Modal Verbs. Free English Lesson with Test and Certificate.
Quick Modal Verbs study for SAT, IELTS, TESOL and other exams.
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How to use Modal Verbs in English
There are four pairs of modal verbs in English. They are mainly used to show the difference between if something is certain to happen, will probably happen, or might happen. They are irregular ... but at least there are only eight modal verbs to learn.
The modal verbs you'll read about in this lesson are can and could, may and might, shall and should, and finally, will and would.
Here’s an example of how modal verbs can change the meaning of a sentence:
- I can go swimming, because I have some pocket money.
- I should go swimming, but I am too tired.
- I might go swimming, if my mom says it’s OK.
- I would go swimming, but the pool is closed today.
Your English lesson about Modal Verbs
Welcome to the Modal Verbs lesson!
This is a difficult grammar lesson for many English learners. There are many different uses of modal verbs and many different forms. To make things worse, a minor change in word choice can completely change the meaning of the sentence.
When you study this lesson, it is important to pay attention to the examples. There are many forms, so memorizing rules will be difficult. However, if you practice using these grammar forms by reading the example sentences, it will help you remember them.
We also recommend that you try to write some of your own example sentences. This can be difficult for many students, but it will really show if you understand the grammar or not.
Now that we have scared you, let’s get started ;-)
Here's a list of the modal verbs in English:
can, could, may, might, will, would, must, shall, should, ought to.
Modals are different from normal verbs in a few different ways:
1: They don't use an 's' for the third person singular (he, she, it).
He can run fast. (Not: He can runs fast.)
2: They make questions by placing the verb before the subject.
Can she swim? (Not: She can swim)
3: They are followed directly by the infinitive of another verb (without 'to').
We can speak English. (Not: We can to speak English.)
Next, let’s look at some of the uses of modal verbs. First, modals can be used to express probability. Modals help us to say how sure we are that something happened, is happening, or will happen. Let’s see how this works in a few examples.
It's snowing, so it must be very cold outside.
I don't know where John is. He might have missed the train.
This bill can't be right. We only had two hamburgers.
We can use these modal verbs when we want to make a guess about something. We choose the verb depending on how sure we are. When we are making a guess about something in the present tense, we use these forms:
[must / might / could / may / can't + infinitive]
Look at the following examples to get a clearer understanding of how these are used.
She must be stuck in traffic. (You are fairly sure this is a good guess)
She might come soon. (maybe, but not sure)
She could be lost. (maybe, but not sure)
She may be in the wrong room. (maybe, but not sure)
She can't be at home! (You are fairly sure this isn't true)
Notice that the opposite of must is can't in this case.
We use will and won't when we are very sure:
She'll be at work now.
He won’t be at work today.
Should and shouldn't are used to describe what is probably true.
They should be there by now.
It shouldn't take long to drive here.
This use of should IS NOT usually used for negative events. Instead, it's a better idea to use will.
Unfortunately, he will be (not: 'should be') late for our meeting.
Can is used for something that is generally possible, something we know sometimes happens.
The weather can be very hot in July and August in New York City.
Can is not used to talk about specific possibilities.
He could be (not: 'can be') on the bus.
Modal Verbs in the past
Now, let’s look at how we can use modal verbs to talk about the past.
[must / might / could / may / can't + have + past participle]
He must have forgotten about our meeting.
He might have fallen asleep.
He could have taken the wrong bus.
He may have felt ill.
He can't have stayed at home.
Will and won't (will not) + have + past participle are used for past certainty.
The package will have arrived before we get home from work.
The mechanic will have finished fixing our car.
[Should + have + past participle] can be used to talk about something that has probably happened.
The train should have left by now
We can use [could + infinitive] to talk about a general possibility in the past.
Some people could survive on very low wages in the early 20th century.
Expressing general and specific ability
In addition to using modal verbs to talk about probability, we use modals to talk about skill or ability.
She can speak two languages.
Picasso could paint very well.
