Modal Verbs: A Complete Grammar Guide about Modal Verb

What are modal verbs? A modal verb might also be referred to as a ‘helping’ verb and these are very common within the English language. Most people will see the word verb and think “doing words” because verbs are simply action words that show something happening in some way. However, reading the above article title might leave you scratching your head wondering what exactly modal verbs are.

Don’t worry though, this guide will set that out clearly, and we’ll take a look at some of the rules that are attached to modal verbs so you can always spot them easily. As always, we’ll use some examples to make the point even clearer too. Without further ado, let’s go and explore modal verbs!

Modal Verb

What is a Modal Verb?

Modal verbs are verbs that act very differently to the one’s you might be thinking of such as ‘work’, ‘play’, ‘eat’, etc. This is because modal verbs don’t actually describe action per se, instead they provide information about the function of the verb that is to follow. Modal verbs always come before a traditional verb, but they explain the modality of the verb. That sounds pretty confusing, so let’s just break down what exactly modality is!

Modal verb definition

In English, modalverbsare a small class ofauxiliary verbsused to express ability, permission, obligation, prohibition, probability, possibility, advice.


This is just what the modal verbs can help explain further for the verb that follows. These include:

  • Ability
  • Permission
  • Obligation
  • Prohibition
  • Probability
  • Possibility
  • Advice

These will be better understood in the examples that follow later, but it’s important that you know them now.

Examples of Modal Verbs

Thankfully, modal verbs are easier to understand with examples, because there is actually quite a shortlist of these uniquely behaving verbs. Below is a list of modal verbs in the strictest sense (there are examples of modal auxiliary verbs, but for now they don’t need to be looked at because our focus today is on modal verbs). Here they are:

  • Can
  • Could
  • May
  • Might
  • Must
  • Shall
  • Should
  • Will
  • Would

All of these modal verbs must come before a verb to help express at least one of the modality examples listed above. In some cases, though they can be used to express more than one modality, but you’ll see more on that in the following section. So, let’s take a look at some example sentences and highlight how the modal verb is expressing modality and adding more information to the verbs that follow them.

Examples Sentences Containing Modal Verbs

Read the following examples and explanations carefully. The function and meaning behind modal verbs are best understood through sentence examples, rather than explanation, because you can see for yourself how the modal verb is impacting upon the verb to make the meaning behind the sentence clearer. We don’t have enough room to look at every modal verb, but we can give you some examples so that you can see how different modalities are being expressed, and then you will be able to spot them for yourself in future. Let’s take a look.


‘I can run’ – is an example of the modal verb ‘can’ impacting upon the verb ‘run’. Here the modality that it is expressing is ability, because the individual is stating that they areableto run.

‘Can I borrow your trainers?’ – this sentence shows the modal verb ‘can’ impacting upon the verb ‘borrow’. But, you may notice that the modality is different. This time the modality expressed is permission, because the individual isseeking permissionto borrow.

‘Running can make you ache’ – again, ‘can’ is impacting upon a new verb, ‘make’. The modality expressed this time is possibility, because the individual is stating that it ispossiblethat running can make you ache.


经常“可能”可以用来替换所能表达s modality in a slightly different way. Look at the first example for can again – if you changed ‘I can run’ to ‘I could run’ you are still expressing ability, but you are now expressing past ability instead. Try replacing could in the other two sentences too. You’ll notice that it can still be used to seek permission, and express possibility, but it just sounds slightly different and may be interpreted slightly differently by the reader or listener.


‘I may swim tomorrow’ – ‘may’ is being used here to express both possibilityandprobability. Because it could be both possible and probable that the individual swims tomorrow.

‘May I swim tomorrow?’ – in this instance we have simply moved the positioning of the words to create a new sentence. In this case the individual is seeking permission, so the modality expressed is permission again.


In much the same was as could related to can, might relates to may. Try changing may in the above sentences, you’ll notice that might and may are interchangeable and both can be used to express probability, possibility, and permission.


“你说话之前必须举手”,modal verb ‘must’ is being used to express the modality of obligation by impacting upon the verb ‘raise’. The speaker is telling somebody what they areobligedto do, so must is being used to show that raising your hand is an obligation.

‘You must not speak out of turn’ – in this sentence by adding the word ‘not’ between the modal verb and the verb ‘speak’, the modality that is being expressed is prohibition, because the speaker is telling somebody what they areprohibitedfrom doing.


‘You should sing more often’ – this sentence is used to express the modality of advice. This is because the modal verb ‘should’ is being used to indicate that somebody is giving the advice to sing more to somebody else.

