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Modal Verbs

Click here for all the exercises about modal verbs

Here's a list of the modal verbs in English:

can could may might will

would must shall should ought to

Modals are different from normal verbs:

1: They don't use an 's' for the third person singular.


2: They make questions by inversion ('she can go' becomes 'can she go?').
3: They are followed directly by the infinitive of another verb (without 'to').

Probability:
First, they can be used when we want to say how sure we are that something happened /
is happening / will happen. We often call these 'modals of deduction' or 'speculation' or
'certainty' or 'probability'.

For example:

It's snowing, so it must be very cold outside.

I don't know where John is. He could have missed the train.

This bill can't be right. 200 for two cups of coffee!

Click here to find out more about probability.

Ability
We use 'can' and 'could' to talk about a skill or ability.

For example:

She can speak six languages.

My grandfather could play golf very well.

I can't drive.

Click here to find out more about ability.

Obligation and Advice


We can use verbs such as 'must' or 'should' to say when something is necessary or
unnecessary, or to give advice.

For example:

Children must do their homework.

We have to wear a uniform at work.

You should stop smoking.

Click here to find out more about obligation

Permission
We can use verbs such as 'can', 'could' and 'may' to ask for and give permission. We also
use modal verbs to say something is not allowed.

For example:

Could I leave early today, please?

You may not use the car tonight.

Can we swim in the lake?

Habits
We can use 'will' and 'would' to talk about habits or things we usually do, or did in the
past.

For example:

When I lived in Italy, we would often eat in the restaurant next to my flat.

John will always be late!

Past modals
The past modals 'could have + past participle', 'should have + past participle' and 'would
have + past participle' can be confusing. I explain about them here.

Could have, should have, would have


These past modal verbs are all used hypothetically, to talk about things that didn't really
happen in the past.

Could have + past participle

1: Could have + past participle means that something was possible in the past, or
you had the ability to do something in the past, but that you didn't do it. (See
also modals of ability.)

I could have stayed up late, but I decided to go to bed early.

They could have won the race, but they didn't try hard enough.

Julie could have bought the book, but she borrowed it from the library instead.

He could have studied harder, but he was too lazy and that's why he failed the
exam.

Couldn't have + past participle means that something wasn't possible in the past,
even if you had wanted to do it.

I couldn't have arrived any earlier. There was a terrible traffic jam (= it was
impossible for me to have arrived any earlier).

He couldn't have passed the exam, even if he had studied harder. It's a really,
really difficult exam.
2: We use could have + past participle when we want to make a guess about
something that happened in the past. (See also modals of probability.) In this case,
we don't know if what we're saying is true or not true. We're just talking about our
opinion of what maybe happened.

Why is John late?

He could have got stuck in traffic.

He could have forgotten that we were meeting today.

He could have overslept.

We can also choose to use might have + past participle to mean the same thing:

He might have got stuck in traffic.

He might have forgotten that we were meeting today.

He might have got stuck in traffic.

Should have + past participle

1: Should have + past participle can mean something that would have been a good
idea, but that you didn't do it. It's like giving advice about the past when you say it to
someone else, or regretting what you did or didn't do when you're talking about yourself.

Shouldn't have + past participle means that something wasn't a good idea, but you
did it anyway.

I should have studied harder! (= I didn't study very hard and so I failed the exam.
I'm sorry about this now.)

I should have gone to bed early (= I didn't go to bed early and now I'm tired).

I shouldn't have eaten so much cake! (= I did eat a lot of cake and now I don't feel
good.)

You should have called me when you arrived (= you didn't call me and I was
worried. I wish that you had called me).

John should have left early, then he wouldn't have missed the plane (= but he
didn't leave early and so he did miss the plane).
2: We can also use should have + past participle to talk about something that, if
everything is normal and okay, we think has already happened. But we're not certain
that everything is fine, so we use 'should have' and not the present perfect or past
simple. It's often used with 'by now'.

His plane should have arrived by now (= if everything is fine, the plane has
arrived).

John should have finished work by now (= if everything is normal, John has
finished work).

We can also use this to talk about something that would have happened if everything
was fine, but hasn't happened.

