Pankaj Mittal

Modal Verbs

Modal Verbs

Modals are special verbs, such as can or must, which behave very irregularly in English.

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.


  • 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.


  • 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.


  • He will can go with us. Not Correct
  • She musted study very hard. Not Correct.

modal verb is a type of verb that is used to indicate modality – that is: likelihood, ability, permission, request, capacity, suggestions, order, obligation, or advice. Modal verbs always accompany the base (infinitive) form of another verb having semantic content. In English, the modal verbs commonly used are cancouldmaymightmustwillwouldshallshouldought tohad better, “have to” and sometimes need or dare. In English and other Germanic languages, modal verbs are often distinguished as a class based on certain grammatical properties.


A modal auxiliary verb gives information about the function of the main verb that it governs. Modals have a wide variety of communicative functions, but these functions can generally be related to a scale ranging from possibility (“may”) to necessity (“must”), in terms of one of the following types of modality:

  • epistemic modality, concerned with the theoretical possibility of propositions being true or not true (including likelihood and certainty)
  • deontic modality, concerned with possibility and necessity in terms of freedom to act (including permission and duty)
  • dynamic modality, which may be distinguished from deontic modality in that, with dynamic modality, the conditioning factors are internal – the subject’s own ability or willingness to act.

The following sentences illustrate epistemic and deontic uses of the English modal verb must:

  • epistemic: You must be starving. (“It is necessarily the case that you are starving.”)
  • deontic: You must leave now. (“You are required to leave now.”)

An ambiguous case is You must speak Spanish. The primary meaning would be the deontic meaning (“You are required to speak Spanish.”) but this may be intended epistemically (“It is surely the case that you speak Spanish.”) Epistemic modals can be analyzed as raising verbs, while deontic modals can be analyzed as control verbs.

Epistemic usages of modals tend to develop from deontic usages. For example, the inferred certainty sense of English must developed after the strong obligation sense; the probabilistic sense of should developed after the weak obligation sense; and the possibility senses of may and can developed later than the permission or ability sense. Two typical sequences of evolution of modal meanings are:

  • internal mental ability → internal ability → root possibility (internal or external ability) → permission and epistemic possibility
  • obligation → probability
  1. Can/could/be able to
  2. May/might
  3. Shall/should
  4. Must/have to
  5. Will/would

Can, Could, Be Able To

Can, could and be able to are used to express a variety of ideas in English:

Ability/Lack of Ability

Present and Future:

can/can’t + base form of the verb

  1. Tom can write poetry very well.
  2. can help you with that next week.
  3. Lisa can’t speak French.

am / is / are / will be + able to + base form of the verb
am not/ isn’t / aren’t/ won’t be + able to + base form of the verb

  1. Mike is able to solve complicated math equations
  2. The support team will be able to help you in about ten minutes.
  3. won’t be able to visit you next summer.


could / couldn’t + base form of the verb

  1. When I was a child I could climb trees.

was / were + able to + base form of the verb
wasn’t / weren’t + able to + base form of the verb
hasn’t / haven’t + been able to + base form of the verb

  1. wasn’t able to visit her in the hospital.
  2. He hasn’t been able to get in touch with the client yet.

Note: Can and could do not take an infinitive (to verb) and do not take the future auxiliary will.

  • Incorrect: I can to help you this afternoon.
  • Correct: I can help you this afternoon.
  • Correct: I will (I’ll) be able to help you this afternoon.

Possibility / Impossibility

can / can’t + base form of the verb

  1. You can catch that train at 10:43.
  2. He can’t see you right now. He’s in surgery.

could + base form of the verb

  1. could fly via Amsterdam if I leave the day before.

Ask Permission / Give Permission

Can + Subject + base form of the verb (informal)

  1. Can you lend me ten dollars?

Can + base form of the verb (informal)

  1. You can borrow my car.

Could + subject + base form of the verb (polite)

  1. Could I have your number?
  2. Could I talk to your supervisor please?

Make a suggestion – To make a suggestion use:

Could + base form of the verb (informal)

  1. You could take the tour of the castle tomorrow.


can speak a little Russian.
Can I open the window?
may be home late.
May I sit down, please?
must go now.
She must be over 90 years old.
You should stop smoking.
Would you like a cup of tea?

Now let’s Do some practice 🙂

Test Link 1 —-> Click Here
Test Link 2 —-> Click Here
Test Link 3 —-> Click Here
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Test Link 5 —-> Click Here


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