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English Modals–Verbs that Express Ability, Permission, Probability, Advice, Necessity and Requests

English Modals–Verbs that Express Ability, Permission, Probability, Advice, Necessity and Requests

Modals are special verbs in English. They behave a little bit differently than most English verbs. For one thing, they don’t take an “s” in the third person singular form. Many do not have a past tense. In addition, they are usually used as auxiliary verbs and are followed by the base form of the verb. In this posting I discuss 6 types of modals: modals of ability, permission, probability, advice, necessity, and polite requests. I talk about how to use these verbs and give you example sentences. The download at the end will give you additional practice in using modals.

Here is the lesson I taught on Modal Verbs in English:

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Below are the six types of modals we use most often in English.

Modals of Ability

There are 2 modals of ability, can and could (past tense). Use the following formula when talking about ability with these modals: subject + modal + base form of the verb.

  • I can speak French .
  • I can’t speak Russian .
  • Last year I could run very fast .
  • Last year I couldn’t play basketball  .

To ask a question, simply invert the modal and the subject: modal + subject + base form of the verb

  • Can you speak Spanish? .  Yes, I can.  No, I can’t.
  • Could you drive ten years ago? .  Yes, I could. No, I couldn’t.

Modals of Permission

The most common modals of permission are can and may. We use the same formula : subject + modal + base form of the verb.

  • He can come to dinner with me if he wants to .
  • He can’t come to dinner with me. I don’t like him  .
  • You may borrow my car if you wish .
  • You may not borrow my car. I never loan it to anyone . Please note, there is no contraction for may not.

To ask a question, we use the formula: modal + subject + base form of the verb

  • Can we sit with you at the concert?   Yes, you can.  No, you can’t.
  • May I borrow 5 dollars? I forgot my wallet .  Yes, you may.  No, you may not.

Modals of Probability

When we talk about something that could happen, but we are not sure, we use the following modals: may and might. They mean almost the same thing, except might means that you are a little more sure. Our formula is the same: subject + modal + base form of the verb.

  • It may rain tonight .
  • It may not rain tonight .
  • I might come by your house this afternoon .
  • I might not come by your house this afternoon Please note, we do not have a contraction for may not or might not.

We ask a question in a different way with modals of possibility.

  • Will it rain tonight?
  • Do you think it might rain tonight?  It might.  It might not.

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Modals of Advice

There are several modals we use to give advice to someone: should, ought to, and had better. Please note that even though had better looks like a past tense verb, in this case it is used in the simple present. We use the same formula: subject + modal + base form of the verb.

  • You should study for the test .
  • You shouldn’t study for the test .
  • She ought to see a doctor .
  • She shouldn’t see a doctor . Note, these is no negative for ought to.
  • He had better pay his rent today .
  • He had better not pay his rent today . Note, we can also say,”He’d better pay his rent today. Many Americans shorten it to: He better pay his rent today. This is fine in conversation, but is not correct in written. English.

All modals of advice, use should to ask a question: modal + subject + base form of the verb

Should I buy new coat?   Yes, you should. No, you shouldn’t.

Should and ought to mean the same thing. They are used to simply give advice to someone . Had better is much stronger. We use this modal when something bad might happen if you don’t follow the advice.

Modals of Necessity

We use these modals to discuss something we need to do: must, have to, and had to (past tense). The formula is the same: subject + modal + base form of the verb

  • I must visit my sick friend in the hospital .
  • I must not (mustn’t) visit my sick friend in the hospital .

Note that mustn’t is pronounced mussn’t)

  • I can’t go to the game because I have to work today .
  • He can go to the game because he doesn’t have to work today 
  • They had to study very hard last year .
  • They didn’t have to study very hard last year .

To ask a question with  a modal of necessity, we usually use the verbs have to or had to.

  • Do you have to work today?   Yes I do. No, I don’t.
  • Did you have to work yesterday? Yes, I did. No, I didn’t.

Modals for Polite Requests

There are 4 modals we often use to make polite requests: would you, could you, can you, and I’d like (I would like). Would you, could you, and can you all mean the same thing. We use these modals to ask for something politely. The formula is modal + base form of the verb

  • Would you help me fix my car?    Sure, I’d be happy to.
  • Could you help me fix my car?    Sorry I can’t. I have to work.
  • Can you help me fix my car?   I can’t now, but maybe later.

We use I’d like in two ways: modal + infinitive form of the verb.

I’d like to help you with your problem  .

We can also say modal + noun 

I’d like some water, please  .

You now know some of the most common modals in English: modals of ability, permission, probability, advice, necessity, and polite requests. You have learned that modals behave a little bit differently than most English verbs. The formula for using modals is the same most of the time: subject + modal + base form of the verb to make a statement. To ask a question, most of the time use this formula: modal + subject + base form of the verb. The download will give you some additional practice using modals.

Download  the Practice Sheet NOW

Idioms of the day

  1. To give someone the green light . This means to give someone permission to do something. I wasn’t sure if my boss would let me work from home, but he gave me the green light.
  2. Red tape . This means bureaucratic procedures that often cause delays.These is so much red tape to getting a green card to work in the USA!

Related Lesson: Phrasal Verbs-Understanding and Using Two Word Verbs

I packaged this English modal verb vocabulary into some flashcards for you to study – learn these English modal verbs here below!

Misty Davidson
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