Lucy should have arrived by now, but she hasn't.

Would have + past participle

1: Part of the third conditional.

If I had had enough money, I would have bought a car (but I didn't have enough
money, so I didn't buy a car).

2: Because 'would' (and will) can also be used to show if you want to do something or
not (volition), we can also use would have + past participle to talk about something
you wanted to do but didn't. This is very similar to the third conditional, but we don't
need an 'if clause'.

I would have gone to the party, but I was really busy.


(= I wanted to go to the party, but I didn't because I was busy. If I hadn't been so
busy, I would have gone to the party.)

I would have called you, but I didn't know your number.


(= I wanted to call you but I didn't know your number, so I didn't call you.)

A: Nobody volunteered to help us with the fair


B: I would have helped you. I didn't know you needed help.
(= If I had known that you needed help, I would have helped you.)

What are Modal Verbs?

Modal verbs are special verbs which behave very differently from normal verbs. Here
are some important differences:

1. Modal verbs do not take "-s" in the third person.


Examples:

He can speak Chinese.

She should be here by 9:00.

2. You use "not" to make modal verbs negative, even in Simple Present and Simple
Past.

Examples:

He should not be late.

They might not come to the party.

3. Many modal verbs cannot be used in the past tenses or the future tenses.

Examples:

He will can go with us. Not Correct

She musted study very hard. Not Correct

Common Modal Verbs


Ought
Can
to
Could
Shall
May
Should
Might
Will
Must
Would

For the purposes of this tutorial, we have included some expressions which are not
modal verbs including had better, have to, and have got to. These expressions are
closely related to modals in meaning and are often interchanged with them.

Modal verbs
The modal verbs include can, must, may, might, will, would, should. They
are used with other verbs to express ability, obligation, possibility, and so
on. Below is a list showing the most useful modals and their most common
meanings:

Modal Meaning Example


can to express ability I can speak a little Russian.

can to request permission Can I open the window?

may to express possibility I may be home late.

may to request permission May I sit down, please?

must to express obligation I must go now.

must to express strong belief She must be over 90 years old.

should to give advice You should stop smoking.

would to request or offer Would you like a cup of tea?

would in if-sentences If I were you, I would say sorry.

Modal verbs are unlike other verbs. They do not change their form (spelling)
and they have no infinitive or participle (past/present). The
modals must and can need substitute verbs to express obligation or ability in
the different tenses. Here are some examples:

Past simple Sorry I'm late. I had to finish my math test.

Present perfect She's had to return to Korea at short notice.

Future You'll have to work hard if you want to pass the exams.

Infinitive I don't want to have to go.

Past simple I couldn't/wasn't able to walk until I was 3 years old.

Present perfect I haven't been able to solve this problem. Can you help?

Future I'm not sure if I will be able to come to your party.

Infinitive I would love to be able to play the piano.

Modals are auxiliary verbs. They do not need an additional auxiliary in


negatives or questions. For example: Must I come? (Do I must come?),
or:He shouldn't smoke (He doesn't should smoke).

Important: The explanations and examples on this page are just an


introduction to this extensive and complex area of English grammar.
Students of English who want to learn more should consult a good reference
work, such as Swan's Practical English Usage.

The modal verbs are can, could, may, might, shall, should, will and would.
The modals are used to do things like talking about ability, asking permission making
requests, and so on.

Ability:

We use can to talk about someones skill or general abilities:

She can speak several languages.


He can swim like a fish.
They cant dance very well.

We use can to talk about the ability to do something at a given time in


the present or future:

You can make a lot of money if you are lucky.


Help. I cant breathe.
They can run but they cant hide.

We use could to talk about past time:

She could speak several languages.


They couldnt dance very well.

We use could have to say that someone had the ability/opportunity to do something,
but did notdo it:

She could have learned Swahili, but she didnt have time.
I could have danced all night [but didn't].

Permission:

We use can to ask for permission to do something:

Can I ask a question, please?


Can we go home now?

could is more formal and polite than can:

Could I ask a question please?


Could we go home now?

may is another more formal and polite way of asking for permission:

May I ask a question please?


