Modal Verb


In English grammar, understanding and using modal verbs properly is critical. These special types of verbs are vital for expressing various moods, attitudes and expressions in English. This tutorial will provide a thorough introduction, detailing how each one is used and offering examples to demonstrate their function.

What are Modal Verbs?

Modal verbs are auxiliary (or helping) verbs that express ability, possibility, permission or obligation. These verbs alter the mood of a sentence by indicating a degree of necessity or probability. For example, the modal verb "might" suggests a possibility or probability, while "must" indicates an obligation or requirement.

Types of Modal Verbs

Primary Modal Verbs

There are nine primary modal verbs: can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, and would. Each of these modals has a distinct, often complex meaning. Let's examine each one in detail.

  • 'Can' is used to express ability or the possibility of something happening. For example, "I can swim".
  • 'Could' is the past tense of 'can'. However, it is also used to express a potential in the future. For example, "You could get a promotion if you work hard".
  • 'May' is used to express possibility or to ask for permission. For example, "It may rain today".
  • 'Might' is similar to 'may', but it indicates a lower possibility. For example, "I might go to the party."
  • 'Must' is used to express a strong obligation or necessity. For example, "We must do our homework".
  • 'Shall' is used with first person pronouns to form the simple future tense. For example, "We shall overcome".
  • 'Should' is used to give advice or talk about what is ideal. For example, "You should read this book".
  • 'Will' is used to talk about the future or to make predictions. For example, "I will study harder".
  • 'Would' is used to talk about hypothetical situations, or to make polite requests. For example, "Would you pass the salt?".

Semi-Modal Verbs

Besides the primary modal verbs, there are also a few semi-modal verbs. These include: ought to, used to, need to, and dare to. These semi-modals function in similar ways to primary modals, but their usage is often a bit more complex.

Rules of Using Modal Verbs

While modal verbs can be a bit fluid, here are a few general rules to help guide your usage.

  • Modal verbs never change their form. They don't need to be conjugated to match the subject of the sentence.
  • Except for 'ought to', modal verbs are always followed by a verb in the base form.
  • Modal verbs do not need an additional auxiliary in negatives or questions.
  • Modal verbs cannot be used in different tenses.

Using Modal Verbs Correctly

While modal verbs have definitions, their real meaning depends largely on the context. Therefore, exposure and practice are the best ways to learn how to use them properly. Reading English texts like books, newspapers, and magazines can give you a good sense of when and how to use these verbs. Moreover, using them in your writings and conversational English will also help solidify your understanding and usage.


In conclusion, modal verbs are special kinds of verbs that can alter a sentence's mood by introducing different levels of necessity or probability. With nine primary modal verbs and several semi-modal verbs to learn, mastering them will take some time. However, by understanding their meanings and the rules associated with their usage, and with plenty of practice, you will become adept at using modal verbs correctly in no time.

Practice Questions

Here are some practice questions to help you get more comfortable with using modal verbs.

  • Using 'can' and 'could', write two sentences expressing ability.
  • Using 'should', 'would', and 'could', write a hypothetical sentence about a future event.
  • Using 'must', write a sentence expressing obligation.

The answers can vary greatly, as long as they follow the rules of modal verb usage and the specific usage of the modal verb in question.

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