Modal verbs

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    Introduction

    Modal verbs are special verbs that help us to express probability, possibility or certainty, OR they serve to express abilities, requests for permission, proposal, duty, etc.

    The most important modal verbs are:
    can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, would.

    A modal verb is an auxiliary verb that determines the meaning of the verb that follows it. As an example, let’s take the modal verb “should“. If we say, “I should”, we do not know what we should do and the modal verb itself does not have any meaning in this case. Therefore, the meaning of the modal verb needs to be supplemented by another verb that will provide the meaning of the sentence. For example, “I should read” makes sense.

    Modal verbs have the peculiarity that, unlike the meaning verbs, they do not conjugate in any way (for example: He speaks – is a common verb, so in the third person we add the ending -s. Can as a modal verb only enables to use he can). We will show the form of all persons in the charts for individual verbs.

    Modal verbs are divided into auxiliary and marginal. Marginal modal verbs are those that can be used as both modal and common meaning verbs (for example, NEED: I needn’t (modal) x I don’t need (meaning)). Auxiliary modal verbs do not have such a property, so they cannot stand alone as verbs of meaning (e.g. CAN: I can’t but not I don’t can). You can find out more about this distinction below in the section on marginal modal verbs.

    Let’s look at the chart where we have an overview of modal verbs:

    Modal verbs Phonetic transcription
    Auxiliary verbs
    can /kæn/
    could/kʊd/
    may/meɪ/
    might /maɪt/
    must/mʌst/
    shall/ʃæl/
    should/ʃʊd/
    will/wɪl/
    would/wʊd/
    Marginal verbs 
    need /niːd/
    dare /deər/
    used to/ˈjus·tu/
    ought to /ˈɔːt ˌtə/

    1 Modal auxiliary verbs

    The modal auxiliary verbs are can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, would.
    Now let’s go all through them:

    CAN/COULD

    We can use the word can if we want to say that someone can do something (He can sing.), someone is allowed to do something (Can I go to the toilet? Yes, you can go to the toilet.), or when something is unlikely (It can’t be her).

    How to know whether to use can = to be able or can=to know?

    • Imagine that you have to watch babysit your friend’s daughter and decide to take her to the swimming pool. You’ve never been to the water pool together. When you ask her the question, “Can you swim?”, It is clear from the context that you are asking her whether she knows how to swim.
    • Now imagine going to a swimming pool with a girlfriend who has a broken finger. You usually go to the swimming pool with her, so you know she can swim. So, if you ask her “Can you swim?”, It is clear from the context that you are wondering if she is able to swim with a broken finger.
    • can in all persons looks like this:
    SingularPlural
    First-person I can swim. We can swim.
    Second-person You can swim.You can swim.
    Third-person He/She/It can swim.They can swim.
    •  could in all persons looks like this:
    SingularPlural
    First-person I could swim.We could swim.
    Second-person You could swim.You could swim.
    Third-person He/She/It could swim.They could swim.

    Now let’s look at how the verb behaves in future and past tenses:

    • For the formation of future tenses, we use the verb will. Since (which will is also modal and two modal verbs cannot stand behind each other), so we need a so-called descriptive form for the formation of the future tense be able to:
      • I will be able to finish it tomorrow.
      • I will not be able to meet him tomorrow.
        not
      • I will can finish it tomorrow.
      • I will not can meet him tomorrow.
    • We have several options for creating the past tense::
      • if the verb can express an ability or option, we have two possibilities:
        • use the so-called descriptive form, the descriptive form of the word “can” is be able to:
          • I was able to win the game.
        • use the past form of the verb can can – could:
          • I could already swim when I was four.
        • The difference is that if we use a descriptive form, we talk about some one-time ability – something that we have (or more or less randomly) done. If we use the past form, we are talking about the long-term ability that we have acquired at some time in the past and probably still have.
      • but if the verb “can” means (un)certainty or probability of a given fact, we will use the past form can + have + past participle (for example (například could have done):
        • The man in the supermarket could have been John.