May we go home now?
We use can to give permission:

You can go home now if you like.


You can borrow my pen if you like.

may is a more formal and polite way of giving permission:

You may go home now, if you like.

We use can to say that someone has permission to do something:

We can go out whenever we want.


Students can travel free.

may is a more formal and polite way of saying that someone has permission:

Students may travel free.

Instructions and requests:

We use could you and would you as polite ways of telling or asking someone to do
something:

Could you take a message please?


Would you carry this for me please?
Could I have my bill please?

can and will are less polite:

Can you take a message please?


Will you carry this for me please?

Suggestions and advice:

We use should to make suggestions and give advice:

You should send an email.


We should go by train.

We use could to make suggestions:

We could meet at the weekend.


You could eat out tonight.

We use conditionals to give advice:


Dan will help you if you ask him.

Past tenses are more polite:

Dan would help you if you asked him.

Offers and invitations:

We use can I and to make offers:

Can I help you?


Can I do that for you?

We can also use shall I

Shall I help you with that?


Shall I call you on your mobile?

We sometime say I can ... or I could ... or Ill (I will) ... to make an offer:

I can do that for you if you like.


I can give you a lift to the station.
Ill do that for you if you like.
Ill give you a lift to the station.

We use would you like (to) ... for invitations:

Would you like to come round to morrow?


Would you like another drink?

We use you must or we must for a very polite invitation:

You must come round and see us.


We must meet again soon.

Obligation and necessity

We use must to say that it is necessary to do something:

You must stop at a red light.


Everyone must bring something to eat.
You can wear what you like, but you must look neat and tidy.
Im sorry, but you mustnt make a noise in here.

We use had to for this if we are talking about the past:


Everyone had to bring something to eat.
We could wear what we liked, but we had to look neat and tidy.

odal 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 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

Strong obligation You must stop when the traffic lights turn
red.
must
logical conclusion / Certainty He must be very tired. He's been working all
day long.

must not prohibition You must not smoke in the hospital.

ability I can swim.

can permission Can I use your phone please?

possibility Smoking can cause cancer.

ability in the past When I was younger I could run fast.

could polite permission Excuse me, could I just say something?

possibility It could rain tomorrow!

permission May I use your phone please?


may
possibility, probability It may rain tomorrow!

polite permission Might I suggest an idea?


might
possibility, probability I might go on holiday to Australia next year.

lack of necessity/absence of I need not buy tomatoes. There are plenty of


need not
obligation tomatoes in the fridge.

50 % obligation I should / ought to see a doctor. I have a


terrible headache.

should/ought to 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.

odal 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 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

Strong obligation You must stop when the traffic lights turn
red.
must
logical conclusion / Certainty He must be very tired. He's been working all
day long.

must not prohibition You must not smoke in the hospital.

ability I can swim.

can permission Can I use your phone please?

possibility Smoking can cause cancer.

ability in the past When I was younger I could run fast.

could polite permission Excuse me, could I just say something?

possibility It could rain tomorrow!

permission May I use your phone please?


may
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.


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

50 % obligation I should / ought to see a doctor. I have a


terrible headache.

should/ought to 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.

Modals in the Present and Past

Modals in the present and past


Generally speaking modals in the past have the following form:

modal + have + past participle

Example:

Present:
You should see a doctor.

Past:
You should have seen a doctor

Except for modals that express obligation,ability and lack of necessity:

Obligation:
Present = I must / have to work hard. -- Past = I had to work hard.
Ability:
Present = I can run fast. -- Past = I could run fast when I was young.

Lack of necessity:
Present = You don't have to / needn't take your umbrella. -- Past = You didn't have to /
didn't need to take your umbrella.

Modals in the Present Modals in the Past

Obligation You must / have to stop when the traffic You had to stop.
lights are red.

Advice You should see a doctor. You should have seen a doctor

Prohibition You mustn't smoke here. You mustn't have smoked there.

Ability I can run fast. I could run fast. now I am old.

Certainty He has a Rolls Royce. He must be very He must have been rich. He had a
rich. big house and an expensive car.
He can't be American. His English is He can't have written that poem.
terrible. He was illiterate.

