Do you want to learn to speak English fluently? It is important to learn and understand modal verbs. Practicing every day is key because they are extremely important and necessary to communicate in this universal language. And don’t worry, we will simplify it for you.

In this article, we will discuss:

  • The definition and meaning of Modal Verbs;
  • The form and use of modal verbs;
  • List of Modal Verbs;
  • Exercises with corrections.

Shall we start?

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What Is The Definition And Meaning Of Modal Verbs

Modal verbs are auxiliary verbs (helping verbs) that express ideas like ability, permission, possibility, and necessity. Many modal verbs have more than one meaning, and the purpose is to give additional information about the function of the main verb of the phrase. Also, the source of the word ‘modal’ is related to ‘mood’. Cool, right?

Here is a list of modal verbs:

Modal VerbExpressingExample
mustStrong obligationYou must eat when you get hungry.
logical conclusion / CertaintyHe must be very hungry. He hasn’t eaten anything today.
must notprohibitionYou must not drink alcohol with medicine.
canabilityI can run.
permissionCan I borrow your pen, please?
possibilitySmoking can cause cancer.
couldability in the pastWhen I was younger I could read for hours.
polite permissionExcuse me, could I suggest an idea?
possibilityThey could pay you tomorrow!
maypermissionMay I borrow your pen, please?
possibility, probabilityIt may rain tomorrow!
mightpolite permissionMight I suggest an idea?
possibility, probabilityI might go to Spain next year.
need notlack of necessity/absence of obligationI need not buy vegetables. There are plenty in the fridge.
should/ought to50 % obligationI should / ought to see a professional.
adviceYou should / ought to go to the doctor tomorrow.
logical conclusionHe should / ought to be very hungry. He didn’t eat all day.
had betteradviceYou'd better go to see a doctor.

man doing paperwork under a lamp

Understanding Modal Verbs’ Usage And Form

The core modal verbs have only one form, which means they don’t have -ing form, to-infinitive form, -ed form, or past form. However, there are a few exceptions as explained in the following table:

Modal VerbExpressingExample
mustStrong obligationYou must eat when you get hungry.
logical conclusion / CertaintyHe must be very hungry. He hasn’t eaten anything today.
must notprohibitionYou must not drink alcohol with medicine.
canabilityI can run.
permissionCan I borrow your pen, please?
possibilitySmoking can cause cancer.
couldability in the pastWhen I was younger I could read for hours.
polite permissionExcuse me, could I suggest an idea?
possibilityThey could pay you tomorrow!
maypermissionMay I borrow your pen, please?
possibility, probabilityIt may rain tomorrow!
mightpolite permissionMight I suggest an idea?
possibility, probabilityI might go to Spain next year.
need notlack of necessity/absence of obligationI need not buy vegetables. There are plenty in the fridge.
should/ought to50 % obligationI should / ought to see a professional.
adviceYou should / ought to go to the doctor tomorrow.
logical conclusionHe should / ought to be very hungry. He didn’t eat all day.
had betteradviceYou'd better go to see a doctor.

🡲 The modal verbs should be placed after the subject and before the verb. The latter could be an auxiliary verb (have, be) or main verb.
🡲 They never change form for person or tense.

Examples:

  • A: He said he might sell his car.
  • B: Yes, he could sell it.

🡲 Never use a modal verb with another verb.

Example:

  • Swimming in winter ought to might be fun.
  • Swimming in winter can be fun.

🡲 In verb phrases, modal verbs must go before the verbs.

Example:

  • The window be might open.
  • The window might be open.
  • I go could swimming next week.
  • I could go swimming next week.

Modals Are Important for Politeness!

Modals are the base of any politeness formula, therefore it is really important that you learn their correct usage.

🡲 Offers = Can I…? / Could you…? / Would you like…?

We use these modals when we make an offer to help someone or suggest doing something.

  • Can I help you carry your bags?
  • Would you like to join us for a drink?

🡲 Requests = Can I…? / Could I…? / Can you…? / Would you…? / Could you…?

We use these modals when we ask someone if it’s OK to do something or if we ask someone to do something for us.

  • Could I borrow your tablet for a moment?
  • Would you explain the procedure to me, please?