I can't swim.
When we talk about ability, there are two possible meanings. First, we could be talking about a general ability. This is something that you can do any time you want, like being able to read or swim or ride a bicycle.
The other kind of ability is a specific ability. This means something that you can or can't do in one particular situation. For example, being able to lift something heavy, or find somewhere you are looking for.
In the present tense, we use can/can't for both general and specific ability.
I can play the piano.
She can speak English.
He can't talk right now. He’s busy.
We can't come home now.
In the past tense, we use could/couldn't for general ability, and we use was able to/couldn't for specific ability.
I could walk when I was only 10 months old.
She could speak Spanish when she was a child, but now she has forgotten it.
He couldn't swim until I was 8 years old.
I was able to pass the test even though I didn’t prepare well.
I couldn’t finish the homework last night.
When the computer crashed yesterday, I was able to fix it.
He called us because he couldn't find our house.
I couldn't open the window.
Sometimes we want to express that someone had an ability in the past ... but didn’t use it. In these situations, we use [could + have + past participle].
I could have been a good piano player, but I didn't practice enough.
We could have come earlier.
She could have become a doctor, but she preferred to study business.
If we are talking about the future we use will/won’t be able to when we are referring to a general ability and we use can/can’t to talk about a specific ability.
At the end of the course, you will be able to make your own website.
He won't be able to speak English in a week! It will take a long time.
I can help you tomorrow
I can't come to the party
Describing things and giving advice
You have seen how we use modal verbs to talk about probability ... and then ability or skill. Next, we often use modal verbs to describe a something we have to do or to give advice.
We can use [have to + infinitive], [must + infinitive], and [should + infinitive] to express obligation (that is, something you have to do).
We have to wear a uniform when we go to school.
Children must do their homework.
You should stop smoking.
In the present tense, we use have to/don't have to when we want to express a strong obligation or no obligation.
Children have to go to school.
I don't have to work on Sundays.
You don't have to eat anything you don't like.
We also use must/mustn't to express strong obligation, but this is a little different because it is sometimes based on the speaker’s opinion instead of a rule or a law.
I must study today.
You must study for two hours today.
We must go to the shops
We must go shopping
To express a mild obligation or advice we use should/shouldn't.
You should save your money.
You shouldn't eat so much candy.
Be careful about the difference between mustn't and don't have to!
Mustn't means it's not allowed, or it's a bad idea.
You mustn't eat so much chocolate, you'll be sick.
Don't have to has a very different meaning. We use don’t have to when we don't need to do something, but it's fine if you want to do it.
I don’t have to eat so much chocolate. I just like it!
I don't have to get up early on Saturday.
This means, if I want to get up early, that's fine, but I can stay in bed if I want.
Moving to the past tense, to express an obligation we use had to/didn't have to.
I had to wear a school uniform when I was a girl.
We didn't have to go to school on Saturdays.
Sometimes we want to talk about a past action which didn't happen, but maybe we wish it had happened. We use this form - [should have/shouldn’t have + past participle] to express regret.
You should have gone to bed earlier, now you feel tired this morning.
You shouldn't have waited so long before you started studying for the test.
Another common use of modal verbs is to express permission. We can use verbs such as 'can', 'could' and 'may' to ask for and give permission. We also use modal verbs to say something is not allowed. Here are some examples.
Could I leave early today, please?
You may not use the car tonight.
Can we swim in the lake?
Modals and the past / could, should and would.
The past modals [could have + past participle], or [should have + past participle] or [would have + past participle] can be confusing.
These past modal verbs are all used to talk about things that didn't really happen in the past.
[Could have + past participle] is used when something was possible in the past, or you had the ability to do something in the past, but that you didn't do it.
I could have stayed up late, but I decided to go to bed early.
They could have passed the test, but they didn't study hard enough.
Julie could have bought the book, but she borrowed it from the library instead.
[Couldn't have + past participle] can also be used if something wasn't possible in the past, even if you had wanted to do it.