Permission Can I go out? She could drive her father's car


when she was only 15.

Possibility It may / can / could / might rain. It's I guess it may / can / could /
cloudy. might have been Lacy on the
phone.

Lack of You don't have to / needn't buy any You didn't have to / didn't
necessity tomatoes. There are plenty in the fridge. need to buy tomatoes.

Must and Have to

What's the difference between must and have to?


Must and have to are modal verbs in English. This page will guide you to the proper use of
these modals.

Must
1. We use must to make a logical deduction based on evidence. It indicates that the speaker
is certain about something:

Examples:
It has rained all day, it must be very wet outside.

The weather is fantastic in California. It must a lot fun to live there.

2. Must is also used to express a strong obligation.

Examples:

Students must arrive in class on time.

You must stop when the traffic lights are red.

I must go to bed.

Have to
Like must, have to is used to express strong obligation, but when we use have to there is
usually a sense of external obligation. Some external circumstance makes the obligation
necessary.

Examples:

I have to send an urgent email.

I have to take this book back to the library.

Shall and Will

What is the difference between shall and will?


Shall is not used often in modern English especially in American English. In
fact, shall and will have the same meaning and are used to refer to the simple future. They
are use as follows:

will is used with all persons

I, you, he, she, it, we, they will go there

shall is used with the first person singular and plural

I, we shall go

The short form of will and shall is 'll


I, you, he, she, it, we, they will or 'll call you

I, we shall or 'll call you

In the negative, the short forms of will not and shall


not are won't and shan't respectively

I, you, he, she, it, we, they won't give up

I, we shan't give up

Uses of shall
It should be noted that shall is often used to make suggestions, offers or ask for advice. It is
used in questions as follows:

Shall we stay or go out?

Shall we dance?

Shall I get his phone number if I meet him?

What shall I do to get rid of my acne?

As said above shall is used with first person singular and plural (I and we.) But there is a very
special use of shall with other persons to make a promise, command or threat as noted
below:

You shall not get in! (Command)

You shall pay for it. (Threat)

You shall get your money back soon. (Promise)

In American English shall is mainly used in formal or legal documents:

You shall abide by the law.

There shall be no trespassing on this property.


Students shall not enter this room.

MODAL VERBS
OVERVIEW | ACTION VERBS | AUXILIARY VERBS | FINITE / NON-FINITE | IRREGULAR
VERBS
MAIN VERBS | MODAL VERBS | MOOD | PHRASAL VERBS | REGULAR VERBS | STATIVE
VERBS

All the auxiliary verbs except be, do and have are called modals. Unlike other auxiliary verbs modals
only exist in their helping form; they cannot act alone as the main verb in a sentence.

Be, do, and have also differ from the other auxiliaries in that they can also serve as ordinary verbs in
a given sentence.

The modal verbs are:-

CAN / COULD / MAY / MIGHT / MUST / OUGHT TO / SHALL / SHOULD / WILL / WOULD

Contextual classes

Modal Verb Example

They can control their own budgets.


Can
We cant fix it.

Can I smoke here?

Can you help me?

Could I borrow your dictionary?


Could
Could you say that again more slowly?

We could try to fix it ourselves.

I think we could go to war again.

He gave up his old job so he could work for us.


Modal Verb Example

May I have another cup of coffee?


May
China may become a major economic power.

We'd better phone tomorrow, they might be eating their dinner now.
Might
You never know, they might give us a 10% discount.

We must say good-bye now.


Must
They mustnt disrupt the work more than necessary.

We ought to employ a professional writer.


Ought to

Shall I help you with your luggage?


Shall
Shall we say 2.30 then?
(More common
in the UK Shall I do that or will you?
than the US)

We should sort out this problem at once.


Should
I think we should check everything again.

You should check your posture when using the computer.

Profits should increase next year.

I cant see any taxis so Ill walk.


Will
I'll do that for you if you like.

Ill get back to you first thing on Monday.

Profits will increase next year.


Modal Verb Example

Would you mind if I brought a colleague with me?


Would
Would you pass the salt please?

