34 Grammar: Modal Verbs

Cranes and building construction

What do you already know?

Read these sentences:

  • She swims every day.
  • She can swim every day
  • She might swim every day

What is a modal verb?

What is a verb?

An verb expresses the action or state of the subject.

What does modal mean?

Modal refers to modality, or a way of doing, being, or experiencing something.

What is a modal verb?

Therefore, a modal verb is a type of verb that contextually indicates a modality. That means it gives extra information depending upon the situation. It helps us to express our attitudes, obligations, and intentions. We can talk about likelihood and ability. We can give ask for permission and give advice.

Take another look

  • Jorgen may use my car this weekend.
  • Jorgen must use my car this weekend.
  • Jorgen will use my car this weekend

How do you make a modal verb?

Modal verbs almost always accompany the base (infinitive) form of another verb using this simple formula: modal + (not) + verb. For example:

  • She could sing very loudly.
  • She could not sing very loudly.

What different meanings can you express with modal verbs?

Here are some common modal verbs with their meanings and examples:

Meaning Modal verbs Examples
permission may, can May I go with you? Yes, you may.
Can I sit here? No, you can’t.
request could, will, would Could I have another cup of coffee, please?
Will you close the door, please?
Would you loan me five dollars?
certainty, probability, and possibility will, should, may, might, could Benny will wash the dishes after dinner. (100% certain)
Benny should wash the dishes after dinner. (90% expectation)
Benny may/might wash the dishes after dinner. (50%/50%)
Benny could wash the dishes after dinner. (maybe 25% likely)
ability can, is able to Norma can sing very well.
Norma is able to type really fast.
necessity or obligation must, have to Cars must stop at stop signs.
We have to change our passwords every six months.
advice and suggestions should, ought to, had better, could, might want to You should practice English more.
He ought to share his sandwich with you.
The weather is dry, so she had better water the garden.
He didn’t try very hard. He could do better.
They might want to read the instructions before trying to do the homework.
prediction, intention, and expectation will, is going to, is supposed to, should, ought to, must Tomorrow, I will feel better.
It is going to snow tomorrow.
The test is supposed to be easy.
Marjorie should be home after 3pm.
They ought to be finished with work by now.
This old computer must not be worth much money today.

Try it

INSTRUCTIONS: Choose one of these modal verbs to complete each sentence: must, could, is supposed to, may, can, should, have to:

  1. You ______ use my car tonight. (permission)
  2. _____ you open the door? (request)
  3. It’s snowing, so it _____ be very cold outside. (probability)
  4. She ____ speak six languages. (ability)
  5. I need a new prescription; I _____ see a doctor right away. (necessity)
  6. Students _____ do their homework every day. (advice)
  7. The weather forecast says it ____ rain tonight. (prediction)

What makes modal verbs special?

First, modal verbs add meaning to another verb. You don’t usually use a modal verb by itself unless the main verb is implied or understood.

  • Will Leo come to the party?
  • Yes, he will. (the “come” is implied or understood)

Second, modal verbs do not change form for first, second, or third person.

  • Leo says that he might come to the party.
  • Leo and Lucas say that they might come to the party.

In the first sentence, Leo says …. he might … “Leo” requires a verb in the third person singular; in the present tense this means you add -s to the end. However, you don’t do this with modal verbs. Instead, you say “he might” (not he mights).

Third, when you make a question, you start with the modal, just as we do with do/does, am/is/are, has/have.

  • Can Leo and Lucas bring ice with them?

Finally, modal verbs are followed by the infinitive, or base form, of the other verb without the “to”.

  • Leo and Lucas may to arrive late, but they said that they would to be happy to bring the ice.

What are some common ways you use modal verbs?

To be polite

Compare these examples:

  • Open the door.
  • Can you open the door?
  • Could you open the door?
  • Could you open the door, please?
  • Would you mind opening the door, please?

  • Teacher, the quiz doesn’t work! It’s broken! Fix it!
  • Teacher, the quiz might not be working correctly. It may be broken. Could you take a look at it, please? I would appreciate it very much. Thank you!