    In the following chart, you can see all the descriptive forms for Can:

    Descriptive forms for Can 
    Present Tense I am able to
    Past Tense I was able to
    Future Tense I will be able to
    Present Perfect I have been able to
    Past Perfect I had been able to
    Future Tense I will have been able to
    Second ConditionalI would be able to
    Third ConditionalI would have been able to
    • the word can has several meanings:
      • ability
        • I can play the guitar
      • permission
        • Can I go to the toilet, please?
      • request
        • Can you help me?
      • possibility (we are able)
        • I can visit them while I’m in town.
      • option (there is a real chance but we’re not entirely sure)
        • She could be home.
          • the real chance (possibility) that the statement is true.
          • when we express our belief in a given fact, we can only use the form could. In this context, “Can” can only be used for questions and negatives (e.g. This can’t be true.)
    • we can use the word could in present tense, we will reach a higher level of courtesy (for example: Can you show me your invitation? X Could you show me your invitation?)

    MAY/MIGHT

    We can use the word may if we want to show permission or say how much something is possible.

    • may in all persons looks like this:
    SingularPlural
    First-person I may help you.We may help you.
    Second-person You may help me.You may help me.
    Third-person He/She/It may help you.They may help you.
    • For the creation of the future tense, we use the verb will which is also modal, and two modal verbs cannot stand behind each other, so we need a so-called descriptive form to create the future tense  be allowed to:
      • I will be allowed to finish it tomorrow.
      • I will not be allowed to meet him tomorrow.
        not
      • I will may finish it tomorrow.
      • I will not may meet him tomorrow.
    • We have several options for creating the past:
      • if the verb may expresses some type of permission, we will would use the descriptive form::
        • I was allowed to see the painting.
      • if the verb may expresses (un)certainty or the probability of a given fact, we use may / might + have + past participle (for example may have done):
        • The man in the supermarket may/might have been John.
        • If we confuse “may” with “might”, we say that the fact is less certain than it would be in the case of “may”.

    In the following chart you will find all the descriptive forms for may:

    Descriptive forms for MAY 
    Present Tense I am allowed to
    Past Tense I was allowed to
    Future Tense I will be allowed
    Present Perfect I have been allowed to
    Past Perfect I had been allowed to
    Future Tense I will have been allowed to
    Second Conditional I would be allowed to
    Third Conditional I would be allowed to
    • may expresses the following meanings:
        • permission
          • May I see the letter?
        • possibility
          • I may come to the party.

    MUST

    We use the verb must for expressing duty or necessity, but we also express certainty or our inner belief.

    • must is formed in the different persons as follows:
    SingularPlural
    First-person I must help you.We must help you.
    Second-person You must help me.You must help me.
    Third-person He/She/It must help you.They must help you.

    Now let’s look at how the verb must behaves in the future and the past tenses:

    • – for the creation of the future tense, we use the verb will which is also modal and two modal verbs cannot stand behind each other, so we need a so-called descriptive form for the creation of the future tense – have to:
      • I will have to finish it tomorrow.
      • I will not have to meet him tomorrow.
        not
      • I will must finish it tomorrow.
      • I will not must meet him tomorrow.
    • We have several options for creating the past:
      • if the verb must expresses an obligation, we use the descriptive form::
        • I had to see the painting.
      • but if the verb must express (un)certainty or the probability of a given fact, we use must + have + past participle (for example must have done)
        • The man in the supermarket must have been John.
        • If in the present tense, we use have to, we are talking about an obligation that someone gives us (for example: You have to pay taxes.). When we use must, we are talking about something we consider necessary (for example: You must see the new movie. It’s great!)

    The following chart lists all the descriptive forms of the verb must:

    Descriptive forms of the verb MUST 
    Present TenseI am able to
    Past Tense I was able to
    Future Tense I will be able to
    Present Perfect I have had to
    Past Perfect I had had to
    Future Tense I will have had to
    Second Conditional I would have to
    Third Conditional I would have had to
    • must hasbears the following meanings:
      • obligation
        • I must go to work.
      • conviction of the speaker
        • English must be easy.