Would you mind waiting a moment?

"Would three o`clock suit you?" - "Thatd be fine."

Would you like to play golf this Friday?

"Would you prefer tea or coffee?" - "Id like tea please."

- See more at: http://www.learnenglish.de/grammar/verbmodal.html#sthash.vS8oiDoC.dpuf

Modal verbs are a part of the larger category called auxiliary verbs which are verbs that cannot be
used on their own. They need to be accompanied by another (main) verb. Sometimes modal verbs
are called modal auxiliaries.

The following words are modal verbs: Can, Could, May, Might, Must, Shall, Should, Will, Would.

They are modal auxiliary verbs that provide additional information about the verb that follows it.

Modal verbs are used to express ability, obligation, permission, assumptions, probability and
possibility, requests and offers, and advice. Each modal verb can have more than meaning which
depends on the context of that sentence (or question).

You can go now. (= permission)

I can play the guitar. (= ability)

Structure with Modal Verbs


A Modal verb is followed by another verb in the base form (the infinitive without the 'To') and they are
not conjugated (we don't add an 'S' in third person). See the following structure:

Subject + Modal Verb + Verb (base form of the infinitive)

I can speak English (NOT: I can to speak English)

He can speak Spanish (NOT: He can speaks Spanish)

She can speak Spanish (NOT: She cans speak Spanish)


Modal Verbs in Negative Sentences
Subject + Modal Verb + not + Verb (base form of the infinitive)

You must not walk on the grass. (= You mustn't walk on the grass.)

He cannot speak Arabic. (= He can't speak Arabic.)

We should not be late. (= We shouldn't be late.)

As you can see in the examples above, contractions of the Modal verb + not are normally possible.

The negative of can is cannot ('not' is joined to 'can') and the contraction is can't

Modal Verbs in Questions


Modal Verb + Subject + Verb (base form of the infinitive)

May I help you?

Can I have another piece of cake please?

Would you like to come with us?

HELPING AND
MODAL AUXILIARY
VERBS

Select fromthe following

Helping verbs or auxiliary verbs such as will, shall, may, might, can, could, must, ought
to, should, would, used to, need are used in conjunction with main verbs to express shades of
time and mood. The combination of helping verbs with main verbs creates what are called verb
phrases or verb strings. In the following sentence, "will have been" are helping or auxiliary
verbs and "studying" is the main verb; the whole verb string is underlined:

As of next August, I will have been studying chemistry for ten years.
Students should remember that adverbs and contracted forms are not, technically, part of the
verb. In the sentence, "He has already started." the adverb already modifies the verb, but it is not
really part of the verb. The same is true of the 'nt in "He hasn't started yet" (the adverb not,
represented by the contracted n't, is not part of the verb, has started).

Shall, will and forms of have, do and be combine with main verbs to indicate time and
voice. As auxiliaries, the verbs be, have and do can change form to indicate changes in subject
and time.

I shall go now.

He had won the election.

They did write that novel together.

I am going now.

He was winning the election.

They have been writing that novel for a long time.

Uses of Shall and Will and Should


In England, shall is used to express the simple
future for first person Iand we, as in "Shall we meet
by the river?" Will would be used in the simple
future for all other persons. Using will in the first
person would express determination on the part of
the speaker, as in "We will finish this project by
tonight, by golly!" Using shall in second and third
persons would indicate some kind of promise about
the subject, as in "This shall be revealed to you in
good time." This usage is certainly acceptable in the
U.S., although shallis used far less frequently. The
distinction between the two is often obscured by the
contraction 'll, which is the same for both verbs.

In the United States, we seldom use shall for


anything other than polite questions (suggesting an
element of permission) in the first-person:
"Shall we go now?"

"Shall I call a doctor for you?"

(In the second sentence, many writers would


use should instead, although should is somewhat
more tentative than shall.) In the U.S., to express
the future tense, the verb will is used in all other
cases.

Shall is often used in formal situations (legal or


legalistic documents, minutes to meetings, etc.) to
express obligation, even with third-person and
second-person constructions:

The board of directors shall be


responsible for payment to
stockholders.

