The Meaning of Modals

can

General ability in the present to do something, or an informal request or permission granted.

Examples

  • I can write a grammar book. George can sing better than his brother.
  • Can I have the last cookie? Megan can use my book.

could

General ability in the past to do something, or an informal request or permission granted.

Examples

  • Lester could play the piano when he was five.
  • Could you pass the salt?

may

A formal request or permission granted, or a possibility, something that could or could not happen.

Examples

  • May I go to the bathroom? Students may use a calculator on the test.
  • I may go see the movie tonight, or I may wake up early tomorrow to see it.

might

A possibility, something that could or could not happen. Usually stronger possibility than may.

Example

  • The library might allow students to bring in food.

must

Something that is a necessity either in the present or the future, a strong possibility, or a near certainty in the present or past.

Examples

  • For the best result, you must mix the batter for five minutes.
  • Andrew must be late.
  • You must have left the tickets in the car.

should

Suggestions or advice, obligations or duties, or expectations.

Examples

  • Everyone should drink water every day.
  • The teacher should protect your personal information.
  • Your food should arrive soon.

will

A certainty, request, or promise.

Examples

  • If you don’t go to sleep now, you will regret it tomorrow.
  • Will you go to Miranda’s party with me?
  • Jamie will plan the wedding.

would

Polite requests or repeated actions in the past.

Examples

  • Would you help me finish this pie? I would like some milk.
  • Whenever Elias needed help with writing, he would visit his professor.

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The Meaning of Modals by Robin Jeffrey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.