‘I should visit my mother’ – interestingly, should can also be used to express the modality of obligation, but in a slightly weaker sense than ‘must’ above. Here the speaker is stating that they ‘should’ visit their mother, which hints at an obligation, but not whether or not they will meet that obligation.

There are many other examples of modal verbs expressing different modalities towards different verbs, but hopefully this guide has gone some way to helping you understand modal verbs enough for you to go and use them, identify them, and understand their purpose in a sentence.

Modal Verbs

In this section, we are going to take a look at the modal verb in a little more detail as well as some examples of how it can be used, giving you a greater understanding of its function.

Modal Verbs List

Modalverbs list: the modals and modal phrases (semi-modals) in English are:

  • Will
  • Shall
  • Would
  • Should
  • Ought to
  • Must
  • Mustn’t
  • May
  • Might
  • Can
  • Could
  • Have to/ Has to
  • Don’t/ Doesn’t have to

Modal Verbs Rules

There are certain rules which surround the use of modal verbs, for example the word ‘to’ must never be used after a modal verb. Learning these rules and how a modal verb can function within a sentence can greatly help you in forming grammatically correct sentences.


The verb “will” is used to express:

  • Promise:Don’t worry, Iwillbe here.
  • Instant decision:Iwilltake these books with me.
  • Invitation/Offer:Willyou give me a chance?
  • Certain prediction:约翰。史密斯willbe the next President.
  • Future tense auxiliary:Tomorrow Iwillbe in New York.


The verb “shall” is used to express:

  • Asking what to do:ShallI get the phone? Or will you?
  • Offer:ShallI call a cab?
  • Suggestion:ShallI call again on Thursday?


The verb “would” is used to express:

  • Asking for permission:Wouldyou mind if I opened the window?
  • Request:Wouldyou make dinner?
  • Making arrangements:Wouldyou be available at 6 pm tonight?
  • Invitation:Wouldyou like to go out sometimes?
  • Preferences:Wouldyou prefer the window seat or the aisle?


The verb “should” is used to express:

  • Advice:Youshouldvisit your dentist at least twice a year.
  • Recommending action:You reallyshouldgo to the new museum on Main Street.
  • Uncertain prediction:I posted the cheque yesterday so itshouldarrive this week.
  • Logical deduction:I’ve revised so Ishouldbe ready for the test.

Ought to

The verb “ought to” is used to express:

  • Advice:Youought tohave come to the meeting. It was interesting.
  • Logical deduction:30$ought tobe enough for the taxi.


The verb “must” is used to express:

  • Obligation/necessity:Imustmemorize all of these rules about tenses.
  • Deduction:She lied to the police. Shemustbe the murderer.


The verb “musn’t” (must not) is used to express:

  • Prohibition:Youmustn’tsmoke in this restaurant. It’s forbidden.


The verb “may” is used to express:

  • Possibility:Richardmaybe coming to see us tomorrow.
  • Ask for permission:MayI borrow your dictionary?


The verb “might” is used to express:

  • Slight possibility:It looks nice, but itmightbe very expensive.
  • The past form of “may” in reported speech:The President said hemightcome.


The verb “can” is used to express:

  • Ability:Davidcanspeak three languages.
  • Permission (informal):CanI sit in that chair please?
  • Offers:CanI carry the luggage for you?


The verb “could” is used to express:

  • Request:CouldI borrow your dictionary?
  • Suggestion:Couldyou say it again more slowly?
  • Ability in the past:I think wecouldhave anotherGulf War.
  • Asking for permission:CouldI open the window?

Have to/has to

The verb “have to/has to” is used to express:

  • External Obligation:Youhave totake off your shoes before you get into the mosque.

Don’t/ Doesn’t have to

“Don’t/Doesn’t have to” is used to express:

  • Is not necessary:Youdon’t have todo all the exercises, only the first one.

Modal Verbs | Chart

Modal Verbs in English Pin

Using modal verbs to express ability

List ofModals of Ability:

  • Be able to
  • Can/Can’t
  • Be able to
  • Could/Couldn’t
  • Managed to
  • Be able to
  • Can/can’t

Modal Verbs: A Complete Grammar Guide about Modal Verb 2 Pin

Using modal verbsfor asking permissions:

  • Can
  • Could
  • May
  • Would

Modal Verbs: A Complete Grammar Guide about Modal Verb 3 Pin

Modal Verb Video

Last Updated on February 27, 2023

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