The college president shall report


financial shortfalls to the
executive director each
semester."

Should is usually replaced, nowadays, by would. It


is still used, however, to mean "ought to" as in

You really shouldn't do that.

If you think that was amazing,


you should have seen it last
night.

In British English and very formal American


English, one is apt to hear or read should with the
first-person pronouns in expressions of liking such
as "I should prefer iced tea" and in tentative
expressions of opinion such as

I should imagine they'll vote


Conservative.
I should have thought so.

(The New Fowler's Modern English Usage edited by R.W.


Burchfield. Clarendon Press: Oxford, England. 1996. Used with
the permission of Oxford University Press. Examples our own.)

Uses of Do, Does and Did


In the simple present tense, do will function as
an auxiliary to express the negative and to ask
questions. (Does, however, is substituted for third-
person, singular subjects in the present tense. The
past tense did works with all persons, singular and
plural.)

I don't study at night.

She doesn't work here anymore.

Do you attend this school?

Does he work here?

These verbs also work as "short answers," with the


main verb omitted.

Does she work here? No, she


doesn't work here.

With "yes-no" questions, the form of do goes in


front of the subject and the main verb comes after
the subject:

Did your
grandmother know Truman?

Do wildflowers grow in your back


yard?

Forms of do are useful in expressing similarity and


differences in conjunction with so and neither.

My wife hates spinach and so


does my son.

My wife doesn't like spinach;


neither do I.

Do is also helpful because it means you don't have


to repeat the verb:

Larry excelled in language


studies; so did his brother.

Raoul studies as hard as his


sister does.

The so-called emphatic do has many uses in


English.

a. To add emphasis to an entire


sentence: "He does like spinach.
He really does!"

b. To add emphasis to an
imperative: "Do come in."
(actually softens the command)

c. To add emphasis to a frequency


adverb: "He never didunderstand
his father." "She
always does manage to hurt her
mother's feelings."

d. To contradict a negative
statement: "You didn't do your
homework, did you?" "Oh, but
I did finish it."

e. To ask a clarifying question about


a previous negative statement:
"Ridwell didn't take the tools."
"Then who did take the tools?"

f. To indicate a strong concession:


"Although the Clintons denied any
wrong-doing, they did return
some of the gifts."

In the absence of other modal auxiliaries, a form


of do is used in question and negative constructions
known as the get passive:

Did Rinaldo get selected by the


committee?

The audience didn't get riled up


by the politician.

Based on descriptions in Grammar Dimensions: Form,


Meaning, and Use 2nd Ed. by Jan Frodesen and Janet Eyring.
Heinle & Heinle: Boston. 1997. Examples our own.

Uses of Have, Has and Had


Forms of the verb to have are used to create
tenses known as the present perfect and past
perfect. The perfect tenses indicate that something
has happened in the past; the present perfect
indicating that something happened and might be
continuing to happen, the past perfect indicating that
something happened prior to something else
happening. (That sounds worse than it really is!)
See the section on Verb Tenses in the Active
Voice for further explanation; also review material
in the Directory of English Tenses.

To have is also in combination with other modal


verbs to express probability and possibility in the
past.

As an affirmative statement, to
have can express how certain you
are that something happened
(when combined with an
appropriate modal + have + a
past participle): "Georgia must
have left already." "Clinton might
have known about the gifts."
"They may have voted already."

As a negative statement, a modal


is combined with not + have + a
past participle to express how
certain you are that something
did not happen: "Clinton might
not have known about the gifts."
"I may not have been there at the
time of the crime."

To ask about possibility or


probability in the past, a modal is
combined with the subject
+ have + past participle: "Could
Clinton have known about the
gifts?"

For short answers, a modal is


combined with have: "Did Clinton
know about this?" "I don't know.
He may have." "The evidence is
pretty positive. He must have."

To have (sometimes combined with to get) is used to


express a logical inference:

It's been raining all week; the


basement has to be flooded by
now.

He hit his head on the doorway.


He has got to be over seven feet
tall!

Have is often combined with an infinitive to form


an auxiliary whose meaning is similar to "must."

I have to have a car like that!


She has to pay her own tuition at
college.

