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Modal verbs are verbs with unique characteristics. They work with the main
verb to add extra meaning to a sentence, for example, obligation or
Modal verbs share the following characteristics:
We put an infinitive without to after most modal verbs (but not ought to)

e.g. : I must go.

You shouldnt swear.
He ought to be more hard-working.
Modal verbs do not take s in the third person.

e.g. : She can drive.

We do not use the auxiliary verb do / does / did with modal verbs to form

negatives, questions or short answers.

e.g. : I cant understand.
She might not come.

Present : can
We use the modal verb can / cant to talk about present ability.
e.g. : I cant swim very far now.
Past : could / be able to

We use could to talk about general ability in the past.

e.g. : She could run very fast when se was young.
We use the correct form of be + able to to talk about particular ability in the
past (ability to do something on one occasion).
e.g. : He injured his foot but he was able to continue playing.
We can use the negative form couldnt to talk about general ability or
particular ability in the past.
e.g. : He couldnt talk until he was three.
I couldnt find my cell phone yesterday.
Other tenses : be able to

e.g. : I havent been able to go on holidays for years

I wont be able to finish my homework tonight.

Present obligation: must / have to

We use must to talk about internal obligation.

e.g. : You must obey your parents.

We use have to (which is not a modal verb) to talk about external obligation.

e.g. : You have to go up the stairs as the lift is out of order.

Past obligation : had to

We use had to to talk about a past obligation.

e.g. : I had to fill in a form to apply for the job.


We use must and cant to make logical deductions.

Present deductions: must / cant.
We use must when we are certain something is true.

e.g. : He must be at home. The lights are on.

We use cant when we believe or guess that something is impossible.

e.g. : He cant be tired. Hes been sitting all day long.

Be careful! We do not use mustnt to make negative deductions.
e.g. : He hates maths. He cant be solving maths problems.
not He mustnt be solving maths problems.

Past deductions : must have / cant have .

We use must have + past participle to express a certainty or make a logical

deduction about the past.

e.g. : He was late for school this morning. He must have overslept.
We use cant have + past participle to express an impossibility in the past.

e.g. : He cant have passed his driving test. Hes very sad.

Present : We use may (not) / might (not) / could (not) to talk about:
present or future possibility

e.g. : He may / might / could not pass the exam.

Polite requests.

e.g. : May I come in?


e.g. : You may smoke if you want to.

Past: We use may / might / could have + past participle:

to express a possibility in the past.

e.g. : Ive lost my cheque book. Someone may / might / could have
stolen it.
Its not very late. They may / might / could not have gone to
bed yet.

Present :
we use should (not) / ought (not) to to give advice and make

e.g. : You should / ought to go to bed.
You should /ought to tell the police.
We use had better (not) + infinitive without to to give very strong advice

or make threats.
e.g. : You had better go or youll be late.
You had better not be late or youll be grounded next

Past : we use should / ought to + have + past participle

to express regret about something.

e.g. : I shouldnt have told him he is an idiot.

to express criticism about past events.

e.g. : He ought to have told us before.


Present : neednt / dont have to (which is not a modal verb).

We use neednt and dont have to when there is no obligation.

e.g. : You neednt shout. Im not deaf.

She doent have to sit this exam if she doesnt want to.
The modal verb need (without to), is only used in the negative and

interrogative. In the affirmative we use need to to express necessity.

e.g. : I need to work hard if I want to pass all my exams.

Past : didnt need to / neednt have + past participle.

We usually use didnt need to + infinitive to say that an action was not

necessay .
e.g. : He didnt need to do it. (= It wasnt necessary for him to do it.
Perhaps he did it, perhaps he didnt)
We usually use neednt have + past participle to say that an action was not

necessary, but it happened anyway.

e.g. : He neednt have done it. (= It wasnt necessary for him to do it,
bu he did.)
We use mustnt to talk about prohibition.

e.g. : You mustnt disobey your parents.

We use can(t) to talk about permission in the present.
e.g. Can I open the window?
We use be allowed to (which is not a modal verb) to talk about permission

in other tenses.
e.g. : He wont be allowed to watch this TV programme.
They havent been allowed to attend the lecture.
We can also use could to talk about general permission in the past but not

to talk about permission for a particular action.

e.g. : I couldnt go out at night when I was a child.
Last week, I wasnt allowed to go to a party as I was grounded.
But not : Last week I couldnt go to a party as