Writing Tips: Modal verbs in English

The How To section of our blog is devoted to helping writers with some useful writing advice and grammar tips. In one of the previous posts we discussed how to learn rules for gerund very fast. We hope that you found the information helpful and already had a chance to apply the acquired knowledge in your writing practice. Today we would like to take a closer look at another aspect of English grammar, modal verbs. We use modal verbs very often in our oral and written language that they become almost unnoticeable for us. Just look at some of these free samples of essays and see how many modals you can find in one paragraph. Modal verbs are considered to be simple and straightforward, but our editors can confirm that a lot of people still make mistakes connected with modal verbs. If you like you can upload your essay or another academic paper on Royal Editing website and our editors will make sure all your modal verbs are used correctly.

Definition of modal verbs

Modal verb is an auxiliary verb that is always accompanied by a main verb in order to add some functional meaning to it. They are used to express such concepts as possibility, necessity, obligation, etc. They are different from other verbs because they take different form and functions, and are governed by another set of rules about which you will be able to read below. The full list of modal verbs in English language varies depending on the use of the verb. Some of such verbs that sometimes function as modals and other times as main verbs are called semi-modals.

List of modal verbs and their meanings

Let’s take a look at the most common version of the modal verbs list. And to better understanding of how to apply them on practice we will also learn about the possible meanings of each of them.

  • Can. It is the most often used modal verb of all. It can express the whole lot of various meanings: ability, possibility, permission, request and suggestion. Let’s look at few examples of the use:

He can name any painting in this gallery. (Ability)

Can I smoke in here? (Permission)

You can buy these shoes instead. (Suggestion)

  • Be able to. This modal verb is often confused with “can”. In some cases they can replace each other, but you should remember that “can” has more meanings, thus it can be used more widely. And “be able to” expresses only one meaning, ability or inability, in a sense of being physically capable of doing something. For example:

After the accident she was not able to walk;

Thank you, but I am able to carry my own bag.

  • May. It is used for expressing possibility or making a formal request, asking for permission. Such as in:

May I look at the picture? (Permission)

She may never see him again. (Possibility)

  • Might. This modal verb is very similar to “may”. They both express possibility. But the use of “might” is more limited. You should use “may” instead of “might” if something is likely to happen or when you talk about permission. Let’s compare the two:

I may eat the sandwich later. (I will probably eat it later);

I might eat the sandwich later. (I am not sure whether I will eat it later).

  • Must. It expresses obligation, necessity or certainty that something is true. E.g.:

You must finish the paper before eight o’clock. (Obligation)

Look at that ice, it must be really cold out there. (Certainty)

  • Would. This modal verb is used for expressing permission, making requests, arrangements, invitation and preferences. E.g.:

Would you hand me the napkin? (Request)

Would you like to go for a coffee this Sunday? (Invitation)

Would you like white or red wine? (Preference)

  • Shall. It is used for making an offer, suggestion or asking what to do. For example:

Shall I call you a taxi? (Offer)

I shall see you at five. (Suggestion)

Shall I send him the letter? (Asking what to do)

  • Should. This modal verb is used to express opinion, give an advice, recommend an action or saying what is right. E.g.:

You should stop playing that terrible music at once. (Opinion/advice)

He should file a formal request. (Recommendation)

  • Ought to. Its meaning is very similar to “should”. It also expresses opinion or advice but not in such categorical form. For example:

We ought to hire a secretary.

You ought to iron your shirt before work.

Modal and main verbs: the difference

We were able to understand the meaning of each modal verb, their function and purposes. But to use them properly in our writing we need to see what the difference between the usage of regular verbs and modal verbs. Modal verbs are governed by a completely different set of rules than main verbs, such as:

  • Modal verbs never change spelling. Unlike regular verbs they don’t require –s ending for the third person singular. As in: She can drive a car. — She cans drive a car;
  • Form questions using inversion instead of verb do/does/did. For example: Can she drive a car? — Does she can drive a car?
  • Directly followed by infinitive form of a verb without to. E.g.: You must submit your paper by Friday. — You must to submit your paper by Friday;
  • Use to forming negative. For example: She should not listen to that gossip. — She doesn’t should listen to that gossip;
  • Most of the modal verbs don’t change in different tenses. They don’t require –ed ending like main verbs in the past tense or will in the future. They don’t have –ing or infinitive form. The only exceptions of this rules are modal verbs must and can, which we will discuss a little bit later. The rest of the modal verbs form the past tense form using this formula: modal verb + have + past participle. For example: The bottle is empty. Jack might have drunk all the milk; You are late. You should have taken the earlier train.

Other aspects

In the case of modal verbs there are as many rules as many exceptions of them. The modals must and can are some of those exceptions.

  1. Modal verbs must and can when used to express obligation or ability require substitutes in different tenses. Can substitutes with could or been able to. And must is substituted with had in the past and have in the future. Let’s see some examples:

Past simple:

Excuse me for the delay. I had to change my car’s tire;

I could do all that work without his help;

Present perfect:

He has had to run back home for his passport;

I haven’t been able to finish the paper by Friday;


She will have to revise the whole paper if she wants to have a good grade;

Do you think you will be able to catch the early train?

  1. Semi-modals. Some verbs such as need, dare, ought to and used to are called semi-modals, because in some ways they can be used like modal verbs and in others like main verbs. When they perform the functions of modal verbs they are governed by the same rules as the rest of the modal verbs. You can read more about semi-modal verbs on this page. Let’s look at some examples of semi-modals:

He need not pay attention to the talk. (Need as a modal verb);

He needs to do something with that hairstyle of his. (Need as a main verb).

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