He has to have been the first


student to try that.

Based on the analysis in Grammar Dimensions: Form,


Meaning, and Use 2nd Ed. by Jan Frodesen and Janet Eyring.
Heinle & Heinle: Boston. 1997. Examples our own.

Modal Auxiliaries
Other helping verbs, called modal auxiliaries or modals, such as can, could, may, might,
must, ought to, shall, should, will, and would, do not change form for different subjects. For
instance, try substituting any of these modal auxiliaries for can with any of the subjects listed
below.

I
you (singular)
he
can write well.
we
you (plural)
they

There is also a separate section on the Modal Auxiliaries, which divides these verbs into
their various meanings of necessity, advice, ability, expectation, permission, possibility, etc., and
provides sample sentences in various tenses. See the section on Conditional Verb Forms for
help with the modal auxiliary would. The shades of meaning among modal auxiliaries are
multifarious and complex. Most English-as-a-Second-Language textbooks will contain at least
one chapter on their usage. For more advanced students, A University Grammar of English, by
Randolph Quirk and Sidney Greenbaum, contains an excellent, extensive analysis of modal
auxiliaries.

The analysis of Modal Auxiliaries is based on a similar analysis in The Scott, Foresman Handbook for Writers by
Maxine Hairston and John J. Ruszkiewicz. 4th ed. HarperCollins: New York. 1996. The description of helping verbs
on this page is based on The Little, Brown Handbook by H. Ramsay Fowler and Jane E. Aaron, & Kay Limburg. 6th
ed. HarperCollins: New York. 1995. By permission of Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers Inc. Examples in all
cases are our own.

Uses of Can and Could


The modal auxiliary can is used

to express ability (in the sense of


being able to do something or
knowing how to do something):
He can speak Spanish but he
can't write it very well.

to expression permission (in the


sense of being allowed or
permitted to do something):
Can I talk to my friends in the
library waiting room? (Note
that can is less formal than may.
Also, some writers will object to
the use of can in this context.)

to express theoretical possibility:


American automobile makers can
make better cars if they think
there's a profit in it.

The modal auxiliary could is used

to express an ability in the past:


I could always beat you at tennis
when we were kids.

to express past or future


permission:
Could I bury my cat in your back
yard?

to express present possibility:


We could always spend the
afternoon just sitting around
talking.

to express possibility or ability in


contingent circumstances:
If he studied harder, he could
pass this course.

In expressing ability, can and could frequently also


imply willingness: Can you help me with my
homework?

Can versus May


Whether the auxiliary verb can can be used to
express permission or not "Can I leave the room
now?" ["I don't know if you can, but you may."]
depends on the level of formality of your text or
situation. As Theodore Bernstein puts it in The
Careful Writer, "a writer who is attentive to the
proprieties will preserve the traditional
distinction: can for ability or power to do
something, may for permission to do it.

The question is at what level can you safely


ignore the "proprieties." Merriam-Webster's
Dictionary, tenth edition, says the battle is over
and cancan be used in virtually any situation to
express or ask for permission. Most authorities,
however, recommend a stricter adherence to the
distinction, at least in formal situations.

Authority: The Careful Writer by Theodore Bernstein. The Free


Press: New York. 1998. p. 87.

Uses of May and Might


Two of the more troublesome modal auxiliaries
are may and might. When used in the context of
granting or seeking permission, might is the past
tense of may. Might is considerably more tentative
than may.

May I leave class early?

If I've finished all my work and I'm


really quiet, might I leave early?

In the context of expressing


possibility, may and might are interchangeable
present and future forms and might + have + past
participle is the past form:

She might be my advisor next


semester.

She may be my advisor next


semester.

She might have advised me not


to take biology.

Avoid confusing the sense of possibility


in may with the implication of might, that a
hypothetical situation has not in fact occurred. For
instance, let's say there's been a helicopter crash at
the airport. In his initial report, before all the facts
are gathered, a newscaster could say that the pilot
"mayhave been injured." After we discover that the
pilot is in fact all right, the newscaster can now say
that the pilot "might have been injured" because it is
a hypothetical situation that has not occurred.
Another example: a body had been identified after
much work by a detective. It was reported that
"without this painstaking work, the body may have
remained unidentified." Since the body was, in fact,
identified, might is clearly called for.