🡲 Polite suggestions = You could…/ we could… / I think we should…

These modals are used to make suggestions in a diplomatic way.

  • You could take a shuttle bus to the airport – it’s less expensive.
  • I think we should postpone the meeting.

🡲 Permission = Can I…? / May I…? / You can / you may

These modals are usually used in the first person singular when you ask for permission or authorization to do something. The response is generally in the second person when you are given permission (or not!).

  • Can I / May I leave the meeting early?
  • Yes, you can.

List of Modal Verbs To Use: Certainty, Ability, Advice

Let’s go over the modal verbs for expressing certainty, ability and advice.

🡲 Certainty = Will / won’t

These modals are what could be considered the first conditional, like saying ‘If there’s too much traffic, I won’t catch my train.’

There’s too much traffic, I won’t catch my plane…

To express uncertainty in the future, we use may not or might not

🡲May not and might not are about the same as may or might. If we say ‘It might rain’ or ‘It might not rain’, there’s a 50-50 chance in both cases that it will rain!!

We may not / might not recruit anymore people in the coming months.

🡲 Ability = Can/can’t, could/couldn’t (past), be able to

These modals express your ability to do something and you can substitute the expression ‘be able to’ for ‘can’ or ‘could’. Of course, you need to conjugate the verb ‘be’ if it’s in the present, past or future. In fact, you can put ‘be able to’ into any tense (example: present perfect – I haven’t been able to reach her today).

  • I can’t read this, I never learned Spanish.
  • I couldn’t tell him because he was out of the office.
  • I won’t be able to attend the meeting as I’ll be on vacation.

🡲 Advice = should/shouldn’t/ought to

The modal ‘should’ is the most common for giving advice and recommendations. ‘Ought to’ can be used in the negative form (ought not to), but is generally not used in the interrogative form.

  • You should talk to your manager if there’s a problem.
  • You shouldn’t interrupt him while he is doing his presentation.
  • They ought to give her more training in English.

Additional List Of Modal Verbs You Could Use In Phrases

Let’s take a look at some additional modal verbs you could use in a phrase:

🡲Obligation = Must, have to

To speak about obligation, you can use both of these modals. However, ‘must’ cannot be conjugated in the past and future, so it only has a present or near future meaning.

  • You must pay your taxes before April 15th.
  • You have to save the data before you close the application.

🡲 “Must” in the past and the future

To express obligation in the past, future or other tense, you need to use ‘have to’ and conjugate the verb ‘have’ in the tense you are using.

  • I had to leave the meeting early because it was starting to snow.
  • I will have to see him when he gets back.
  • He has had to move three times in the past 6 months.

🡲 Not necessary = Don’t have to/ don’t need to/needn’t

For the negative of ‘have to’, simply conjugate ‘have’ in the negative form. You can also use the verb ‘need’ either as a regular verb or as a modal auxiliary.

  • You don’t have to write the report in English.
  • You don’t need to go there as they will come here.
  • You needn’t bother replying; they never read their messages.

🡲 Not allowed = Mustn’t, can’t

The negative form of ‘must’ does NOT have the same meaning as the negative form of ‘have to’. ‘Mustn’t’ means something is forbidden or not authorized. It’s a very strong term. ‘Can’t’ is another possibility.

  • You mustn’t smoke in front of the building as it gives a bad image of the company.
  • You can’t enter the building without an ID card.

Other Modal Verbs To Use To Express Possibility Or Speculation

Let’s go over some more modal verbs:

🡲 Possibility /speculation = May, might, could, may not, might not, must, can’t

We use these modals to express the idea of possibility or to speculate about something that’s happening or has happened.

  • We could have problems with the new strategy. (We don’t know for sure.)
  • We might not obtain the contract. (It’s possible, but we aren’t sure.)
  • There may be a strike next week. (There’s a possibility, but it’s not sure.)
  • There’s a lot of noise in the next office. They must be having a party. (We suppose there’s a party.)
  • There’s a charge of $70 000 for one computer on this invoice! It can’t be right! (We suppose there’s a mistake.)

