MODAL VERBS1

1 Examples: (ability)
She can play the cello/She is able to play the cello.
When I become an architect, I’ll be able to draw plans.
He has been able to calculate the cost of building and the material needed since he
became a quantity surveyor.
Can usually has a present meaning2. Be able to is necessary when can3 is impossible, ie
in future tenses, perfect tenses, and so forth.
2 Examples: (past ability)
As a girl, I could/was able to run and jump all day without getting tired.
On that occasion, I was able to escape/I managed to escape/I succeeded in escaping her
clutches.
On that occasion, I couldn’t/wasn’t able to escape her clutches.
Last night I could hear what my neighbours were talking about.
The first sentence implies a general ability in the past.
In the second, we are referring to a particular situation4.
In the negative and with perceptions verbs5, we normally prefer could.
3 Examples:
She could/would be able to help us if she were6/was alive. (present or future)
She could have helped/would have been able to help us if she had been alive. (past)
Note the use of could and be able to in conditional7 sentences.
4 Examples: (permission)
She may/can/is allowed to8 finish work early today.
He has been allowed to do what he wants all his life.
They can/may/will be allowed to go to the disco when they get good school results.
You may/can9 go skiing next week. (= I allow you to go skiing next week.)
Next month I’ll be eighteen. Then, I’ll be allowed to do what I wish.
He can stay up late whenever he likes.
May is formal; can, informal. Can must be used to express general or habitual
permission, as in the last example above.
Be allowed to is necessary when may or can are not possible, ie in perfect tenses,
infinitives and so on.
5 Examples:
‘Can/Could I go to the lavatory?’
‘Yes, you can/No, you can’t.’
‘May/Might I hold your hand?’
‘Yes, you may/No, you may not.’
Can is informal, and should be avoided in formal situations.
Could is neutral; may, the most formal. Might expresses uncertainity; or in other
words, it indicates that you are not very sure about the answer: maybe you are hoping
a negative reply.
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6 Examples: (past permission)
When she was a child, she could/was allowed to watch late-night horror movies on
television.
She was allowed to watch a late-horror film on the telly yesterday, as it was her
birthday.
She could not/was not allowed to watch a late-night film, although it was her birthday.
She could not/was not allowed to smoke at home when she was sixteen years old.
Both could and was/were allowed to are possible for general permission, but could is
more usual. Only was/were allowed to is used when we are talking of a particular
situation.
In the negative, could not can replace was not/were not allowed to.
7 Examples:
We could/would be allowed to get in if we had a permit. (present or future)
We could have got/would have been allowed to get in if we had had a permit. (past)
Both could and be allowed to are possible in conditional tenses10, as seen above.
8 Examples:
Alcoholic beverages may not be served after midnight.
We cannot/can’t take books out of this library. (Compare: Books may not be taken
out.→ a notice at a library)
May not and cannot11 are used to express prohibition.
May not mainly occurs in formal instructions.
9 Examples: (present possibility12)
‘Somebody has just rung the bell!’
‘It may/might/could be my sister.’
‘The bell! Can/Could it be your brother?/Do you think (that) it is your brother?13
Might and could14 suggest a more remote possibility than may. In the interrogative,
may is not usually possible, and might is not very common. Instead, we use can or could,
or other alternatives15 (such as Do you think...).
Could implies that we are less sure about something:
Could they be pulling my leg? (I do not think they are pulling my leg, but who knows.)
Can they be pulling my leg? (Do you think they are pulling my leg?)
What could that be? (I found it very strange.)
What can that be? (Do you know what it is?)
10 Examples: (future possibility)
We may/might/could go swimming this afternoon.
He may/might/could pass his driving test.
Do you think (that) he will pass his driving test?
Is it possible/probable16 that he will pass his driving test?
Is it likely that he will pass his driving test?
Is he likely to pass his driving test?
Could17 and might indicate a smaller possibility than may.
