What is a modal verb? Modal verbs are very common helping verbs that we use all the time in English. Some of the most common modal verbs are can, could, may, might, should, ought to*, must, have to, will, and would. Many English learners make mistakes when using these so today I’m going to help you understand these important verbs. Let’s begin!
First, we should know that modal verbs are used differently than regular verbs. Here are three rules to help you use them more correctly:
1.Never add ‘s’ to a modal verb.
a.We can have a meeting tomorrow = Correct
b.We can meeting tomorrow = Incorrect
2.They are followed directly by a regular verb without adding ‘to’ or ‘~ing’ (with the exception of have to and ought to):
a.We might have a meeting tomorrow = Correct
b.We might to have a meeting tomorrow= Incorrect
c.We might having a meeting tomorrow= Incorrect
3.For the negative, just add ‘not’ between the modal and the verb.
a.You should not go there = Correct
b.You don’t should go there = Incorrect
If you follow these three rules, they will help you make fewer mistakes!
NOTE: ‘Have to’ and ‘ought to’ are exceptions. ‘Ought to’ is easier as the only difference from other modals is that it has ‘to.’ It is used like this:
a.You ought to go.
b.You ought not to go.
Although ‘have to’ is used like a modal, it is not actually a modal. It is grouped with modals because it is used as a replacement for ‘must.’ It is treated just like any other verb.
c.She has to study.
d.I don’t have to study.
e.He doesn’t have to go.
f.I had to study.
Now that we know a little more about how to use the modal verbs, let’s talk about when to use them! I will tell you six different situations we most commonly use modal verbs and I will also tell you which verbs to use in each situation.
We use the modal verbs can and could when we want to talk about someone’s ability. Can is used for abilities now. Could is used for abilities in the past. Here are some examples:
• She can speak Japanese and English. (present)
• They can do karate. (present)
• He could play piano when he was younger. (past – he can’t play now)
We use the modal verbs can, could, and may to ask for permission and can and may to give permission to someone. Permission means to let someone do something or to not let someone do something. Here are examples of asking for permission:
• Can I eat lunch at my desk?
• May I leave the office early today?
• Could I take a day off tomorrow?
Here are some examples of giving permission:
• You cannot eat lunch at your desk.
• You may leave the office early today.
• You can take a day off tomorrow. (we don’t use could to give permission)
We use the modal verb should and ought to for giving advice. Here are some examples:
• You should not go to bed so late.
• You should see a doctor.
• You ought to quit smoking.
Be careful using must for advice as it can sound too strong depending on what you’re saying.
✓ You really must see that movie! (enthusiastic suggestion)
✕ You must take your umbrella with you today. (more like an order than advice)
An obligation is something that you do because you have no choice. We use the modal verbs have to and must for obligations. Here are some examples:
• I have to go to work Monday to Friday.
• I must give my boss my report by 2 PM.
• I have to pick up my daughter after school today.
We use the modal verbs might, may, could, and can to talk about things that are possible or not possible. Here are some examples:
• It might not rain tomorrow.
• He may go to the party.
• I could pass the test if I study hard.
• You can make a lot of money from Pachinko.
When we are making a request. we use the modal verbs would, can, and could. If you want to be polite, you should use would. Here are some examples:
• Can I borrow your pen?
• Could you please call me back after lunch?
• Would you watch my dog for me this weekend?
So today we looked at some good rules to remember when using modal verbs as well as some different situations to use them in. I hope this information helps you use modal verbs in the correct way in the future! Thanks for reading!
* ‘Ought to’, which has the same meaning as ‘should,’ is not as familiar to many Japanese people, but is actually used quite often by native English speakers. It is usually pronounced like ‘awdah.’ You may even be familiar with the line from the Billy Joel song, “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song): “you ought to know by now.”