Modal verbs

Introductory notes about modal auxiliaries

Modal auxiliaries are types of helping verbs that help us express certain moods and functions such as ability, obligation, possibility, prohibition, etc.

They are always used with main verbs and never take any endings like the third person singular “s”, the past simple “ed”, or the “-ing” form. For example, we don’t say: He cans, she is shoulding, they musted, etc.

When using modals to talk about present situations, we just add the bare infinitive to the modal; i.e., (subject+modal+verb).

Generally, modals don’t change their forms. But some of them take a different form when used in the past tense. Study the following table to get more insight:

Present FormExamplePast FormExample
CanThey can move to their new apartment.CouldThey could move to their apartment.
MayShe may attend the party.MightShe might attend the party.
MustI must renew my Identity Card.Had toI had to renew my Identity Card.
Have toWe have to go home early.Had toWe had to go home early.
WillI will do my best.Would I would do my best.

Functions expressed by modals

As mentioned above, in addition to affecting the verb’s meaning, modal auxiliaries are used to express certain functions in the sentence. Most of these functions are illustrated in the table below along with examples.

Modal FunctionExample
CanpossibilityThey can go to Rabat this week.
Canasking for permissionCan I leave early this afternoon?
Canability/capabilityI can lift 100 kilos.
Could Asking for permissionCould I call you late at night?
Should/had better/ ought toAdvice/advisability/suggestionYou should/had better/ought to eat healthy food.
Needn’t/don’t have toAbsence of obligation/necessity I am not fat. I needn’t/dodon’t have to go on a diet.
Mustn’t/can’tprohibitionPeople mustn’t smoke in public places.
Must/have toObligation/NecessityStudents must/have to go to school every day.
MustDeduction/ConclusionJane is absent today. She must have a problem.
MayPossibilityIt is cloudy. It may rain.
MayAsking for permissionMay I take your pen, please?
MightPossibilityThings might improve in the coming weeks.
MightAsking for permissionMight I take your pen, please?
WillRequestWill you open the door, please?
WillPromiseI will buy you a nice T-shirt if you get a high grade.
WillSimple future It will be rainy tomorrow.
WouldRequestWould you pass me the salt, please?
WouldConditional type 1If I were you, I would do better.

Explanations/Equivalents of modal auxiliaries

  1. Can = be able to/be capable of = It is possible = it is allowed/permitted
  2. Must = be obliged to
  3. Have to = it is necessary
  4. Needn’t = it not necessary
  5. Mustn’t (must not) = not allowed/not permitted = be prohibited = be forbidden
  6. Should = recommend
  7. May = it is possible = it is permitted/allowed

Exercise about modal auxiliaries

Fill in the blanks with the correct modal auxiliary

  1. This is a very precious book. You ________ lose it.
  2. He will be having lessons for another two hours. We _________ visit him now.
  3. You _________ wash those carrots. They’ve already been washed.
  4. We _______ hurry. We’ve got plenty of time.
  5. We have enough milk in the fridge so we __________ buy some more.
  6. This is a very great novel. You _______ read it.
  7. Time is not on our side. We _________ hurry.
  8. What kind of car do you want to buy? Something flashy?’ ‘Well, it __________ be flashy – that’s not important.’
  9. Tim gave me a mail to send. I ___________ remember to mail it.
  10. Mary gave me a letter to post. I __________ forget to mail it.
  11. I ———– lift 300 kilos when I was younger.
  12. You ———- sleep eight hours a night.
  13. ———– you help me study for the test?
  14. It ———– be too late for dinner.
  15. The waiter ———–  bring our order soon.
  16. …………. you give me your P.C., please?
  17. You ………………. give up bad eating habits.
  18. Please, ……………….. you buy me some English books?
  19. …………… your wife cook pizza?
  20. The school ………………… offer us good facilities.

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