In the interrogative, we generally use one of the alternatives given above.
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It __________ come to nothing, but we __________18 as well try. (= We have nothing to
lose by trying.)
11 Examples: (general possibility)
The outskirts of Madrid can be dangerous at times.
Can19 means here that it is possible for the outskirts of Madrid to be dangerous at times.
In the past, we use could: My father could be very unfriendly, ie it was possible for my
father to be very unfriendly.
12 Examples:
He may/might not find the treasure island.
He cannot find the treasure island.
He could not find the treasure island.
The first sentence means that it is possible that he does not find the treasure island; the
second, that it is impossible that he finds the treasure island. Could not carries the idea of
condition or concession20: He couldn’t find the treasure island (even if/even though he
tried his best), that is, it would be impossible for him to find the treasure island.
13 Examples:
‘I can play the drums,’ she said.
She said (that) she could play the drums.
‘We may sign the document tomorrow,’ they said.
They said (that) they might sign the document the following day.
‘She may/can/is allowed to finish work earlier today,’ he said.
He said (that) she might/could/was allowed to finish work earlier that day.
If he had a car, he could visit them every day.
If you told her the whole truth, she might forgive you.
Could and might are the conditional or past forms of can and may, respectively.
14 Examples:
Can/Could you lend me twelve pounds, please? (a request)
We can/could go for a picnic tomorrow. (a suggestion)
You can take a biscuit if you like. (an offer)
You could come home for lunch! (an indirect invitation)
Both can and could are used for invitations, offers, requests and suggestions. Could is
more polite than can. Could may also imply that the speaker is less confident about
something.
15 Examples: (modal + have + past participle21)
‘Why hasn’t he come yet?’
‘I don’t know, but he may/might/could have come across somebody in the street.’
You could/might have taken the bus. (Why didn’t you take the bus?)
What can he have done this time?
Can they have done it?
May, might and could convey the idea that maybe something (has) happened to
somebody or something; or, in other words, they are used when we are speculating about
somebody or something. Could22 and might show a less likely possibility.
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Could and might can indicate that we did not do something or something did not
happen, although it was possible. They are sometimes use to reproach somebody for not
doing something or not having done something23: You could/might have told me that the
soup was piping hot!
Can is only possible in the interrogative. It often shows surprise or incredulity. Could,
and very occasionally might, may sometimes occur instead of can: Could/Might they have
done it? Could and might suggest greater surprise or incredulity, or that you think it is less
probable.
16 Examples:
He can’t/couldn’t have stolen her purse yesterday. He’s been abroad for a month
already.
He may not/might not have stolen her purse yesterday. He’s not the only thief in the
area.
The first sentence implies that it is impossible that he stole her purse yesterday, because
he was abroad. The second merely states that it is possible that he did not steal her purse:
perhaps it was another person.
17 Examples: (obligation)
You must24 come home at nine o’clock.
I have to25 wear a chef’s hat in the restaurant I work for, but I detest it.
Must expresses the speaker’s authority; have to, external authority. The first sentence
could have been rephrased as follows: As I am your mother, I want you to come home at
nine o’clock; the second: I do not want to wear a chef’s hat, but I have no choice, because
it is obligatory in the restaurant I work for. If I say, however, I must wear a chef’s hat in
the restaurant I work for, it would imply that I think it is necessary26, although it has
not been imposed by me, but by the restaurant I work for.
18 Examples:
He had to come home at nine o’clock last night.
I had to wear a chef’s hat in the restaurant I worked for last year.
You will have to27 do the housework tomorrow.
You must28 do the housework tomorrow.
If you failed this examination, you would have to resit it next year.
Must29 has only present and future meanings. Have to is used instead of must for the
simple past tense, the present perfect tense, and so on, that is where must is not possible.
19 Examples: (absence of obligation)
You needn’t30/don’t need to/don’t have to come home at nine o’clock.
I don’t have to/don’t need to wear a chef’s hat.
