Modals and how to ace them

Hello lovely students! Modal verbs play an important part in English grammar and we use them when we speak English daily. Do you have any doubts about how to use them? Read the article below and you’ll be an expert in no time.

Modal verbs written on sticky notes isolated on office desk.

What are modals?

Modal verbs are a type of auxiliary verb that is used to express a range of things. These include hypothetical situations, ability, giving suggestions, giving permission, giving advice, obligation, necessity, polite requests, polite questions, possibility and certainty.

Modal verbs are auxiliary verbs as they act as helper verbs. They are known as modal auxiliaries. This means they normally help to express the main verb so the meaning of the sentence is clearer to the listener. 

Modal verbs cannot be used alone in context.

Another important thing to remember is that modals can be used in any tense. They are fluid like water as a lot of auxiliary verbs are.

But more on that later. I take it you’re now ready to learn the common modal verbs we use in the English language, so take a look at the next section.

Modal verbs are fluid like water

What are the modals?

The key nine modal verbs are; could, should, would, may, might, will, shall, can and must. Look at the table below for some examples.

Positive formNegative form
couldcouldn’t/ could not
shouldshouldn’t/should not
wouldwouldn’t/would not
maymay not
mightmight not *
willwon’t/will not
shallshan’t/shall not 
can can’t/cannot
mustmustn’t/must not

*we can use mightn’t as a negative but we tend not to in spoken English


Could is used for multiple situations in English.

1) To talk about what you to had permission to do in the past

You said we could go and play outside if we finished our homework!

When I was younger, my parents said I could eat dessert only when I finished my dinner.

2) For past abilities

I could stay up all night and go to work the next morning in my early twenties. No chance of that happening now.

When my nan was little she could speak French.

3) A polite form of can when asking for permission or for someone to provide something

Could you lend me £10?

Could you pass me the salt?

4) For making suggestions

We could go to the cinema instead of bowling if you want.

I could go into more detail about the project if you are still unsure.

5) To express possibility or probability

They could arrive at any time.

This new medicine could cure this terrible disease.

It could rain tomorrow.

“Could you pass me…?” is used a lot around a table


1) To give useful suggestions

You should drink camomile to help you sleep.

She should watch British TV if she wants to learn British English but can’t go there.

2) For expectations

My bedroom should be finished by Saturday.

I don’t know where Farhana is. She should be here by now.

3) In conditionals for possible situations

Should you need me, I will be in my office.

Should you have any more questions, feel free to ask them.

Suggesting camomile for sleep is a great idea


1) The past tense form of will

My computer wouldn’t start this morning.

He said he wouldn’t come swimming with me.

2) Describe things in the past that happened often

My grandfather would always give me sweets when I went to his house.

I remember Mrs Biggs. She would always read us a story at the end of the day.

3) For an intention made in the past

I said I would help you, so that’s why I am here.

We said we would learn English with you.

4) For polite offers

Would you like to come with us to the Maldives?

Would you like me to take you to dinner?

5) With conditional sentences

If I had time, I would visit him.

What would you do if you lost your car?

If someone invites you to the Maldives, go.


1) To ask permission

May I go to the ball?

May we eat that piece of cake?

This is the same meaning as could.

2) To give permission

You may go out tonight.

You may take out three books at once from this library.

3) To give hope and encouragement

May the best person win.

May all your doubts be gone.

4) For predictions and possibility

I may win. You never know.

The children may like it. 

Every library has different rules on how many books you may take out


1) To express a possibility

I might go and see Tony in Australia next year if I can save enough.

You might have an accident if you drive that fast.

2) To make a suggestion politely

You might want to add some cheese to the sauce next time.

They might want to try them on before buying them.

You can never go wrong with cheese


1) In the future for spontaneous actions

I’ll close the windows if you are cold.

We’ll make dinner if you lot are hungry.

2) To talk about a prediction

You’ll be tired if you watch television all night.

He’ll express a lack of sympathy if you tell him that you didn’t have enough time to complete the task when you received an extension.

3) When you are willing to do something

I’ll give her a lift to the airport.

If her phone doesn’t function tomorrow, we’ll help her choose a new one.

4) When you ask someone to do something, usually with urgency

Will you keep the noise down?

Will he pass on his contact?

Giving someone a lift to the airport is kind


1) To show obligation

I must pay my bills.

You must wear your seatbelt in the car.

2) When you have a strong intention for the future

I must call my mum!

I mustn’t cut my hair.

3) To emphasise when you think something is a good idea in the future

They must meet Barney soon.

You must come and stay with us when you’re next here.

4) When something is more than likely to be true

You must know Dwayne.

She must be tired. She’s been working all day.

Cutting your own hair is not advised


1) With “I” or “we” to make a suggestion

Shall we go out tonight?

Shall I make us some tea?

A warm cup of tea is always nice


1) For a present ability

I can tell you all the Spanish words I learnt today.

Albert can play the flute.

2) For a request like could and may

Can I see you tomorrow?

Can we have a glass of water?

3) For encouragement

Your teacher believes you can finish all your homework.

You can do it!

4) To express permission

You can leave once you have finished.

You can use my phone.

5) To express general possibility

You can get diseases from swimming in lakes.

It can be noisy in a hotel.

Swimming in lakes can be dangerous at times

How do we use modal verbs in sentences?

As mentioned above, modal verbs are used in a lot of tenses. Let’s take a look at how this is done.

Simple Present Tense

In the simple present tense, modal verbs are followed by the bare infinitive. What is the bare infinitive, you ask? It is the infinitive without to. No s is added to the end of the verb as it is not grammatically correct. This applies to all pronouns even if they are in the third person.

Affirmative: subject + modal + bare infinitive form – I can do it.

Negative: subject + negative modal + bare infinitive form – I can’t do it.

Question: modal + subject + bare infinitive form – Can I do it?

Note: for questions, we swap the subject and modal, just like in other auxiliary verbs.

You can do it!

Present and future continuous tenses

In the present continuous and the future continuous, modals are formed as below.

Affirmative: subject + modal + be + ing verb – I will be dancing tomorrow.

Negative: subject + negative modal + be + ing verb – I won’t be dancing tomorrow.

Question: modal + subject + be + ing form – will I be dancing?

Note: we only use the modal verb will for the future continuous.

A ballerina dancing

Present Perfect Simple

Modals used with the present perfect are often referred to as perfect modals. These allow us to illustrate actions, events or possibilities in the past.

Affirmative: subject + modal + have + past participle = I could have come.

Negative: subject + negative modal + have + past participle = I couldn’t have come.

Question: modal + subject + have + past participle = Could I have come?

Note: please watch the second link at the bottom of this page for more information.

Young woman inviting someone to come over

Idiomatic Phrases with modal verbs

Can’t bear/can’t stand

When you strongly dislike someone or something.

I can’t bear that new documentary. It’s awful!

I know you can’t stand Ruth, and neither can I!

Time will tell

When you’ll discover in the future what the result is of your present situation.

Time will tell whether it was wise to spend that money

People (who live) in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones

If you cannot take criticism, you should not give criticism.

Prahan can never take criticism and I say to him that he shouldn’t throw stones.

Could do it with your eyes closed

When something is so easy to do, you can close your eyes and still do it.

Navigating this city is so easy, I could do it with my eyes closed.

Wouldn’t say boo to a goose

Used to describe a nervous or shy person.

Linda is very quiet. She wouldn’t even say boo to a goose.

Would you say boo to a goose?

Is that everything?

Absolutely not! Check out my youtube videos on modals below, on my channel, English with Lucy.