2013/05/17

Modal Verbs

Modal verbs are a small group of verbs that are used with other verbs to change their meaning in the sentence in various ways. The English modal verbs are can, could, may, might, shall, should, will, would, must, ought to and used to.

Table 1: Uses of modal verbs

Modal
Example
Uses
Can
They can control their own budgets.
We can’t fix it.
Can I smoke here?
Can you help me?
Ability / Possibility
Inability / Impossibility
Asking for permission
Request
Could
Could I borrow your dictionary?
Could you say it again more slowly?
We could try to fix it ourselves.
I think we could have another Gulf War.
He gave up his old job so he could work for us.
Asking for permission.
Request
Suggestion
Future possibility

Ability in the past
May
May I have another cup of coffee?
China may become a major economic power.
Asking for permission
Future possibility
Might
We’d better phone tomorrow, they might be eating their dinner now.
They might give us a 10% discount.
Present possibility

Future possibility
Must
We must say good-bye now.
They mustn’t disrupt the work more than necessary.
Necessity / Obligation
Prohibition
Ought to
We ought to employ a professional writer.
Saying what’s right or correct
Shall
(More common in the UK)
Shall I help you with your luggage?
Shall we say 2.30 then?
Shall I do that or will you?
Offer
Suggestion
Asking what to do
Should
We should sort out this problem at once.
I think we should check everything again.
Profits should increase next year.
Saying what’s right or correct Recommending action

Uncertain prediction
Will
I can’t see any taxis so I’ll walk.
I’ll do that for you if you like.
I’ll get back to you first thing on Monday.
Profits will increase next year.
Instant decisions
Offer
Promise

Certain prediction
Would
Would you mind if I brought a colleague with me?
Would you pass the salt please?
Would you mind waiting a moment?
“Would three o’clock unit you?” – “That’d be fine.”
Would you like to play golf this Friday?
“Would you prefer tea or coffee?” – “I’d like tea please.”
Asking for permission

Request
Request
Making arrangements

Invitation

Preferences

Tables 2: the grammar of modal verbs

Modal verbs are different from most other verbs in the following ways.

1.      
They are followed by an infinitive verb without to e.g. You must go (Ought and used are followed by to + infinitive).
2.      
They have no –s in the 3rd person singular.
e.g. He must go.
3.      
They form questions without using do or did, with the subject coming after the modal verb.
e.g. Can I go home now?
4.      
They form negatives be adding not or n’t, but without using do or did.
e.g. I couldn’t life it.
5.      
In reported speech, they usually change their form. E.g. She said that she could speak French.
(except ought to and would)

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