A modal verb is a verb, for example ‘can’, ‘might’, or ‘must’ that is used before another verb to show that something is possible, necessary, etc. Here are some of the uses and meanings of modal verbs. For a more detailed description, use a good grammar book. Here are the main modal verbs of English: can could may might must ought shall will would
Expressing degrees of certainty
In the speaker’s opinion, John has the car: The car’s not here – John must have taken it. The speaker thinks this is Clare’s sister but is not sure: She might/could be Clare’s sister She looks very like her . . The speaker thinks this is not possible: She can’t be his mother – she’s younger than me. The speaker is sure she will do it: If she’s promised to do it she’ll do it. The speaker is not sure if it will rain: It might/could rain. It’s getting cloudy.
We also use need and have to as modal verbs.
Same word, different use
Each modal verb has more than one use. For example, look at these two sentences with can. The use is explained in brackets. I can swim. (ability) Can you carry this bag for me? (request)
Fill in the gaps in these sentences with a word from the list on the right: 1 He ___ be a hairdresser. His hair’s a mess. 2 ‘Do you think Joanna will call?’ ‘Who knows? She ___ do.’ 3 She ___ ever come back – I know she won’t. 4 Her hair’s all wet – it ___ be raining. 5 ‘It’s 1–1 and there are ﬁve minutes to play . We ___ still win.’ a b c d e may won’t must can’t might
The dictionary helps you decide which meaning of the verb is used. Look at the modal verb ‘can’. How many meanings can you ﬁnd?
Expressing instructions, advice, permission, and necessity
to give instructions or to say that something is necessary You must wear a helmet when riding a bike. You mustn’t smoke in here. I have to be at the dentist at 3 o’clock. You needn’t shut the door . to give advice or to express a strong opinion You should/ought to go to bed if you’re tired....