Semantically speaking, need not is the opposite of must; and do not have to (or do not
need to), of have to (or need to). However, in practice, we very often use do not
have/need to instead of need not. Need not is only possible in the present and future. In
the past, present perfect, etc., not have to (or less commonly, not need to) replaces need
not31.
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20 Examples:
They needn’t have bought any paint. He had some.
They didn’t need to/didn’t have to buy any paint. He had some.
The first sentence suggests that they did something unnecessary, since they could have
used his. In the second example, we do not know whether or not the action was carried out;
probably it was not, as it was not necessary.
21 Examples:
Need/Must32 I finish my dinner, mum?
No, you needn’t/Yes, you must.
Need and must can be used interchangeably in the interrogative. Need carries the idea
that you do not think it necessary; consequently, you expect a negative response. Do I
have/need to finish my dinner, mum? is also possible, but it is less formal and the short
answer is different: Yes, you do/No, you don’t.
22 Examples:
There must be somebody in the house. The lights are on.
They must have told him everything. I saw them talking to him last night, and this
morning he knew everything. They are the only people who could have done such a thing.
When there is enough evidence that something is true, we use must. The opposite of
must here is cannot33: There can’t be anybody in the house. It looks deserted. Americans,
often use have to in this sense: There has to be somebody in the house.
23 Examples:
You must not smoke here. It is a non-smoking compartment.
You can’t34 park here. It’s forbidden.
Students may not talk during the exams.
You shouldn’t/oughtn’t to35 drink so much.
Must not, cannot and may not express prohibition. Must not indicates that authority
originates from the speaker or that the speaker shares this opinion. It, too, implies that if
we do something the consequences will not be very good: You mustn’t drink bleach.
Cannot has a similar meaning to must not, but it conveys a more external authority. May
not is mainly used in formal notices or instructions36. Should not (or ought not
to) suggests that the proper thing is not being done.
24 Examples:
You must come to the opera tonight. You’ll love it.
Must can express strong advice. Should and ought to37 are possible instead of must, but
the advice is not so strong.
Compare these sentences:
You mustn’t smoke. You’ve got lung cancer. (strong advice or prohibition)
You shouldn’t/oughtn’t to smoke. It’s not good for your health.
25 Examples:
You might/could38 study. You’ve got an exam tomorrow.
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Might and could suggest that you are not doing the proper thing. Should (or ought to)
would also be possible here, but it would sound more like a bit of advice than a critical
remark.
26 Examples:
There’s nobody in. We should/ought to39 have called to tell them we were coming.
We shouldn’t/oughtn’t to have given him the money.
The first sentence means that it was silly not to give them a ring; the second, that it was
foolish to give them the money.
Both should (not) + have + a past participle and ought (not) to + have + a past
participle are used to regret something we, or other people, did or did not do.
27 Examples:
I ought to give up smoking, but I love it, so I don’t think I will.
Ought to carries the idea of objectiveness; and should, of subjectiveness. The above
sentence means that this would be the right thing to do, that is, it does not depend on my
opinion. Still, this difference is not normally very important, and either of them is
usually possible.
28 Examples:
What should/shall40 I wear? (Could you advise me what to wear?)
Should we buy her a present? (Do you think it would be a good thing to buy her a
present?)
Shall we buy her a present? (How about buying her a present?)
How should I know that? (How the blazes do you expect me to know that?)
I don’t see (any reason) why you should think I’m lazy. (I think there is no reason to
believe that.)
I should/would say he’ll come. (This is my opinion.)
Whom should I come across on my last holidays, but my parents-in-law! (I would never
have expected to find them there.)
29 Examples:
He should/ought to have arrived here an hour ago. (He generally arrives at seven
o’clock, and it is already eight o’clock. He will be here any minute now, I think.)
He should/ought to be here any minute now. (He always gets home at six o’clock, and it
is ten past already, so I expect him to be here any minute now.)
