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Modal verbs and their meaning


What are modal verbs?

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 give additional information about the function of the main verb that follows it. They have a great variety of communicative functions.

Here are some characteristics of modal verbs:

  • They never change their form. You can't add "s", "ed", "ing"...
  • They are always followed by an infinitive without "to" (e.i. the bare infinitive.)
  • They are used to indicate modality allow speakers to express certainty, possibility, willingness, obligation, necessity, ability

List of modal verbs

Here is a list of modal verbs:

can, could, may, might, will, would, shall, should, must

The verbs or expressions dare, ought to, had better, and need not behave like modal auxiliaries to a large extent and my be added to the above list

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

Examples of modal verbs

Here is a list of modals with examples:

Modal Verb Expressing Example
must Strong obligation You must stop when the traffic lights turn red.
logical conclusion / Certainty He must be very tired. He's been working all day long.
must notprohibition You must not smoke in the hospital.
canability I can swim.
permission Can I use your phone please?
possibility Smoking can cause cancer.
couldability in the past When I was younger I could run fast.
polite permission Excuse me, could I just say something?
possibility It could rain tomorrow!
maypermission May I use your phone please?
possibility, probability It may rain tomorrow!
might polite permission Might I suggest an idea?
possibility, probability I might go on holiday to Australia next year.
need notlack of necessity/absence of obligation I need not buy tomatoes. There are plenty of tomatoes in the fridge.
should/ought to 50 % obligation I should / ought to see a doctor. I have a terrible headache.
advice You should / ought to revise your lessons
logical conclusion He should / ought to be very tired. He's been working all day long.
had better advice You 'd better revise your lessons

Remember

Modal verbs are followed by an infinitive without "to", also called the bare infinitive.

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.

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