icon  icon icon

Modal verbs

The modal verbs include can, must, may, might, will, would, should. They are used with other verbs to express ability, obligation, possibility, and so on. Below is a list showing the most useful modals and their most common meanings:

Modal Meaning Example
can to express ability I can speak a little Russian.
can to request permission Can I open the window?
may to express possibility I may be home late.
may to request permission May I sit down, please?
must to express obligation I must go now.
must to express strong belief She must be over 90 years old.
should to give advice You should stop smoking.
would to request or offer Would you like a cup of tea?
would in if-sentences If I were you, I would say sorry.

Modal verbs are unlike other verbs. They do not change their form (spelling) and they have no infinitive or participle (past/present). The modals must and can need substitute verbs to express obligation or ability in the different tenses. Here are some examples:

Past simple Sorry I'm late. I had to finish my math test.
Present perfect She's had to return to Korea at short notice.
Future You'll have to work hard if you want to pass the exams.
Infinitive I don't want to have to go.

Past simple I couldn't/wasn't able to walk until I was 3 years old.
Present perfect I haven't been able to solve this problem. Can you help?
Future I'm not sure if I will be able to come to your party.
Infinitive I would love to be able to play the piano.

Modals are auxiliary verbs. They do not need an additional auxiliary in negatives or questions. For example: Must I come? (Do I must come?), or: He shouldn't smoke (He doesn't should smoke).

Important: The explanations and examples on this page are just an introduction to this extensive and complex area of English grammar. Students of English who want to learn more should consult a good reference work, such as Swan's Practical English Usage.

Do a quiz on modal verbs.


Frankfurt International School: Art and artists. (Click to see at full size.)