Modal Verbs

Modal verbs are a group of auxiliary or helping verbs that appear before the main verb in a sentence to show necessity or possibility. It is expressed using the words can, could, may, might, would, must, shall, should, and will. Modal verbs add nuance and precision to speech and writing.

Knowing when and how to use modal verbs is essential for mastering English grammar. Read on to know what modal verbs are, their functions in sentences, and how they affect the meanings of words.

What are modal verbs?

Modal verbs are auxiliary or helping verbs expressing ideas such as possibility, necessity, and obligation. They modify the main verb’s meaning in a sentence.

Observe the sentences below:

(1) The students finished the assignment on time.

(2) The students can finish the assignment on time.

(3) The students must finish the assignment on time.

Without a modal in the first sentence, the meaning is simply that the students finished the assignment. Thus, it’s a statement of fact. Meanwhile, the modal verb in the second sentence (can) suggests a possibility for the students to finish the assignment on time. Lastly, the modal “must” denotes the necessity or requirement for the students to accomplish the task (i.e., finish the assignment).

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Modal Verbs Rules

To avoid making mistakes, it’s crucial to know the rules for using modal verbs. Each modal has its own function explained below.

Here are the rules of using modal verbs with examples:

In declarative sentences, a modal verb is placed between the subject and the verb.– Ms. Luiz’s assistant will send you the information.
– I might visit you this weekend.
– David could help you fix your car.
When constructing interrogative sentences, the modal verb starts the sentence followed by the subject and the main verb.Would your child attend the summer camp?
Should we go home now?
Can I see your valid ID?
Negative declarative sentences place “not” between the modal verb and the main verb.– Ms. Luiz’s assistant will not send you the information.(contraction: won’t)
– I might not visit you this weekend.
– David could not help you fix your car. (contraction: couldn’t)
Negative declarative sentences place “not” between the modal verb and the main verb.Negative interrogative sentences place the word “not” after the modal. It could also be contracted: can not = can’t, could not = couldn’t, would not = wouldn’t, must not = mustn’t, shall not = shan’t, should not = shouldn’t, and will not = won’t.
Adverbs cannot be placed beside a modal.Incorrect: He might possibly ask her out.
Correct: He might ask her out.

Incorrect: The instructor must necessarily explain the topic in detail.
Correct: The instructor must explain the topic in detail.

Incorrect: Thea will voluntarily let you borrow her book.
Correct: Thea will let you borrow her book.
Table of Rules for Modal Verbs
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Functions of Modal Verbs

FunctionModal VerbsExamples
Showing AbilityAffirmative: Can
Negative: Cannot
– We can go to the park tomorrow.
– You can borrow my laptop if you need it.
– Billy can’t drive yet, but he’s learning.
– They can’t ride a bike.
– Ana can’t meet me today.
Asking PermissionAffirmative: Can
Negative: Cannot

Affirmative: Could
Negative: Couldn’t

Can she borrow your guitar?
Can’t she borrow your guitar?
Could I use your slippers?
Couldn’t I use your slippers?
May Cara have the extra chocolate bar?
Giving Advice or SuggestionAffirmative: Should
Negative: Shouldn’t
Will you please sign here?
Would you be so kind and buy me food?
Can you fix my phone?
Could you give me my blanket?
Expressing Possibility or ImpossibilityAffirmative: Could
Negative: Couldn’t Affirmative: May
Negative: May not Affirmative: Might
Negative: Might not
– The architect could (not) design your house according to your preference.
– I may (not) have forgotten about your graduation.
– She might (not) switch to using shampoo bars.
– Layla could (not) estimate the cost of remodeling your kitchen.
– Leon may (not) watch the movie with me.
Displaying LikelihoodShould
– He should be finished dressing up by now.
– Your father must be angry, but he will eventually understand the situation.
– Diane should be there at 7 in the evening.
– Vicky must be panic-buying right now.
– He must be driving. That’s why he’s not answering my call.
Making RequestWill
Will you please sign here?
Would you be so kind and buy be food?
Can you fix my phone?
Could you give me my blanket?
Stating a Command or NecessityAffirmative: Must
Negative: Mustn’t
– He must submit his application tomorrow.
– Dona must apologize to you.
– Alex must compensate him properly.
– He mustn’t create another letter.
– Your son mustn’t miss his class on Friday.
Conveying Habitual ActionPresent and Future Tenses: Will
Past Tense: Would
– I would bake every Sunday when I had time.
– He would stop by my house to give me flowers.
– Sia will drink coffee daily after her partner leave.
– They will join a marathon yearly.
– Lyle will order pesto every other day.
Table of Functions for Modal Verbs
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Examples of Modal Verbs

