We use modal verbs for:

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


Modal verbs follow rules:

  1. We use the bare infinitive after a modal verb.
  2. You cannot use 2 modal verbs in a row.
  3. The modal verb is used as the auxiliary verb in questions and in short answers.


The meaning of modal verbs:

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. Modal verbs: We normally use the bare infinitive (verb without to) after the modal. For instance: I should study more. I can play the flute.
  2. Semi-modals: We sometimes use the full infinitive. For example: I ought to go. I have to learn more vocabulary to become fluent.


As we cannot use two modal verbs together, we usually use a modal verb + a semi-modal verb:

Study the example; we must can listen and take notes at the same time in the exam. It should be we must be able to listen and take notes at the same time in the exam.


Study the semi-modal expressions here

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


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


Study the modal perfect here

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

Can you show me the way to the beach? 

Must we do all the exercises for homework?

Should we do more listening practice before the exam?


For extra practice with modal verbs, click HERE


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