Modal Verbs in English

Don't Miss Out on These 8 Modal Verbs in English to Help You Perfect Your Language Skills!


The English language is full of wonderful features that are specifically expressed through their distinct characteristics. In English, we learn grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. These primary aspects of the language have individual functions that are sometimes unnoticed.

Verbs, for example, are parts of learning English grammar. Verbs have a variety of features that focus on individual functions. In verbs, we learn the tenses in English, phrasal verbs, stative verbs, and modal verbs. These are special features of verbs and should be given emphasis on learning the English language.

Modal verbs in English are commonly called modals and are one of the unnoticed features of verbs. Although we see them in some sentences or use them in our conversations, but do we also know what they are, their uses, and how they function in sentences?

You must have encountered these common modal verbs in English: may, might, can, could, shall, should, will, would, must, and ought to. These modal verbs in English play a vital role in emphasizing the meaning of a sentence and in changing its form when necessary.

We will give more attention to the 8 common modal verbs in English and discuss examples of each. Before that, we have to understand modal verbs and how they are used in sentences.

Understanding Modal verbs in English
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What are modal verbs in English and how are they used?

Modal verbs in English are confusing and tricky if not learned briefly. As a language learner, it is important that you know a lot of modal verbs in English so you can be familiar with them. It would also be helpful for you to easily express your thoughts when having a conversation.

Modal verbs in English are verbs that are used to express ideas of possibility, ability, permission or request, and necessity or obligation. They are auxiliary or helping verbs and function as a sentence helper.

The 8 common modal verbs in English are may, might, can, could, should, will, would, and must.

The modal verbs in English are used in the following situations.

  1. Possibility or probability – We use modal verbs in English if we believe that something is possible, impossible, or certain at some point. 
  • Possible or impossible – We use may, might, and could for something that we think is possible in the future but we are unsure of it.

Mary might be seeing Tom in LA in the summer.
There may be a conference at the end of this quarter.
If given much attention, the spread of the virus could be prevented.

For negative statements, we can add the word “not” to our sentences.

            Mary might not be seeing Tom in LA in the summer as she has more important meetings.
            There may not be a conference at the end of this quarter because of the pandemic.

  • Certain – we use the modals must and can’t do if we are sure that something is true.

You must be so stressed out; you look so exhausted.
She must be inside the office. Her office door is open.
Being a single mom can’t be easy knowing that she doesn’t have somebody to rely on.           

In some cases, the modal verb “should/shouldn’t” is used to show our expectations for the future.

Take your medicine and sleep. You should be well in a day.
The decrease in sales shouldn’t be my problem.

  1. Ability – The most commonly used modal for this use is “can/could” as it expresses the idea of showing ability to do something.

Ms. Brooks can dance gracefully without music.
I could easily get a perfect score on my exams when I was in elementary.

            For the negative form, we add “not” to our sentences.

She cannot process her documents alone.
The police could not arrest the suspect because he was disguised. 

  1. Permission and request – we use the modals may, can, and could to ask for permission or make a request.

May I go to the restroom? – a formal way of asking permission
Can my son take a leave on Monday? – a casual way of asking permission
Can you please share the file with me? – a casual but polite way of making a request
Could you open the door for me, please? – a polite way of making a request
Will you shut up and do your job?
Would you allow me to carry these books for you, ma’am?

  1. Necessity or obligation – we use modal verbs in English for something that is not an option but a necessary thing to do.

You must finish your report before the end of your shift.
The project manager should find ways to fix the issue.

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How to use modal verbs in English sentences

Just like any sentence, modal verbs in English are also used with a correct structure to form the correct meaning of the sentences. It is simple to use them in sentences. You just have to remember the following:

  • In positive and negative statements, modal verbs in English come before the main verb;
  • In questions, modal verbs come at the beginning of the sentence but precede the subject before the infinitive form of the main verb; and
  • Use the infinitive form of the main verb when you use modal verbs in English.

For example:           

            Positive/negative statements

George can drive a car with only one hand.
I cannot attend the party because I have prior commitments.
Ms. Daisy must be so busy that she forgot to eat her lunch.


May we proceed to the café after the lesson?
Could you take me to the hospital, please?
Will you give me the keys to the clinic?

Other modal verbs in English

Although there are 8 commonly used modal verbs in English, the least commonly used are shall and ought to.” Shall is used to ask for advice, make suggestions, or make offers. For example, the sentence “Let’s have a drink, shall we?” is an offer.

The modal verb “shall” also indicates that something must happen. For example, “The debt shall be consolidated when not completely paid.”

“Shall” can also be used to express certainty in the future or the intention to do something. For example, “The plane shall take off at 9:00 PM” and “Mr. Billers shall visit the head office in two weeks.”

The modal verb “ought to” is used to show something that is necessary to be done or a good thing to do. For example, “We ought to obey our company’s rules and policies.”

The negative forms of shall and ought to are “shall not and ought not to.”

Why are modal verbs important for language learners in English?

For language learners, learning modal verbs in English is important because these verbs are helpful in improving their language skills. Students usually need to correct their grammar when forming expressions that need model verbs.

Modal verbs in English make statements meaningful and they help in conveying the message clearly, according to the thought of the sentence. We may be able to understand the entire meaning of a sentence when modal verbs in English are correctly used.

Important things to note about modal verbs:

  • Modal verbs in English are commonly used in speech rather than in writing.
  • Modal verbs are divided into two functions: Attitudinal and Communicative functions.
  • Modals use the present and past tense forms of the verb.
  • There is a tendency for language learners to overuse a modal verb especially when it is applicable to be used in any sentence; thus, it may result in inappropriate relay of the message intended.

ESL students sometimes find modal verbs in English challenging because of the variety of functions they express. Some of these modals have multiple functions so they might be using them incorrectly in their utterances.


It is important to note that modal verbs give a clear emphasis on the intended meaning of a sentence. Therefore, learning them can help you perfect your English language skills. Do not be afraid of committing errors or be stuck in a plateau as they are part of learning.

Remember, it is impossible to communicate in English effectively without using modal verbs. If you are a language learner wanting to polish and perfect your language skills, start learning them now.

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