🡲 Speculation in the past = may, might, must, can’t, couldn’t + have done, have been done or have been doing

  • She bought the shares when they were inexpensive and sold them at their highest value, so she must have made a lot of money. (We suppose she made money at that time.)
  • I don’t know why Mr. Brandon wasn’t at the meeting. He might have been delayed in traffic. (We suppose he had a problem at that time.)
  • You couldn’t have seen Ms. Jamison at the concert, because she was out of town at the time. (It wasn’t possible that you saw her at that time.)

Practice Modal Verbs With Full Exercises With Answers

Now that you have made it here, you have to test your knowledge and see how much you understood so far. Plus, practice is necessary to make perfect, right?

That is why we have created the following exercises to help you see where you stand when it comes to Modal Verbs.

Let’s begin (and don’t cheat):

Can, Could, Be able to

Fill the following blanks with can, could, or be able to:

* You can make the modal verbs negative based on the context of the sentence.

* There may be more than one correct answer.

  1. _______ I call you in 5 minutes?
  2. I want to _______ communicate with my students better.
  3. It _______ snow tomorrow.
  4. _______ you please look after my dog?
  5. Sophie _______ make it to the test today. She is very sick.
  6. They say females _______ handle the pain better than males.

Answers:

  1. Can.
  2. Be able to.
  3. Could.
  4. Can.
  5. Couldn’t.
  6. Are able to / can.

May / Might

Add May or Might to the following blanks.

  1. I _______ travel this week. I am still very busy.
  2. You _______ sit here.
  3. _______ she borrow your shoes, please?
  4. I love this show. I _______ watch another episode.
  5. It _______ rain tomorrow night.
  6. I am not sure but we _______ be invited next weekend.

Answers:

  1. May not.
  2. May.
  3. May.
  4. Might.
  5. Might.
  6. May.

Should, Shouldn’t, Ought To

Fill in should, shouldn’t, or ought to in the following sentences.

  1. You _______ be more careful.
  2. No one _______ ever treat you this way.
  3. _______ you be at the gym right now?
  4. My wedding dress _______ be ready by now.
  5. The boss thinks that Sam _______ be fired. He is one of the best!
  6. _______ we buy an extra bag of chips just in case?

Answers:

  1. Should.
  2. Should.
  3. Shouldn’t.
  4. Ought to.
  5. Shouldn’t.
  6. Should.

Must, Have to, Need to, Don’t Have to, Needn’t

Fill in the blanks with have to, has to, don’t have to, doesn’t have to, must, must not, or needn’t.

*There may be more than one correct answer.

  1. David _______ pick me up tomorrow. I will rent a car anyway.
  2. You _______ drink your medication after lunch. It is for your own good.
  3. I totally _______ to embarrass myself like that.
  4. Your cat _______ get used to the new home now.
  5. Please, you _______ help me. I am good.
  6. My daughter _______ be so happy right now. School is canceled for tomorrow.

Answers:

  1. Don’t have to.
  2. Have to/ must.
  3. Needn’t.
  4. Has to.
  5. Don’t have to.
  6. Must.

Will, would

Fill in the blanks with: will, won’t, would, or wouldn’t.

  1. _______ you please help with the heavy boxes?
  2. Your father _______ be pleased with this awful news.
  3. _______ she want a better future for her partner?
  4. They _______ be allowed into the museum without a ticket.
  5. Your order _______ be delivered to your doorstep today, sir.
  6. Dominique _______ love to join us for dinner.

Answers:

  1. Will.
  2. Won’t.
  3. Wouldn’t.
  4. Won’t.
  5. Will.
  6. Would.

All Modals

Choose the correct form from: can, could, be able to, may, might, shall, should, must, have to, don’t have to, need to

* You can make the modal verbs negative based on the context of the sentence.

* There may be more than one correct answer.

  1. You _______ fix the car. It is making weird noises.
  2. My husband _______ be joining us for drinks later.
  3. _______ we start eating? I am starving.
  4. You _______ worry about her. She is responsible.
  5. I _______ _______ tell the difference between the twins by now, right? I have known them for years.
  6. _______ it be possible that Mary _______ get fired today?

Answers:

  1. Have to/ Need to.
  2. Might.
  3. Shall/ Should.
  4. Don’t have to / Shouldn’t.
  5. Should, be able to.
  6. Could, might.

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