I couldn't have gotten a higher score on the test. I studied as hard as I could.
She couldn’t have bought the new telephone even if she had the money. They were all sold out.
We can also use [could have + past participle] when we want to make a guess about something that happened in the past. In this case, we don't know if what we're saying is true or not true. We're just talking about our opinion of what might have happened.
He could have got stuck in traffic.
He could have forgotten that we were meeting today.
He could have overslept.
We can also choose to use [might have + past participle] to mean the same thing:
He might have got stuck in traffic.
He might have forgotten that we were meeting today.
He might have overslept.
Next, [should have + past participle] is used if there was something that would have been a good idea, but you didn't do it. It's like giving advice about the past when you say it to someone else, or regretting what you did or didn't do when you're talking about yourself.
In contrast, the negative form, which is [shouldn't have + past participle], means that something wasn't a good idea, but you did it anyway.
I should have studied harder!
(I didn't study very hard. I'm sorry about this now.)
I should have gone to bed early.
(I didn't go to bed early and now I'm tired).
I shouldn't have eaten so much cake!
(I did eat a lot of cake and now I don't feel good.)
You should have called me when you got home.
(You didn't call me and I was worried. I wish that you had called me).
John should have left early, and then he wouldn't have missed the plane.
(He didn't leave early and so he did miss the plane).
We can also use [should have + past participle] to talk about something that, if everything is normal and okay, we think has already happened. But we're not certain that everything is fine, so we use 'should have' and not the present perfect or past simple. It's often used with 'by now'.
His plane should have arrived by now.
(If everything is fine, the plane has arrived).
John should have finished work by now.
(If everything is normal, John has finished work).
We can also use this to talk about something that would have happened if everything was fine, but hasn't happened.
She should have arrived by now, but she hasn't.
More modal verbs exercises
Lastly, let’s look at [would have + past participle].
If I had enough money, I would have bought a new car.
(but I didn't have enough money, so I didn't buy a car).
Because 'would' (and will) can also be used to show if you want to do something or not, we can also use [would have + past participle] to talk about something you wanted to do but didn't. This is very similar to the third conditional, but we don't need an 'if clause'.
I would have gone to the party, but I was really busy.
(I wanted to go to the party, but I didn't because I was busy.)
I would have called you, but I didn't know your number.
(I wanted to call you, but I didn't know your number.)
Phew. That’s the end of the modal verbs lesson. It is quite a complicated subject.
It’s story time
Now that we’ve learned a lot about modals, let’s see how they are used in a short story. As you read the following story, pay attention to how the modal verbs are used.
“Hey Alan!” Jerry called, “Should we see a movie this weekend?” Alan liked the idea, but there were many things they had to decide on first. “Can you see an afternoon movie?” he responded. “I can’t afford to pay the high ticket price for an evening movie.”
Jerry couldn’t go to a matinee on Saturday because he had to go to English academy, but he could see a movie Sunday afternoon. Alan said he should be able to go on Sunday, but he might have to help his mother go shopping. “Can’t you go shopping with your mother on Saturday instead?” Jerry asked. Alan wasn’t sure, but he thought Saturday would be okay.
Next, they started to think about which movie they should see. Jerry thought they should see a sci-fi movie, but Alan thought a comedy movie would be better. Of course, they couldn’t see both movies, so they had to make a decision. Finally, after a long argument, Jerry agreed that he would go to the comedy movie. However, he really thought they should see a sci-fi movie because the special effects will be better on the big screen. They could see the comedy movie on the internet or on TV and it would still be funny. But the sci-fi movie will be much more impressive in the theater.
Lastly, they had to decide how they would get to the theater. “Maybe my father can drive us,” said Jerry. Jerry said that he would ask his father that evening. “What should we do if he can’t?” asked Alan. “I think he should be able to,” said Jerry. “But if he can’t, I guess we’ll have to take the subway.”
That’s the end of the lesson on modal verbs.
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