    SHALL/SHOULD

    The word shall is slowly disappearing from everyday Englishs and being replaced by the word will, especially when we talk about the future. But it is still used in a formal talk. We suggestions and offers (for example: Shall I pick you up?).

    • in different persons we use shall as follows:
    SingularPlural
    First-person I shall help you.We shall help you.
    Second-person You shall help me.You shall help me.
    Third-person He/She/It shall help you.They shall help you.
    • shall indicates:
      • forecast
        • He shall win.
          • formal, little used
      • offer
        • Shall I take you home
      • proposal
        • Shall we ask him?
      • obligation
        • The employer shall pay the insurance for their employees.
          • in formal documents, legal terminology
      • option
        • What shall we buy?

    We use should when we show our inner beliefs, something we consider appropriate or correct (for example: I should eat healthily). We also use it to give advice and to make recommendations (For example: You should stop smoking).

    • we use should as follows:
    SingularPlural
    First-person I should help you.We should help you.
    Second-person You should help me.You should help me.
    Third-person He/She/It should help you.They should help you.
    • should indicates:
      • need
        • I should visit a doctor before it gets any worse.
      • recommendation
        • You should talk to someone, it will help you.
      • deduction
        • The shop should be somewhere around here.
    • in the past tense, we only need should + have + past participle (for example: I should have sent the parcel.) We use should have when we re-evaluate some activity – how something was supposed to be in the past, but it happened differently.

    WILL/WOULD

    We use will when we talk about the future (also it is used to create the future tense), sudden decisions, promises, predictions (for example: I will come.). The auxiliary verb would is used in applications, choosing what we prefer, etc.

    However, one of the most important functions of these two modal verbs is in conditional sentences where we use them to indicate unrealistic or very unlikely situations.

    • In the different persons will like this:
    SingularPlural
    First-personI will help you.We will help you.
    Second-personYou will help me.You will help me.
    Third-personHe/She/It will help you.They will help you.
    • would like this:
    SingularPlural
    First-person I would help you.We would help you.
    Second-person You would help me.You would help me.
    Third-person He/She/It would help you.They would help you.
    • By using would in the present tense, we are more polite (for example: Will you let me in, please? X Would you let me in, please?)
    • in the past tense, we use the word would with the auxiliary verb have + past participle (for example: I would have saved her.) Would have is used primarily in conditional sentences, in situations where something has happened in the past, but we can’t change it. More about the differences in usage of would and would have can be found in the chapter on conditional sentences.
    • the word will shows:
      • intention
        • I will call you.
      • Forecast/prediction
        • He will lose.
      • willingness, proposal
          • I will carry the box.
      • deduction
        • That will certainly be Peter.
      • habit
        • She will buy a bottle of champagne every weeek.
        • We can use would – it shows some past habit. = She would buy me a drink whenever we met.

    2 Marginal modal verbs

    Marginal modal verbs have the peculiarity of behaving as modal verbs and also as action verbs. The following list shows what this looks like:

    NEED

    • The chart below shows the use of need:
    SingularPlural
    First-person I need help you.We need help
    Second-person You need help me.You need help me.
    Third-person He/She/It need help you.They need help you.
    • the word need can have two functions:
      • action verb
        • in this case it is followed by the to-infinitive and means something necessary (for example: I need to train if I want to win.).
      • modal verb
        • modal need also expresses the necessity, but also the duty (for example: You need to pay taxes.)

    DARE

    • the word dare has the following features:
      • action verb
        • in such case, it is followed by the to-infinitive and it means that we dare to do something (for example: I dare to say he is a liar.).
      • modal verb
        • modal dare has the same meaning, is followed by an infinitive without to (for example: Dare he go there?), but is mostly used in negative sentences and questions, e.g.:
          • I daren’t approach him.
          • How dare you touch me?
        • Forms of all persons of dare:
    SingularPlural
    First-person I dare help you.We dare help you.
    Second-person Dare you help me?Dare you help me?
    Third-person He/She/It dare help you.They dare help you.

