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Modal Verbs And Their Meaning


What are modal verbs?

Modals (also called modal verbs, modal auxiliary verbs, modal auxiliaries) are special verbs which behave irregularly in English. They are different from normal verbs like "work, play, visit..." They are used to indicate modality. They give additional information about the function of the main verb that follows it. They have a great variety of communicative functions.

Use of modal verbs:

Modal verbs are used to express functions such as:

  1. Permission
  2. Ability
  3. Obligation
  4. Prohibition
  5. Lack of necessity
  6. Advice
  7. possibility
  8. probability

Remember

Modal verbs are followed by an infinitive without "to"

Examples:

  • You must stop when the traffic lights turn red
  • You should see to the doctor
  • There are a lot of tomatoes in the fridge. You need not buy any.

Exception:

  • You ought to go to the doctor

A list of modals

Here is a list of modals:

Modal Verb Meaning Expressing Example

must

to have to 100 % obligation I must stop when the traffic lights turn red.
to be very probable logical conclusion (deduction) He must be very tired after such enormous work

must not

not to be allowed to prohibition You must not smoke in the hospital.

can

to be able to ability I can swim
to be allowed to permission Can I use your phone please?
it is possible possibility Smoking can cause cancer !

could

to be able to ability in the past When I was younger I could stay up all night and not get tired..
to be allowed to more polite permission Excuse me, could I just say something?
it is possible possibility It could rain tomorrow!

may

to be allowed to permission May I use your phone please?
it is possible, probable possibility, probability It may rain tomorrow!

might

to be allowed to more polite permission Might I use your phone please?
it is possible, probable weak possibility, probability I might come and visit you in America next year, if I can save enough money.

need

necessary necessity Need I say more?

need not

not necessary lack of necessity/absence of obligation I need not buy any tomatoes. There are plenty in the fridge.

should/ought to

used to say or ask what is the correct or best thing to do 50 % obligation I should / ought to see a doctor. I have a terrible headache.
to suggest an action or to show that it is necessary advice You should / ought to revise your lessons
to be very probable logical conclusion (deduction) He should / ought to be very tired after such enormous work

had better

to suggest an action or to show that it is necessary advice You 'd better revise your lessons

Exercise on modals.

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