In English we use modal verbs, also known as modal auxiliary verbs, to tell others our attitudes, opinion and judgment of events, people and things.
The most widely used modal verbs are:
Can – Is used to ask permission and to express ability
“Can I leave now?”
“I can do that for you”
Could – Is used to ask for help and to express possibility
“Could you help me?”
“We could go to Barcelona on holidays”
May – Is used to give permission and express possibility
“You may leave now”
“I am not sure, we may go to Barcelona on holidays”
Might – Is used to express possibility and to ask for permission*
“I might go to Barcelona on holidays, I am not sure”
“Might I ask a question?”
Must – Is used to express strong external obligation** and to show when something is probably true.
“You must stop your car at the red light”
“John has been driving all day, he must be tired”
Will – This is used to ask for a request and to express when something is likely to happen
“Wait a moment, I will help you”
“If you keep drinking and driving you will end up in prison”
Would – This is used to ask for something and to express possibility
“Would you please close the window?”
“I would like to go to the party, let me check my diary”
Should – This is used to express an internal obligation and to offer advice
“I should go to the gym”
“I think you should go to the gym”
Ought to – This is used to express an internal obligation and to offer advice***
“I ought to go to the gym”
“I think you ought to go to the gym”
There is no “s” in the third person
“She can ski” is correct
There is no do/does/don’t/doesn’t in the question or negative
“What could I do?”
“He can’t sing”
Modal verbs are followed by the infinitive without to, except ought to.
“We must go…”
“ We ought to go….”
There is no ing forms
“We can ski”
*Using might to ask for permission is British English, however it is not widely used anymore and is considered very old fashioned.
**When we use must to express an obligation, it normally means an external rather than an internal obligation.
“I must do my taxes” = I have to do this task because it is the law
“I should get some sleep” = I don’t have to sleep, it is my choice, so I use should. However if your doctor thinks you need sleep the doctor will say “You MUST get some sleep”
*** Ought to is British English and is not widely used anymore.
Text by Feargal 1st September 2016
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