Uses of Will and Would


In certain contexts, will and would are virtually
interchangeable, but there are differences. Notice
that the contracted form 'll is very frequently used
for will.

Will can be used to express willingness:

I'll wash the dishes if you dry.

We're going to the movies. Will


you join us?

It can also express intention (especially in the first


person):

I'll do my exercises later on.

and prediction:

specific: The meeting will be over


soon.

timeless: Humidity will ruin my


hairdo.

habitual: The river will overflow


its banks every spring.

Would can also be used to express willingness:

Would you please take off your


hat?

It can also express insistence (rather rare, and with a


strong stress on the word "would"):

Now you've ruined everything.


You would act that way.

and characteristic activity:

customary: After work, he would


walk to his home in West
Hartford.

typical (casual): She would cause


the whole family to be late, every
time.

In a main clause, would can express a hypothetical


meaning:

My cocker spaniel would weigh a


ton if I let her eat what she wants.

Finally, would can express a sense of probability:

I hear a whistle. That would be


the five o'clock train.

Uses of Used to
The auxiliary verb construction used to is used
to express an action that took place in the past,
perhaps customarily, but now that action no longer
customarily takes place:

We used to take long vacation


trips with the whole family.

The spelling of this verb is a problem for some


people because the "-ed" ending quite naturally
disappears in speaking: "We yoostoo take long
trips." But it ought not to disappear in writing.
There are exceptions, though. When the auxiliary is
combined with another auxiliary, did, the past tense
is carried by the new auxiliary and the "-ed" ending
is dropped. This will often happen in the
interrogative:

Didn't you use to go jogging


every morning before breakfast?

It didn't use to be that way.

Used to can also be used to convey the sense of


being accustomed to or familiar with something:

The tire factory down the road


really stinks, but we're used to it
by now.

I like these old sneakers; I'm used


to them.

Used to is best reserved for colloquial usage; it


has no place in formal or academic text.

Modal auxiliaries can, may, must

We use modal auxiliary verbs can, may, must in the English language for various meanings - ability,
possiblity, probability, certainty, permission, prohibition, obligation, opinion, speculation, etc.

Can

1. It is used to express the ability to do something.

I can swim very well.


Can he speak English fluently? - No, he can't.
We cannot sing at all!

2. It expresses the possibility to do something.

We can go to the seaside at last. Our holidays start next week.

3. We use it to say that something is probable.

It can be John. He has blond hair and he is wearing glasses.

4. It expresses the permission to do something.

Why not? You can marry her. She is a nice girl.

May

1. It is used for permissions.

You may borrow my car. I won't need it.


May I smoke here? - No, you can't, I'm sorry.

2. It is used to express probability or prediction.


They may call tomorrow. I hope so.

The main difference between may and can is in style. May is more formal than can. Can is typical of
spoken English.

3. The opposite of may is must not or may not.

May I smoke here?


- You mustn't smoke here. (strong prohibition)
- You may not smoke here. (more polite, very formal)
- You can't smoke here. (informal spoken English)

Must

1. It is used for strong obligations. It is personal, because it expresses the speaker's opinion or will.

I must clean my teeth. I want to be healthy.


You must go there. And do it right now!

2. It means a strong recommendation.

You must see it. It's the best film I've ever seen.

3. We use it to show the certainty of the speaker.

They must be at school by now. It's already 9 o'clock.

4. The opposite of must is need not.

Mum, must I wash up? - No, you needn't. I've already done it.

Must not has a different meaning. It is used to express prohibition that involves the speaker's will.

We mustn't come late today. Or the teacher will be very angry.


He mustn't enter this room. It is dangerous.

Note

Normally, these modal auxiliary verbs are not used in different tenses. The past
tense of can is could, may and must, however, only have the present form. All the other tenses must
be formed in a different way.

We make the passive voice with a verb + be + past participle: This can be done. The laws must be
respected.
Modal verb list with examples and uses PDF