Modal Verbs

Modal verbs help speakers/writers express their subjective attitudes and/or opinions about things. These include possibility, probability, obligation, necessity, desirability, to name a few.

In no particular order, here are some of the more commonly used modal verbs in English (with definitions in brackets)

  • could (ability, permission, possibility, request)
  • can (possibility, permission, ability, suggestion, request)
  • may (permission, request, probability)
  • might (probability, suggestion, possibility)
  • must (obligation, prohibition, necessity, deduction)
  • shall (future, offer, question, suggestion, decision)
  • should (necessity, recommendation, advice)
  • will (future, intention, prediction, promise, decision, suggestion)
  • would (habit, invitation, permission, question, preference, request)

These definitions are not the only possible definitions for these modals because different groups of native speakers of English (e.g. British, Canadian, Australian, Irish, etc) might have developed a variety of ways of using them to express opinions that other native speakers of English around the world might not use in quite the same way. So you will quite likely hear these used in a wide variety of ways if you go globe-trotting (or watch international tv programmes in their native English-speaking tongues).


The following example shows a range of meaning that is possible with just one modal verb. See if you can organize the list in some way that shows a subtle change in attitude/opinion from WEAKER  –> STRONGER. Put your answers in the brackets ( ) after each one.

  1. You could pass the test. ( ____________________________ )
  2. You must pass the test. ( _____________________________ )
  3. You might pass the test. ( ____________________________ )
  4. You will pass the test. ( ______________________________ )
  5. You should pass the test. ( ___________________________ )
  6. You shall pass the test. ( ____________________________ )

I’ll give you my ordered list in a later post. 🙂

Remember no one can say with absolute authority that THIS or THAT way is the ONLY way to use a modal because of the wide variation of meanings/interpretations attached to their use. So, you just have to learn them as you come across them.




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