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Modals: An Overview

Modals: An Overview

Modal verbs are a type of auxiliary verb that is used to indicate modality, which describes the speaker’s attitude or feelings about the action or state being expressed in the main verb. Some common modal verbs in English include “can,” “could,” “may,” “might,” “must,” “will,” “would,” “shall,” and “should.” Modal verbs are followed by a base verb, which is the main verb in the sentence. For example:

I can swim. (In this sentence, “can” is the modal verb, and “swim” is the base verb.)

Modal verbs are used to express a wide range of meanings, including ability, possibility, permission, obligation, necessity, and prediction. For example:

  • I can swim. (ability)
  • It might rain tomorrow. (possibility)
  • Can I borrow your pen? (permission)
  • You must finish your homework before you watch TV. (obligation)
  • We should eat more vegetables. (advice)
  • The train will arrive at noon. (prediction)

A list of Modal Verbs

  • can “Can” is used to express ability or possibility. For example: “I can swim.” (ability) “It can rain any time of year in this region.” (possibility)
  • could “Could” is used to express ability or possibility in the past, or to make a polite request. For example: “I could swim when I was a child.” (ability in the past) “Could you please pass me the salt?” (polite request)
  • may “May” is used to express possibility. It can also be used to give or request permission. For example: “It may rain tomorrow.” (possibility) “May I borrow your pen?” (request permission)
  • might “Might” is used to express possibility, typically less certain than “may.” It can also be used to make a suggestion. For example: “It might rain tomorrow.” (possibility) “We might go to the beach this weekend.” (suggestion)
  • must “Must” is used to express obligation or necessity. For example: “I must finish my homework before I watch TV.” (obligation) “We must leave now if we want to catch the last train.” (necessity)
  • will “Will” is used to express future tense, and can also be used to express determination or willingness. For example: “I will finish my homework before I watch TV.” (future tense) “I will help you carry those bags.” (determination)
  • would “Would” is used to express a conditional mood, and can also be used to make a request more polite. For example: “I would help you carry those bags if I had the strength.” (conditional mood) “Would you please pass me the salt?” (polite request)
  • shall “Shall” is used to express a suggestion or offer, and is also used to ask for advice. For example: “Shall we go to the beach this weekend?” (suggestion) “What shall I do with this broken vase?” (ask for advice)
  • should “Should” is used to express advice or to indicate what is expected. For example: “You should eat more vegetables.” (advice) “We should be there by noon.” (what is expected)

There are also a few less common modal verbs

  • dare “Dare” is used to express a challenge or to ask someone if they are brave or bold enough to do something. For example: “I dare you to jump off the cliff.” (challenge) “Do you dare go into the haunted house?” (ask if someone is brave enough to do something)
  • need “Need” is used to express a requirement or necessity. For example: “I need to go to the store.” (requirement) “We need more food for the party.” (necessity)
  • ought to “Ought to” is used to express advice or to indicate what is expected. It is similar to “should,” but is considered to be less formal. For example: “You ought to eat more vegetables.” (advice) “We ought to be there by noon.” (what is expected)
Difference between can and may

In general, “can” is used to express ability or possibility, while “may” is used to express possibility or to give or request permission.

Here are a few examples to illustrate the difference between “can” and “may”:

  • “I can swim.” (ability)
  • “It can rain any time of year in this region.” (possibility)
  • “May I borrow your pen?” (request permission)
  • “It may rain tomorrow.” (possibility)

In the first two examples, “can” is used to express ability or possibility. In the last two examples, “may” is used to express possibility and to request permission.

It is worth noting that “may” is often considered to be more formal than “can,” and is used more frequently in written English than in spoken English. “Can” is more commonly used in spoken English to express ability or possibility.

Using Modals with All Tenses

Modal verbs can be used with all tenses, although the meaning of the modal verb may change depending on the tense of the main verb.

For example, here are the modal verb “could” used with various tenses:

Simple present: “I could swim when I was younger.” (ability in the past) Present continuous: “I am just learning how to swim. I couldn’t swim before.” (ability in the past) Simple past: “I couldn’t swim when I was younger.” (ability in the past) Past continuous: “I was trying to learn how to swim, but I couldn’t swim very well.” (ability in the past) Simple future: “I will be able to swim next summer.” (ability in the future) Future continuous: “I will be learning how to swim next summer.” (ability in the future) Future perfect: “I will have learned how to swim by next summer.” (ability in the future)

As you can see, the meaning of the modal verb “could” changes depending on the tense of the main verb. Similarly, the other modal verbs can be used with various tenses to express different meanings.

Able to

“Able to” is an adjective phrase that is used to indicate that someone or something has the ability or capability to do something. It is often used as an alternative to using a modal verb such as “can” or “could.”

For example:

“I am able to swim.” (meaning: I have the ability to swim) “She was able to finish the marathon.” (meaning: She had the ability to finish the marathon) In these examples, “able to” is used to indicate that the subject has the ability to do the action described by the main verb.

Have to, Has to ?

“Have to” and “has to” are used to express obligation or necessity. They are similar to the modal verb “must,” but are used more frequently in spoken English.

“Have to” is used in the present and future tenses to express obligation or necessity. For example:

“I have to finish my homework before I watch TV.” (present obligation) “We will have to leave early to catch the first train.” (future necessity) “Has to” is used in the present tense to express obligation or necessity. For example:

“She has to finish her homework before she can watch TV.” (present obligation) In each of these examples, “have to” and “has to” are used to indicate that something is required or necessary.

Other resource; https://www.grammarly.com/blog/modal-verbs/


Last update: January 11, 2023
Created: January 11, 2023