Here are 1o examples of modal verbs in sentences:

  1. You must finish your homework before dinner.
  2. Ralph should take a break from studying.
  3. Jenny and Jackie could not go to the park this weekend.
  4. The doctor said I must avoid eating oily food.
  5. We might not travel abroad this year.
  6. Would you like to join us for dinner?
  7. May I continue my presentation?
  8. Can’t I borrow your pen?
  9. Could you please help me with this project?
  10. Shouldn’t he make a decision now?

Modal Verbs Exercises with Answers

Write a sentence following the requirement of each item. Model answers will be given

canAffirmative Declarative Sentence 
couldNegative Declarative Sentence 
mayInterrogative Sentence 
mightAffirmative Declarative Sentence 
shouldNegative Interrogative Sentence 
wouldNegative Declarative Sentence 
willAffirmative Interrogative Sentence 
mustAffirmative Declarative Sentence 
ShallAffirmative Interrogative Sentence 
Modal Verbs Exercise Worksheet

Model Answers:

canAffirmative Declarative SentenceI can help you with sorting books in the library.
couldNegative Declarative SentenceCouldn’t Andrei inform me ahead of time?
mayInterrogative SentenceMay you provide more examples?
mightAffirmative Declarative SentenceMy sister might treat me for dinner.
shouldNegative Interrogative SentenceShouldn’t he change his tires?
wouldNegative Declarative SentenceWarren would not clean the house.
willAffirmative Interrogative SentenceWill the students choose online learning over face-to-face classes?
mustAffirmative Declarative SentenceHe must think of ways to make the proposal unique.
ShallAffirmative Interrogative SentenceShall your friends reserve a table ahead of time?
Model Answers for Modal Verbs Exercise
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Modal Verbs List

  • can
  • cannot or can’t
  • could
  • could not or couldn’t
  • may
  • may not
  • might
  • might now
  • would
  • would not or wouldn’t
  • must
  • must not or mustn’t
  • shall
  • shall not or shan’t
  • should
  • should not or shouldn’t
  • will
  • will not or won’t

Advice for ESL Students & English Language Learners

English grammar, like any language, is a complex subject to study. Understanding and applying grammar rules can be challenging, especially for English language learners. However, your success in learning the language is dependent on your learning plan.

First, know that there are different levels of language proficiency. Knowing your status allows you to align it with your study materials and learning strategy. To keep your motivation, select beginner-friendly materials instead of university textbooks when starting. In doing so, you will feel less intimidated by the topics you should learn.

Second, focus on the basics: nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Learn how to use them correctly in sentences and understand their meaning. It will help you build a strong foundation for your English language learning journey. Divide those topics into subtopics and learn each concept and rule one by one.

Third, find a reliable source of learning materials. Online resources such as websites, blogs, and YouTube videos are mostly free. LillyPad’s blog, for example, is a great resource for English language learning materials. Additionally, you can find books and other printed materials in your local library or bookstore.

Fourth, practice speaking the language with native speakers or other English learners. It will help you understand how to use the language correctly in conversations and improve your pronunciation.

Finally, be patient with yourself and don’t give up. Learning a language takes time and effort, so set realistic goals and celebrate your achievements along the way.

Additionally, it is important for learners to properly understand phrasal verbs and helping verbs or auxiliary verbs.

