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Modal Verbs in English: Usage & Examples

Modal Verbs in English: Usage & Examples

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The principal modal verbs include can, must, may, might, will, would, and should. They are used with other verbs to express ability, obligation, possibility, and so on. Following is a list showing the most useful modals and their most common meanings.

Understanding Modal Verbs

Modal Verbs

Definition of Modal Verbs

Modal verbs are a unique group of auxiliary verbs that we typically use to express notions like ability, possibility, permission, and obligation. Unlike regular verbs, modals attach to the infinitive of another verb without the ‘to’—offering a specific tone or “mood” to the main verb in the sentence.

Here’s what we need to remember:

  • They do not change to agree with the subject. For example, we say “I can” and “he can” without adding an -s.
  • Modal verbs do not have past or future tense but can appear with other verbs that do.

Let’s look at the most common modal verbs:

  • Can/Could for ability and possibility
  • May/Might for possibility and permission
  • Will/Would for future and polite requests
  • Shall/Should for suggestions and obligation
  • Must for strong obligation or necessity

We use these verbs to help us describe actions more accurately. For instance, compare “I must study” with “I should study.” The first sentence conveys a higher degree of necessity.

Formation and Structure

Affirmative Forms

When we use modal verbs in affirmative forms, they accompany the base form of the main verb without ‘to’. For example, in the sentence “We can swim,” ‘can’ is the modal verb followed by ‘swim,’ the base form of the main verb.


  • We must try new things.
  • They shall join us later.

Negative Forms

Modal verbs form negative structures by adding ‘not’ after the modal verb. It is important to note that there is no ‘do’ support in these constructions. We simply say “We should not go,” where ‘should’ is the modal verb followed by ‘not’ and the base verb ‘go’.


  • We cannot (can’t) ignore this.
  • You must not (mustn’t) forget your keys.

Interrogative Forms

For questions, the modal verb comes at the beginning of the sentence, before the subject, followed by the base verb. When we ask, “Can we dance?” ‘Can’ is the modal verb placed at the start to form the interrogative.


  • May I enter the room?
  • Should they take a break?

Contracted Forms

Modal verbs often have contracted forms to sound more natural in conversation. We typically use contractions in speaking rather than in formal writing. ‘Will not’ becomes ‘won’t,’ and ‘shall not’ becomes ‘shan’t’.


  • We’ll (we will) see you there.
  • They’d (they would) love to join us.

Common Modal Verbs in English


To express:

  • Ability
  • Permission
  • Probability


  • I can speak Spanish.
  • Can I go to the bathroom?
  • It can’t be Mark. He is in London.


To express:

  • Past ability
  • Past permission
  • Probability (40%)
  • Request


  • He could speak French when he was 6 years old.
  • He could go to the theater.
  • It could get much hotter in July.
  • I could lend you my notebook.


To express:

  • Probability(50%)
  • Permission


  • It may snow tomorrow.
  • May I come in?


To express:

  • Probability (35% or less)


  • It might rain today.


To express:

  • Prohibition
  • Deduction/probability(100%)


  • You mustn’t speak loudly. This is the hospital.
  • The teacher must be Mark. I’ve seen his bicycle outside.


To express:

  • Advice


  • You shouldn’t smoke. It is unhealthy.


To express:

  • Prediction
  • Spontaneous decision


  • I think he will study harder this time. Oh, it’s very hot today.
  • I’II open the window.

Interactive Exercises

Exercise 1: Fill in the Blanks with the Appropriate Modal Verb

Choose the correct modal verb to complete each sentence: can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, would.

  1. You ________ speak to the manager if you are not happy with the service.
  2. ________ I borrow your pen for a moment, please?
  3. He ________ finish his homework before he can go out to play.
  4. ________ you help me move this heavy table?
  5. She ________ have left early because her car is not in the parking lot.
  6. We ________ like to order dessert now.
  7. ________ I suggest an alternative solution to this problem?
  8. You ________ not enter the construction site without a hard hat.
  9. They ________ visit their grandparents this weekend if the weather is good.
  10. He ________ go to the doctor if the pain persists.


  1. can/may
  2. May/Could
  3. must
  4. Will/Could
  5. might
  6. would
  7. May/Can
  8. must
  9. might
  10. should

Exercise 2: Choose the Correct Modal Verb for Each Situation

For each situation, choose the modal verb that best expresses the idea: can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, would.

  1. (permission) ________ I leave the table?
  2. (request) ________ you please pass the salt?
  3. (obligation) You ________ submit the application by the deadline.
  4. (offer) ________ I carry that for you?
  5. (possibility) It ________ rain later this afternoon.
  6. (advice) You ________ take an umbrella just in case.
  7. (promise) I ________ be there before 8 o’clock.
  8. (ability in the past) When she was younger, she ________ run very fast.
  9. (habitual past action) Every Sunday, we ________ go to my grandmother’s house for dinner.
  10. (prohibition) You ________ smoke in this building.


  1. may/can
  2. could/would
  3. must
  4. shall/can
  5. might/could
  6. should
  7. will
  8. could
  9. would
  10. must not/cannot

Frequently Asked Questions

What are some common uses of modal verbs in English?

Modal verbs are crucial in English for expressing various shades of meaning such as ability, possibility, permission, and obligation. For instance, “can” suggests ability, while “may” offers permission.

How do I teach modal verbs effectively to young learners like those in Key Stage 2 (KS2)?

To teach modal verbs to KS2 students, we focus on relatable scenarios that demonstrate necessity or ability, like “You must wash your hands” or “I can read this book,” and use engaging activities like role-play.

Can you provide examples of sentences that illustrate the different types of modal verbs?

Certainly! For example: “I can swim” shows ability. “May I go outside?” expresses permission. “She must finish her work” indicates necessity. “He might come to the party” suggests possibility.

Could you explain the role of modal auxiliary verbs in sentence construction?

Modal auxiliary verbs are the helping verbs in sentences that modify the main verb to indicate likelihood, ability, permission, or obligation. They always precede the main verb, as in, “We should study for the exam.”

Why is it important to understand modal verbs when learning English, and what are their functions?

Understanding modal verbs is key to mastering English because they help us express conditions and shades of meaning. They function to modify the mood of a verb and are essential for forming questions and negatives.

In what ways can mastering modal verbs enhance my English pronunciation and overall fluency?

Mastering modal verbs can improve your pronunciation by familiarizing you with their unique sounds, like the subtle difference between “can” and “can’t.” It can also boost your fluency by enabling you to express nuanced meanings and engage in more complex conversations.


Monday 14th of November 2022

te crees muy listo por subir estas cosas?

joseph munguia

Monday 8th of February 2021

Really good information.


Thursday 19th of November 2020

Very kind of you to share this great information. Thank you!


Friday 24th of April 2020

Nice, but what about WOULD, SHALL and OUGHT TO?


Sunday 26th of May 2019

Great review. Thanks a lot. From Peru.