Modal verbs can be tricky, but the good news is that they’re simple once you learn how they work. Below, we explain everything you need to know to use modal verbs with ease.
What are modal verbs?
Modal verbs show possibility, intent, ability, or necessity. Common examples of modal verbs include can, should, and must. Because they’re a type of auxiliary verb (helper verb), they’re used alongside the infinitive form of the main verb of a sentence.
Modal verbs are used to express certain hypothetical conditions, such as advisability, capability, or requests (there’s a full list in the next section). They’re used alongside a main verb to inflect its meaning.
Consider the difference between these two examples:
The first example is a simple factual statement. The speaker participates in a swimming activity every week on Tuesdays.
The second example uses the modal verb can. Notice how the meaning changes slightly. The speaker does not necessarily swim every Tuesday; they’re saying that they are capable of swimming every Tuesday or that the possibility exists for them to swim every Tuesday. It’s hypothetical.
Because modal verbs are auxiliary, they can’t generally be used on their own. A modal verb can appear alone in a sentence only if the main verb is implied because it has previously been established.
Yes, I can.
Modal verbs are quite common in English; you’ve seen them in action hundreds of times even if you didn’t know what they were called. The most frequently used ones are:
There are other, less common modal verbs. Some—like shall and ought—are rarely used any longer. There are also verbs that can function either as main verbs or as modal auxiliaries depending on the context; got, need, and have all behave like modal verbs in the common colloquial expressions got to, need to, and have to. Some modal verbs express very specific conditions that don’t come up often, like dare in its modal form in “Dare I ask?” The word used in the idiomatic phrase used to, as in “I used to be an English student too,” behaves like a modal verb with only a past tense form.
When are modal verbs used?
What special conditions do modal verbs indicate? Here’s a list, along with examples:
Some things seem likely to be true but can’t be stated as definite facts. In these cases, you can use the modal verbs should and must to show probability without certainty.
In a situation when something is possible but not certain, use the modal verb could, may, or might.
The modal verb can expresses whether the subject of a sentence is able to do something. Likewise, the negative form, cannot or can’t, shows that the subject is unable to do something.
If you want to ask permission to do something, start your question with can, may, or could. Traditionally, may is considered more formal and polite usage for permission; if you ask “Can I go to the bathroom?” it could be misinterpreted as “Do I have the ability to go to the bathroom?” However, in modern informal usage, may and can are both perfectly acceptable options for describing possibility or permission.
Similarly, if you want to ask someone else to do something, start your question with will, would, can, or could.
What if you want to recommend a course of action but not command it? If you’re giving suggestions or advice without ordering someone around, you can use the modal verb should.
On the other hand, if you want to command someone, use the modal verbs must, have, or need. With the latter two, the main verb does not drop the word to from its infinitive form.
Obligation or necessity
Modal verbs can express a necessary action, such as an obligation, duty, or requirement. Likewise, the negative forms express that an action is not necessary. Use the same modal verbs as with commands: must, have, and need.
To show an ongoing or habitual action—something the subject does regularly—you can use the modal verb would for the past tense and will for the present and future. The phrase used to is also acceptable when you’re talking about a habit in the past.
How to use modal verbs (with examples)
Luckily, using modal verbs in a sentence is pretty simple. For basic sentences—in the simple present tense—just remember these rules:
- Modal verbs come directly before the main verb except for in questions.
- With modal verbs, use the infinitive form of the main verb. With most but not all modal verbs, to is dropped from the infinitive.
So if you want to brag about your ability to eat an entire pizza, you use the modal verb can before the infinitive form of eat without to—which is simply eat. The rest of the sentence continues as normal.
If you want to communicate that circumstances are requiring you to eat an entire pizza, you might use the modal verb have before the infinitive form of eat, retaining to:
For yes/no questions, you still use the infinitive form of the main verb, but the order is a little different: [modal verb] + [subject] + [main verb infinitive].
Note that in the second example above, because have is a verb that only sometimes functions as an auxiliary verb and at other times functions as a main verb, the question is formed with the auxiliary verb do at the beginning.
Because modal verbs deal largely with general situations or hypotheticals that haven’t actually happened, all of the core ones can refer to present and future time but only some of them can refer to past time, and most of the time they do not change form to make different tenses. However, all of them can be used with different conjugations of a sentence’s main verb to refer to present or future time in different ways, so let’s talk a little about verb tenses and modal verbs.
After the modal verb, use the word be followed by the –ing form of the main verb: [modal verb] + be + [verb in -ing form].
Present perfect continuous
You can add a modal verb before a main verb in the present perfect continuous tense without changing much. However, note that the main verb always forms the present perfect continuous using have been, when appearing with a modal verb, never had been, even if the subject is third-person. The formula is [modal verb] + have been + [main verb in -ing form].
Simple past and present perfect tenses
Only a few of the core modal verbs have the ability to refer to past time: could, might, should, and would. They do this by functioning at times as the past tense forms of their fellow modal verbs can, may, shall, and will. But keep in mind that, as we saw above, could, might, should, and would also have different senses in which they refer to the present and the future, indicating possibility, permission, request, habit, or other conditions. None of the modal verbs can be used in the past perfect, the past continuous, or the past perfect continuous tense.
Of the main modal verbs listed at the top, only can and will can be used in the simple past. The expressions have to and need to can also be used in the simple past, when conjugated as had to and needed to. Other modal verbs use the present perfect to discuss events in the past.
Can and will use their past tense form plus the infinitive form of the main verb without to, just like in the present: could/would + [main verb infinitive].
To form the present perfect using the modal verb could, might, should, or would, use the present perfect form of the main verb, which is have plus the past participle. As with the present perfect continuous, you always use have, even if the subject is third-person: could/might/should/would + have + [main verb past participle].
Because the simple future, future continuous, future perfect, and future perfect continuous tenses of main verbs are all already formed with the modal verb will, when you want to indicate likelihood, permission, or any of the other conditions discussed above in the future, it often makes sense to do it in some other way than by adding a modal verb.
However, there are also situations in which a modal verb other than willcan be used to talk about something in the future. In these cases, the new modal verb just replaces will in the sentence, and the main verb takes the same form it would with will..