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Common Mistakes Made by English Learners

Learning a new language can be difficult, and English is no exception. Even experienced English learners make mistakes when speaking or writing in the language. Here are some of the most common mistakes made by English learners:

Common MistakeWhy it HappensCorrectionExamples
Using full infinitive instead of bare infinitive beside a modal.Most learners are used to seeing infinitives in the “to + base verb” formula. Bare infinitives are less common. It functions with a modal to express a conditional mood. However, only the base form of verb is used beside a modal.Remember the formula: modal + base form of verb (bare infinitive).  Incorrect: We must to save money for emergency expenses.
Correct: We must save money for emergency expenses.

Incorrect: Albert could to build a robot for the exhibition.
Correct: Albert could build a robot for the exhibition.
Using double modalsOverall, there are 160 English dialects in the world. However, grammarians and linguists developed Standard English based on the most prominent dialects.

In formal settings, it is safe to use only one modal in a sentence.
Auxiliary verbs like modals differ from main verbs. Hence, always pair a modal with a base verb.Vernon might will get upset when he learns of this mess. He may might need more time to think about it.

How could Denna might betray him?
Leaving a modal verb to stand alone in a sentenceSome learners might perceive that modals function as a main verb that can stand on its own. However, since they are auxiliary verbs, main verbs in the base form are needed to complete their meaning.Auxiliary verbs like modals differs from main verbs. Hence, always pair a modal with a base verb.Incorrect: We will for a solution to your problem.
Correct: We will find a solution to your problem.

Incorrect: Aurora should her birthday with us.
Correct: Aurora should celebrate her birthday with us.
Modal Verbs Common Errors Table
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Modal Verbs Learning Strategies and Best Practices

A holistic language learning approach makes it easier to understand and remember. The five macro skills, reading, listening, viewing, speaking, and writing, should be developed and used in the learning process for better language acquisition. The table below lists activities you can do when learning linking verbs:

Learning Strategies and Best Practices
Reading– Use flashcards to know basic English sight words and their meaning.
– Search for a material that contains a translation of common expressions from your native language to English.
– Select study materials appropriate for your language proficiency.
Listening– Listen to an audiobook or a song and write what you hear to improve your retention of English words.
– Compare and contrast two audio materials like TV ads and a speech.
– Summarize a podcast, movie, audiobook, and other English audio materials.
Viewing– Observe how native speakers speak and try to mimic it.
– Watch English movies, interviews, and tutorials.
– Use pictographs to learn and remember new words.
Speaking– Join a community of English language learners and communicate with them to improve and gain feedback.
– Integrate the language into your daily life and try to speak using English.
– Participate in speech organizations (e.g. debate clubs, theatre groups)
Writing– Write a journal of your learning journey in English.
– Answer practice tests and create your own sentences.
– Create a reflection essay on the media you watch or listen to.
Modal Verbs Learning Strategies and Best Practices Table
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Modal Verbs Frequently Asked Questions

A modal verb is a type of auxiliary verb that expresses possibility, necessity, or permission. It modifies the meaning of a sentence by using can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, and would. For example, “he is driving,” is a fact, but “he can drive,” is a possibility.

Modal verbs are used to express moods such as ability, obligation, possibility, and permission. Modal nouns, on the other hand, use the words ability, necessity, and probability among others.

For example:

Modal verb: I can dance.
Modal noun: I have the ability to dance.

A helping verb is an auxiliary verb that helps to form the tenses, moods, and voices of other verbs. Examples of helping verbs include be, do, have, will, and would. Modal verbs are a type of auxiliary verb that expresses possibility, necessity, or permission. Examples of modal verbs include can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, and will.

‘May’ expresses a stronger possibility than ‘might’. For example, if you say “I may go to the store later,” it implies that there is a strong possibility that you will go to the store. On the other hand, “I might go to the store later,” implies a weaker possibility.

The modals “can” and “could” are used to make a request. However, “could” is the more polite option compared to “can.” Since “could” is in the past tense, it implies that the request is being made in a more polite and indirect way. For example, “Can I borrow your pen?” is less polite than “Could I borrow your pen?”

1. You must finish your homework before bed.
2. She can speak three languages fluently.
3. We should take the bus instead of driving.
4. He may be late for the meeting.
5. They might go to the beach this weekend.

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