    USED TO

    Used to expresses some past habit and at the same time an activity that we no longer perform (for example: I used to go for a run every day after school. – I don’t go now).

    • We form the word used to like this:
    SingularPlural
    First-person I used to help you.We used to help you.
    Second-person You used to help me.You used to help me.
    Third-person He/She/It used to help you.They used to help you.
    • beware of used to in the present tense. There it is associated with the verb to be and it means that we are used to something (for example I am used to such behaviour.) In this case, it is not a modal verb.

    OUGHT TO

    Ought to has essentially the same meaning as the word vocabulary should, i.e. that it is a belief in how something should be. It is also used for giving advice and recommendations. Unlike should these expressions are stronger.

    • Use of ought to:
    SingularPlural
    First-person I ought to help you.We ought to help you.
    Second-person You ought to help me.You ought to help me.
    Third-person He/She/It ought to help you.They ought to help you.
    • to form the past tense, we use the auxiliary verb have + past participle
      (například: I ought to have driven more carefully.).
    • the word ought to means:
      • obligation
        • You ought to behave well at school.
          • Unlike should, which expresses a rather subjective opinion, ought to is more general and objective
      • recommendation
        • You ought to talk to someone. It will help you.
          • In comparison to should, ought to is more formal and used less frequently.

    3 Attributes of Modal verbs

    Formation of the negative

    Modal verbs, unlike the action ones, do not need an auxiliary verb to form a negative. All they need is a negative not. As a result, they can also create so-called short forms. Thus, we don’t’ say: I don’t can swim but I can’t swim.

    See the following chart for an overview of negatives:

    Modal verb Negative/Short form
    cancan not/can’t
    couldcould not/couldn’t
    maymay not/mayn’t
    mustmust not/mustn’t
    shallshall not/shan’t
    shouldshould not/shouldn’t
    willwill not/won’t
    wouldwould not/wouldn’t
    Modal verb Negative/Short form
    mightmight not/mightn’t
    needneed not/needn’t
    daredare not/daren’t
    ought toought not to/oughtn’t
    used toused not to/usen’t

    Normally, you will encounter marginal modal verbs with their lexical meaning rather than modal. Then their negative is formed as follows:

    • need – did not/didn’t need
    • dare – did not/didn’t dare
    • used to – did not/didn‘t use to + did not/didn’t used to
    • ought to – did not/didn’t ought to

    Formation of questions

    Another attribute of modal verbs is that they do not need an auxiliary verb to form questions. Instead of Do you can sing? we ask Can you sing?

    We’ll look at a list of questions with all modal verbs:

    Modal verbUse in the question form
    CanCan you hear me?
    CouldCould you open the window?
    MayMay I leave?
    MustMust you always complain?
    ShallShall we go to the park?
    ShouldShould I help him?
    WillWill she also be there?
    WouldWould you like a glass of water?
    Modal verb Use in the question form
    MightMight this be the best solution?
    NeedNeed we remember it?
    DareDare you ask him?
    Used toUsed you to like watching basketball?
    Ought toOught Joe to be more careful?

    As we have already said, you will normally encounter the lexical meaning rather than the modal with marginal modal verbs. Then the questions form is as follows:

    • need – do you need to…?
    • dare – do you dare to…?
    • used to – did you use(d) to..?
    • ought to – do you ought to..?

    Another modal verb’s attributes

    • we also use modal verbs to avoid unnecessarily repeating:
      • A: Can I have a sandwich?
      • B: Yes, you can (have a sandwich).
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    Vendula Novotná
    Vystudovala magisterské studium na pedagogické fakultě Karlovy Univerzity se specializací na anglický jazyk, hudební kulturu, pedagogiku a sociální pedagogiku. Má letité zkušenosti s výukou jazyka v ČR, USA, Indonésii a Německu. Pracuje jako metodička a koordinátorka jazykových kurzů ve společnosti OLINE learning, kde vede tým lektorů a podílí se na tvorbě jazykových kurzů pro více než 37 000 studentů. Vendula se řídí heslem: “Učení nás má bavit, protože pokud nás baví, co děláme, pak to má smysl".