To hedge

According to Macmillan American Dictionary, hedging is “the use of words and phrases that make what you are saying less certain or definite.” Why would you want to do this? Sometimes you will want to present information but leave room for it to change if you learn more details later. You want to say something, but you want to allow room for error. Hedging softens your claims. Keith Folse, a famous grammar teacher, explains it like this:

Reason Example
to make a statement less probable, certain, or assertive (can, could, may, might) I might go to the party, but I don’t know for sure yet.
to make a statement about the past sound less probable, certain or assertive (could, may, might+have+past participle) You could have gotten a higher grade if you had studied.
to soften assertions or opinions that a reader might challenge (would) If this problem had continued, it would have major consequences.
to hedge conclusions or predictions (to leave room for doubt or future clarifications) (should) If a vaccine is made by 2021, then students should return to classrooms soon after.
to modify a statement (is supposed to) My child is supposed to mow the lawn this afternoon.

Try it

What are some common errors writers make when using modal verbs?

Here’s one …

  • The newspaper should to correct its errors in the story about the elephant.

You don’t use “to” as part of the infinitive/base form. You use this formula: conditional + (not) + infinitive/base form without the “to”.

Here’s another …

  • COVID was might have been responsible for more deaths than heart disease last year.

You should hedge (use modals) when you want to be clear that we are not 100% sure, or if you wish to leave room for doubt or correction.

Here’s one more …

Modal verbs are a great way to write in the third person. By removing the I, we, and you points of view (first person and second person), it gives your writing a more formal, academic, and objective tone. Here’s an example:

  • I think Portland has more immigrants than Cleveland, but I don’t know for sure.
  • Portland may have more immigrants than Cleveland.

You can state information as a concise fact, but you can use a modal verb to show that you don’t know for sure.

Try it

INSTRUCTIONS: Choose a modal verb to complete each sentence. Note: Most sentences will have more than one right answer.

  1. __________I use your cell phone, please? I need to call my employer to say I will be late.
  2. You __________write an essay of at least 5 paragraphs in order to explain your idea fully.
  3. You __________write more than 300 words for that scholarship application. The computer won’t let you type that many words.
  4. John __________speak so quickly. It’s difficult to understand him.
  5. She __________play the piano well because she has had many years of lessons.
  6. Please excuse me, but I __________go now. I am tired.



INSTRUCTIONS: Use the information above to choose the best answer for each question below.

1. Rewrite the following sentence as a question. Remember to use correct capitalization and punctuation.

  • Jori’s mother can cook well.

2. Put the modals in order according to strength. 1=weakest; 5=strongest

  • will
  • could
  • may
  • should

3. Plagiarism is not allowed in U.S. colleges. You ____ not do it.

A. would
B. must
C. might
D. could

4. Which modal verb expresses advice?

A. should
B. may
C. would
D. must

5. Which of the following sentences uses a modal verb form incorrectly?

A We returned home late last night after driving for many hours.
B. There are so many clouds in the sky that I think it might rain soon.
C. You must to stop your dog barking. It is too loud.
D. Your coffee must be cold by now; let me give you a fresh cup.

6. Rewrite the question below as a statement. Remember to use correct capitalization and punctuation.

  • Will the bus arrive at 5:35?

7. Modals are often used in academic writing to “hedge” their claims. What does “hedge” mean?

A. to protect oneself from risks, especially financial ones
B. to provide a border or boundary, like a hedge in a garden
C. to buy and sell shares in such a way that the risk of losing money is low
D. to soften a claim, to show tentativeness, to allow room to be proved wrong

8. Which of the words below is NOT a modal verb?

A. should
B. might
C. can
D. was

9. What is the formula for using modal verbs?

A. modal + (not) + infinitive/base form (no “to”)
B. modal + (not) + to + infinitive/base form
C. verb + (not) + modal + participle
D. to + infinitive/base form + (not) + modal

10. A modal verb can convey more information about the main verb.

A. True
B. False


Use these resources to study more about modal verbs:




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