Modal verbs are helping verbs which give extra information about the verb that they accompany. There are ten very common modal verbs in English. Each modal verb can express different functions depending upon the context in which it is used.

Here are five common modal verbs and their related functions:

Can- ability, permission, possibility
Must – strong obligation, logical conclusion
Would – past habits, past predictions, tentativeness
Will – habits, predictions
Should – mild prediction, mild obligation

 

Modal Verbs
Modal verbs are helping verbs which give extra information about the verb that they accompany. There are ten very common modal verbs in English. Each modal verb can express different functions depending upon the context in which it is used.

Here are five common modal verbs and their related functions:

Can- ability, permission, possibility
Must – strong obligation, logical conclusion
Would – past habits, past predictions, tentativeness
Will – habits, predictions
Should – mild prediction, mild obligation



See if you can identify the function that is being expressed by the modal verb in the following sentences. Match up the function of the modal verbs in the sentences below by dragging the function boxes to the correct places

1. permission
2. ability
3. possibility
4. strong obligation
5. logical conclusion
6. tentativeness
7. habit
8. strong prediction
9. mild prediction
10. mild obligation


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Modals in the past

To refer to past events using modal verbs the following pattern is common:
Modal + Have + Past Participle

  • I failed the exam.  I should have studied harder. (Mild obligation in the past)
  • The lights are out.  They must have gone out. (Logical conclusion about a past event)
  • They were too tired.  They would have won if they had had more energy. (Prediction about a past event)

There are some exceptions to this:
To express strong obligation in the past must changes to had to.
To express past ability can changes to could
When you wish to express that somebody did something in a specific situation you use be able to.
Will for habits changes to would.

  • All civil servants in Hong Kong had to speak English prior to the handover.
  • I could do 300 pushups when I was eighteen.
  • The fire killed most of the disco-goers, but three were able to escape.
  • I remember my grandmother would always take a nap after lunch.



Try to express the function in brackets by modifying the verb in brackets with the addition an appropriate modal verb. If the even referred to is in the past, use the appropriate grammar.

1. would cry
2. should not be
3. must be
4. must have been
5. should be
6. were able to overcome
7. could carry
8. should have arrived
9. had to take
10. would not have thrived


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Students sometimes make mistakes with modal verbs:

I must to go home early

Here is a list of some of the main
to have to 100 % obligation I must stop when the traffic lights turn red.  
to be very probable logical conclusion (deduction) He must be very tired after such enormous work  
must not not to be allowed to prohibition You must not smoke in the hospital.
can to be able to ability I can swim
to be allowed to permission Can I use your phone please?
it is possible possibility Smoking can cause cancer !
could to be able to ability in the past When I was younger I could stay up all night and not get tired..
to be allowed to more polite permission Excuse me, could I just say something?
it is possible possibility It could rain tomorrow!
may to be allowed to permission May I use your phone please?
it is possible, probable possibility, probability It may rain tomorrow!
might to be allowed to more polite permission Might I use your phone please?
it is possible, probable weak possibility, probability I might come and visit you in America next year, if I can save enough money.
need necessary necessity Need I say more?
need not not necessary lack of I need not buy any tomatoes.


Exercise on modals.
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