We use modal verbs for:

  1. Permission
  2. Ability
  3. Obligation
  4. Prohibition
  5. Advice
  6. Possibility/probability
  7. Conditionals



Modal Meaning Example
can to express ability I can speak a little English.
can to request permission Can I have a drink of water, please?
may to express possibility I may miss the train.
May to request permission May I wash my hands, please?
May To express probability He may win the race at this rate.
must to express obligation I must study more.
must to express strong belief She must be very wealthy.
should to give advice You should do more exercise.
would to request or offer Would you like a cup of tea?
would in if-sentences If I were you, I would take a break.
could To express past ability I could swim when I was 6 years old.
could To express possibility It could be a good idea.
Might To express possibility It might help you find a job.


There are two types of modal verb:

  1. BARE INFINITIVE. We normally use the bare infinitive (verb without to) after the modal. For instance: I should study more. I can play the flute.
  2. FULL INFINITIVE. We sometimes use the mull infinitive. For example: I ought to go. I have to learn more vocabulary to become fluent.


Modal perfect: talking about an unreal past


I should have learnt English as a child = I didn´t learn English as a child

You might have told me that you were going to be late = You didn´t tell me

He could have listened to the instructions = He didn´t listen to the instructions


Modal verbs are very easy to use and they are used as the aixiliary in a question, like:

Can you show me the way to the beach?

Must we do all the exercises for homework?


It is important to understand that there are similar expressions that are synonyms or have a very similar meaning to some modal verbs.

Can (ability) = be able to, be capable of, know how to

May (permission) = be permitted, be allowed, let, be ok, might, could, be able to

Must (obligation) = be required, be essential, have to, be obliged, be obligatory

CAN´T (prohibition) = mustn´t, be forbidden, be prohibited, be against the rules / not be able to etc.

Should (advice) = be advisable, be recommended, be a good idea, ought to. had better

NEEDN´T (lack of necessity) = not have to, not need to, not be necessary


For extra practice with modal verbs, click HERE



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