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Make Sure You’re Using Modal Verbs the Right Way!

Image representing a student learning how to sound more interesting in English

Learning how to use verbs correctly is pretty much an essential part of English grammar. But not all verbs work in quite the same way.

A really important group of verbs you’ll need to know about are modal verbs. Unlike action verbs like “running” or “eating” that describe some kind of activity, modal verbs are used to describe the possibility of something happening instead.

So how are they actually used? Let’s take a closer look!

How are they different from other verbs?

Modal verbs include verbs like “can”, “might”, “should” and “will”. These verbs all express how likely it is for something to happen.

One important point to note is that they are always followed by another verb in the infinitive, without the word “to”. Let’s take a look at some examples:

“I could catch the last train if I hurry.”

“She might be able to get a better mark if she studies harder.”

“We should clean up before we go.”

Formulating a question is also a lot easier with modal verbs. All you need to do is simply invert the order of the words – so instead of saying “he can dance”, to turn it into a question, you simply say “can he dance?”

Another big difference to bear in mind is that there is no ‘s’ or ‘-es’ ending in the third person, as other verbs do.

For example, a non-modal verb would be written as follows:

“She dances every night.”

A modal verb does not need the ending after the verb form:

“She can dance every night.”

Which modal verb for which probability?

Modal verbs are all used to express how likely or probable something is to happen – but each verb expresses a slightly different form of likelihood, so it’s important to know what they all mean!

“Can” and “may” used are both when something is quite possible to happen:

“You can drive straight to the gate of the building.”

But you also use  them when asking for permission to do something. Do note that “may” is usually considered the more polite option when asking for something!

“Can I use the bathroom?”

“May we leave the table, please?”

When you want to express something a little more strongly instead, you can use “should” or “ought to”. These verbs express that it is recommended to do something.

“You really should get your car checked.”

“He ought to start revising for his exams now.”

Finally, “must” and “have to” are another set of modal verbs that express things more strongly. These are used when you really want to emphasise that something has to be done.

“We must leave now, otherwise we’ll miss the flight.”

“I have to buy a new phone.”

Unlike the other modal verbs, “have to” does change in the third person, as it becomes “has to” instead.

Your turn

Modal verbs are definitely very common and you’re likely to see them in lots of different contexts – from important instructions on safety labels, to suggestions from a friend.

Get lots of practice by reading and practicing sentences as much as you can – and see how the different modal verbs express different things.