30 Examples:
It is annoying that he should never include me on the list of players.
It is annoying that he never includes me on the list of players.
It is vital that he should sign this document right away.
It is vital that he sign this document right away41.
It is vital for him to sign this document right away.
It is vital that he signs this document right away.
It was better that she should take a bus than walk.
It was better that she take a bus than walk42.
It was better for her to take a bus than (to) walk.
In the first sentence ‘annoying’ is an adjective that expresses how we feel about
something. In this case, both should (formal) or a present or a past tense (It was annoying
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that he never included me on the lists of players) are possible. As regards adjectives like
‘vital’, they call for immediate action (as we think that it is necessary to do something
about it); they can also indicate that we consider something the rightest or wisest thing to
do (‘better’). Here, we have three alternatives: to use should, to omit it (subjunctive43) or
to use an infinitive construction. For may be replaced with to when they are not followed
by an infinitive: Water is vital/essential to/for life. Adjectives such as ‘vital’ and
‘essential’ may also take a present or past tense: It was vital/essential that they kept
everything under control.
It is a shame44 that you __________ arrive always late to your appointments.
31 Examples45:
They suggested that he should spend the night there.
They insisted that she should stay with them.
I have just recommended that he should drink less.
They decided that they should tell everything to the authorities concerned.
A verb + that + a subject + should indicates that it would be a sensible or necessary
thing to do.
32 Examples:
If you should46 need further details, do not hesitate to contact us.
In case47 you should have a breakdown, telephone this number.
He did not dare to go out lest48/in case her pursuer should find her.
He didn’t tell her so that/in order that49 she should not ask any questions about it.
____________________
1 For details about the modal auxiliaries will, shall, would and should, see units 7 and 9.
For information on used to and would, see unit 6, part 2.
2 Can is possible with a future meaning when we suggest something at the moment of
speaking: We can play rugger tomorrow.
3 See unit 8, remark i.
4 It very often implies some kind of difficulty.
5 And a few other, like ‘believe’, ‘remember’ and ‘understand’.
6 For the usage of were in conditional clauses, see unit 24, section 7.
7 See unit 24.
8 Be allowed to is much less common than can or may. Notice as well: I allow her to
finish work early today. Be permitted to is a very formal synonym for be allowed to.
She is permitted to finish work early today.
We permit her to finish work early today.
Be allowed to is neutral. Let is another alternative to be allowed to, but less formal:
I’ll let her go.
I’ll allow her to go. (neutral)
I’ll permit her to go. (very formal)
9 Might and could are the conditional or past forms of may and can, respectively: I told
her that she might/could go skiing the next week.
10 For conditional sentences, see unit 24.
11 See section 26 in this unit.
12 Note also:
You may be my mother’s boyfriend, but this doesn’t allow you to order me around. (= I
admit that you are my mother’s boyfriend; but, despite that, this doesn’t allow you to order
me around.)
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You might be cleverer than I am, but you are very rude.
(= Although [you say that] you are cleverer than I am, you are very rude.)
13 Compare these sentences:
Do you think (that) it is your brother? (Maybe the person ringing the bell is your
brother.)
Do you think (that) it will be your brother. (I think it unlikely.)
The burglar alarm has just gone off. Do you think (that) someone has broken into the
house? (Perhaps someone has broken into the house.)
The burglar alarm has just gone off. Do you think (that) someone will have broken into
the house? (I do not think it very likely.)
14 Could often expresses a more remote probability than might.
This depends on where we put the stress.
15 See the next section.
16 If we say that something is probable, it is more likely to happen than if we say say that
something is possible.
17 Could usually conveys a less likely possibility thanmight. This depends where we
place the stress.
18 Could is not possible here.
19 Occasionally, may could also be used instead of can:
This expression may/can also occur in a conversational context.
This word may/can only be used in the negative and in the interrogative.
This diet may/can cause side-effects.
