast may not be ready yet.
  • I might go to the shop with you.
  • Chris might not come with us, he has a lot of work to do.

Talking about unreal situation we only use might:

  • If I had a load of money, I might buy a yacht.

In this context the continuous form is also possible:

  • I may be flying to Moscow next week.
  • She might be joining us for lunch.

Use 3. Asking about permission, giving permission or deny permission

When our intention depends not on us we use may. These sentences are very polite or very formal:

  • May I smoke here?
  • Yes, you may open the door.
  • You may not talk in here.
  • The kids may not run here.

In relation to the perfect, past and future instead of may we use be allowed to (in the past could/couldn't, too):

  • I hope I will be allowed to come to the meeting.
  • We weren't allowed to (couldn't) enter the classroom.
  • He has never been allowed to take part in film castings.

Must, Have to

Use 1: Confidence (certainty) about some situations

  • There is somebody at the door. It must be Paul!
  • They have been working all day. They must be exhausted.
  • Homemade cheesecake must be delicious.
When we are sure that some situation isn't possible we use can't, because must does not have negation in this meaning. We'll talk about the form mustn't in the next article.
  • Grandpa is almost blind, he can't see our faces.
  • Our shift finishes at ten, we can't be at the party now.

Talking about the past we employ must + have + past participle or can't + have + past participle:

  • Sue must have been asleep when I called her.
  • You must have met Sarah at the party yesterday.
  • I can't have seen this car because it hasn't been produced yet.
  • You can't have spoken to Bryan on the phone, he was with me all the day.

Use 2: Orders

We can also use have to giving orders but there are some differences between have to and must.

Must

Have to

Must shows personal belief and involvement of the speakers:

  • You must meet my brother Jerry, he’s the funniest person in the world. (he’s my brother and I know him very well)
  • I must get up earlier and go swimming in the morning.

Have to does not express personal feelings but is connected with conditions, rules or plans.

  • We have to finish this project for Friday. (this term is fixed by someone else)
  • He has to get up early because he has a meeting at 8.

The difference between must and have to concerns only affirmative sentences and not negations or questions because must does not appear in these sentences. Instead we use have to:

  • I don't have to go to work tomorrow.
  • Do you have to be at school at 8?
  • Does he have to finish his project for tomorrow?

And at last: we can use have to in all tenses and forms. Must is related only with the present.

  • Did you have to attend in this stupid meeting?
  • I hope I wan't have to do that.

Mustn't, Needn't

The negation of the verb must sounds mustn't and it means that we categorically deny doing something:

  • You mustn't smoke here!
  • You mustn't turn left at this crossing.
  • Kids, you mustn't fight with each other.

The form needn't has similar meaning to not have to:

  • You needn't work on Sunday.
  • We needn't take a bus - it's not far from here.

Talking about the past we use needn't + have + past participle:

  • You needn't have called the police. It was just a little misunderstanding.
  • He needn't have washed the car. It's dirty again already.

Should, Ought to

Use 1: Obligation, advice, opinion

It's good to remember that should does not express orders such as e.g. must:

  • I think you should go to the doctor.
  • Chris should learn more - he has a test next week.
  • We shouldn't eat after 7 p.m.

Talking about an obligation in the past we use should + have + past participle:

  • Tina should have told her husband the truth.
  • You should have gone to the dentist earlier.

Use 2. Hopes towards the future; disappointment

  • Don't worry, everything should be all right.
  • Rob has been studying pretty hard. He should pass his exam.
  • They should be here now, they're late again!
  • The bus should already be here.

Ought to

Ought to and should have exactly the same meaning. Should is more common than ought to. Ought to is more formal than should

Now let's have a look at some sentences with ought to:

  • You ought to be more self-confident, William.
  • You ought not to speak to your parents this way.
  • He ought to have told me the truth when I asked him.

Will

As we know we use the verb will to express the future (Future Simple). We shouldn't forget it's also a modal verb.

Use 1: Almost certainty

  • The phone is ringing. That will be Megan.

Use 2: Willingness doing soemething

  • If you will be so nice and help me carry this package.

Use 3: Asking (especially when we are annoyed)

  • Will you be quiet for a minute, please?

Check your understanding!

VerbAbout VerbsAction VerbsCausative VerbsContractionsDo and MakeFinite and Nonfinite VerbsGerundInfinitive FormInversionLinking VerbsModal VerbsMay and MightMoodsPhrasal VerbsSay and TellShallStative VerbsThird Person SingularUsed toRegular VerbsIrregular VerbsVerb FormsCompound Verbs
ConditionalConditionalZero ConditionalFirst ConditionalSecond ConditionalThird ConditionalMixed ConditionalInversion in Conditional Sentences
Passive VoicePassive VoicePresent Simple PassivePresent Continuous PassivePast Simple PassivePast Continuous PassivePerfect Tenses PassiveFuture Simple PassiveGoing to PassiveSay / Believe / SupposeGet + Participle
Adverbs of FrequencyAdverbs of FrequencyAdverbs of Frequency - Position in Sentence
QuestionsQuestion TagsRhetorical QuestionsEcho Questions
Reported SpeechReported SpeechModals in Reported SpeechReported Commands and RequestsReported QuestionsPresent Perfect in Reported SpeechFuture Perfect in Reported Speech
Irregular VerbsIrregular Verbs - GroupsIrregular Verbs - Forms
ParticiplesPresent ParticiplePast ParticiplePerfect Participle
Other TopicsWill vs. Going toIf / Even if / Whether / Unless If + Were or If + WasAs If / As Though + Past SubjunctiveHabits Expressed by Will and WouldHad BetterSubject
Read MoreAuxiliary VerbsAuxiliary Verbs: To BeAuxiliary Verbs: To HaveAuxiliary Verbs: To DoWhen To Use the Verb To Be