Modal Verbs

Modal verbs in English are a type of auxiliary verb. These verbs are important in English because you can use them to indicate the modality of the main verb. Depending on the modal verb you use, the meaning of your sentence changes.

On this page, you have a full overview of what modal verbs are, why you use them and also some examples.

What are modal verbs?

Modal verbs are auxiliary verbs you use to give extra meaning to the main verb. They don’t have an infinitive and you always use them in the same form. This means that you don’t add an ‘s’ in the third person singular.

After a modal verb, you always put a bare infinitive; so an infinitive without ‘to’. The most common modal verbs in English are:

can, could, must, may, might and should

Modal Verbs Taalhulp Engels

Meaning of modal verbs

Modal verbs change the meaning of the main verb and the sentence in general. They all have a different meaning so you use them in different situations.

Can

Can is used to say when something is possible or when it’s allowed. It can also be used when someone has the ability to do something.

The negative form of can is can’t and can be used when someone lacks the ability to do something, when something is not possible or when it’s not allowed. The full form of can’t is cannot. Take a look at the examples below:

Examples
I can speak 5 languages.
I can’t go to the party.
He can’t read.
We can listen very well.

Could

Could is mostly used as the past form of can. It’s commonly used with the following verbs: hear, smell, see, taste, feel and remember.

Examples
Could I go outside, please?
We could see the lake.
They could do what they wanted.
I could smell alcohol.

Must

Must can be used to express certainty. If you’re certain something is impossible, you use can’t.

Examples
They haven’t lived here for very long so they can’t know many people.
You have been walking all day so you must be tired.

Must can also be used when expressing your opinion about something you think is appropriate in a particular situation.

Example
I haven’t seen her for ages so I must call her.

Have to

Have to is used when you are required to do something; when it’s an obligation or when it’s necessary.

Examples
I have to wear glasses for reading.
You can’t go left here so you have to go right.

May and might

May and might are used interchangeably because there is only a slight difference in meaning. You use these modal verbs when something is possible.

Examples
It might be true.
She might know.

The negative forms are may not and might not.

Examples
It might not be true.
She might not know.

In the past, you use may have (done) and might have (done).

Example
He might have been poor.

Should

Should is commonly used to give advice or to express an opinion.

Examples
You should call her.
He should go to bed early.

You can also use should to talk about something unexpected or something that doesn’t seem right.

Examples
She should be here by now.
I should already be a millionaire.

Should is also used to talk about expectations.

Example
She is smart so she should pass the exam.

If you want to use should in the past, you use should (not) have … This is used to talk about something that you didn’t do and regret that you didn’t do it. It can also be used when you did something and regret it.

Examples
I should have gone to the party.
He should not have stolen money.

Modal verbs overview

Modal verbUseExample
CanPossibility
Permission
Ability
I can speak Chinese.
You can use your phone in class.
Can’t/cannotImpossibility
Inability
He cannot read.
They cannot talk to each other.
CouldPast form of can, usually in combination with: hear, smell, see, taste, feel and rememberI could smell gasoline.
We could see Mount Everest.
MustCertaintyHe must be old.
Have toObligationYou have to be on time.
MayPossibilityThey may trick us into buying something.
MightPossibilityWe might be lucky today.
ShouldAdvice
Expectations
They should save some money for when they want to buy a house.

Exercises

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