Nevertheless, this is not always possible. We would probably not say The outskirts of
Madrid may be dangerous at times to express general possibility. However, in a bigger
context, it might be okay: The outskirts of Madrid may be dangerous at times, but they are
quieter than the city centre. (= Although the outskirts of Madrid can be dangerous at
times, they are quieter than the city centre.
20 The same applies to could not when it is used for permission:
You couldn’t use my car tomorrow (even if/even though you had a driving licence). (= I
would not allow you to use my car tomorrow, or I will be using it tomorrow, so I would
not lend it to you.)
21 A modal verb + have + a past participle always refers to the past.
22 Could often carries the idea that you are even more hisitant about the chances of
something happening than might.
23 See section 29 in this unit.
24 Be to can also express obligation.
25 See unit 6, part 4, section 4.
26 At times, the authority does not come from the speaker, but he or she agrees with it. In
this case, we use must.
27 The obligation does not originate from the speaker, but from the circumstances.
28 The speaker imposes the obligation or considers it necessary.
29 In reported speech, must is often left unchanged:
His mother said that he must come/had to come/was to come home at night
o’clock/His mother ordered him to come home at nine o’clock.
30 In the affirmative, need is followed by to: I need to tell her what occurred.
31 See section 23.
32 See unit 2, section 12.
33 See section 18 in this unit.
34 See section 8 in this unit.
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35 Had better not has a similar meaning: You’d better not tell them a word, or else
they’ll tell everybody.
36 Be to is an alternative to may not: Students are not to talk during the exams.
37 Had better has a similar meaning: We’d better leave for London very early in the
morning. There’s a long way to go.
38 See section 17 in this unit.
39 The perfect simple and progressive infinitives refer to the past; the simple and
progressive infinitives, to the present or future: You should be helping your mother. (=
You are not doing the proper thing.)
40 See unit 9, section 51.
41 This structure is not very common in British English.
42 See the previous footnote.
43 Notice that the subjunctive does not have -s or -es or a past form. Observe the
subjunctive of the verb be: It is vital that he (should) be here before the sun sets.
44 Note that ‘shame’ is a noun, not an adjective.
45 Other alternatives to the examples given in this section:
They suggested that he spent the night there.
They suggested that he spend the night there. (Observe the use of the subjunctive here.
See the previous section.)
They suggested his spending the night there. (If we remove the possessive adjective,
we would probably include the speaker as well: They suggested that they should spend the
night there/They suggested spending the night there.)
They insisted that she stayed with them.
They insisted that she stay with them. (subjunctive)
They insisted on/upon her staying with them.
I have just recommended that he drink less. (subjunctive)
I have just recommended his drinking less. (I have just said that he should drink less.)
I have just recommended him to drink less. (I have just told him to drink less.)
They decided to tell everything to the authorities concerned.
46 Should here conveys the idea that something is not very probable. Should can also
precede the subject, and if is, then, removed: Should you need further details, do
not hesitate to contact us. This is slightly more formal than the construction with if. See
also unit 24, sections 11 and 14.
47 In case is normally followed by a present or a past tense, but should is an alternative
to this when we want to suggest that something is not very likely. See units 24 (section
16) and 27 (section 7).
48 Might sometimes occurs instead of should: He did not dare to go out lest her pursuer
might find her. It is also possible to omit the modal verb (subjunctive) or to use a present
or past tense: He did not dare to go out lest her pursuer (might/ should) find/found her.
See unit 27, section 7.
49 Should sometimes occurs after so that or in order that, although other modal verbs
are often used instead: He didn’t tell her so that/in order that she would not/ could not ask
any questions. Might is also possible in very formal contexts: The government approved a
new law so that/in order that we might have a better quality of life. If the verb in the main
clause is in a present or future tense, we use may, can or will: I’ll ring them up so that/in
order that they may/can/ will know when my train arrives.
(Miquel Molina i Diez)

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