Learn the use of Modal verbs in the daily life
Modal verbs are auxiliary verbs that express ideas like ability, permission, possibility, and necessity. Many modal verbs have more than one meaning. The word ‘modal’ is related to ‘mood’. On the IELTS, there are often questions where you have to choose the right modal verb according to the context of the sentence.
The following information explains the form of the different modals:
Modals are important for politeness!
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.
Modals: certainty, ability, advice, obligation, possibility
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 his making his presentation.
- They ought to give her more training in English.
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.
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.)