Verbs are an important part of the English language. There are regular verbs, helping verbs, linking verbs… The list is pretty long. But have you ever heard of modal verbs? This kind of verb isn’t always spoken about. Many native English speakers may not even know the definition of a modal verb. But these verbs are actually extremely important in English because speakers use them all every day.
So, what exactly is a modal verb and why are they so important? They are a type of auxiliary verb. Let’s refresh your memory a little: auxiliary (helping) verbs are used in forming the tenses, moods, and voices of other verbs. Modal verbs show a certain mood- they express necessity or possibility. This means we use them when we believe something is certain, probable, or possible. They can also be used when asking permission to do something.
Here is a list of all of the modal verbs in English:
Must Shall Will Should Would Can Could May Might
Next, we are going to discuss how and when to use these different modal verbs, and we will also look at examples of how to use them. Many of these words have more than definition so please be careful and pay attention to their different uses.
Past / Present / Future
The most common use for these words are for expressing time.
“Can” is present tense and means “to be able to” do something.
“I can (I am able to) do a cartwheel and stand on my hands.”
“Could” also means “to be able to” but it is past tense.
“When I was younger, I could (was able to) run very fast.”
The word “will” refers to the future. It expresses something that will happen in the future.
“When I retire, I will relax and enjoy myself.”
“Would” is the past tense version of “will.” It takes place in the past, but still expresses an inevitable event.
“The teacher said he would fail the test if he didn’t study.”
The words “may” and “might” are similar to “will” but are more uncertain. They show some kind of possibility, but the speaker is not entirely sure.
“When I retired, I may travel the world if I have the money.”
“I might want to go to the party if I am feeling better later.”
Certainty / Possibility
Modal verbs can also show a possibility. They are used when the speaker is certain and other times they are used when they aren’t 100% sure of the outcome.
“Can” is used when someone is sure they do something.
“Yes, I can (I am certain I will) make it to the meeting on Friday.”
The word “could” is like “can” but the speaker is having some doubt.
“I could make it to the meeting on Friday if my train arrives on time.”
“Might” is very similar to “could.” It shows when someone is unsure. It is also interchangeable with the word “may.”
“I might (could) make it in time if there is no traffic.”
“I may (might / could) make it in time if there is no traffic.”
Many of these words are also used to ask permission. Like some of their other definitions, they are a little uncertain or show possibility. Using them in a question is considered formal and polite. Some are considered more formal than others, though.
“May I sit next to you?”
“Would you mind if I leave?”
“Could we look for a restroom?”
“Can we go to the carnival?”
The modal verbs can be used to express the need for something.
The word “must” is used to express some kind of requirement “The customers must (need to) have a library card to take out a book.”
The word “must” can be also used to show persuasion, but is usually more positive than its command form.
“You must (need to) watch that new TV show. It is really good!”
The word “will” has many uses (as we just saw), but when it comes to necessity, it is usually used in a command.
“You will (have to/ must) go to your room or you won’t get dinner.”
The word “shall” is very similar to “will” when it comes to necessity. It is used for commands or instructions.
“The man shall (will / must) pay the fine, unless he wants to go to jail.”
However, the word “shall” is usually considered out of date. You will not hear many native English speakers using it, and you may not use it yourself very often. “Will” is a much more common word.
Now that you know the different definitions and uses of modal verbs, it’s time to practice them. They are used everywhere in English, and you will (see, I just used one!) probably need to use them when speaking English with others. If you do not have an English partner to practice with, visit Spoken English Practice, where you can find your own native English tutor to help you master modal verbs and more.