Verbs are the lifeblood of sentences. They could easily be the most important part of the English language, because without verbs, there will be no sentences. Verbs are words that express time through actions or conditions. Verbs may also show that something exists. In the sentence “Writers write stories,” the verb write shows an action. In the sentence “Paintings are on sale,” the verb are shows a condition. Lastly, in the sentence “The soldier was here,” the verb was expresses an existence. Action verbs, linking verbs, and helping verbs are the most common types of verbs. But in this article, we will be talking about modal verbs.

Before we move forward, here’s a quick review of verbs. As mentioned, verbs are action words that also describe a state of being. Action verbs express what happens. Sing, dance, grow, fly, and laugh are all examples of action verbs. Linking verbs does not show action. Instead, they connect a word at or near the beginning of a sentence with a word at or near the end. Is, be, and was are examples of linking verbs. Helping verbs or auxiliary verbs are added to other verbs in order to form verb phrases. Will, have, been are all examples of helping verbs. A modal verb is a type of helping verb that shows possibility or necessity.

Now fix your eyes and learn the different modal verbs there are in the English language.

What are ‘modal verbs’

Modal verbs, also called modals, are used when we want to predict, suggest, or question something. In the first part of this discussion, we will be talking about the different modal verbs and how they are used. The modal verbs are: can, could, may, might, must, ought to, shall, should, will, and would.


Can and Could

Can is usually used to pose questions. Could is the past tense of ‘can’. The negative form of can is cannot, while the negative form of could is could not. Use can/could to show the following:


  • I can read three novels in just a day.
  • My sister could do cartwheels when she was younger.
  • They cannot finish the project today.
  • Albert could not cope with losing his dog.


  • Can I bring your car tomorrow?
  • Could you please pass the gravy plate?
  • Sorry, but you cannot use my car.


  • Learning a new language can be difficult.
  • He could be a singer someday.


  • She could be amiable as long as she doesn’t wake up on the wrong side of the bed.
  • We can enter the club once we sign-up as members.


May and Might

Like ‘can and could’, the modal verbs may and might are also used to pose questions. Might is the past tense of ‘may’. May not is the negative form of may, while might not is the negative form of might.

May/ may not are more informal in nature. Use it to show the following:


  • Foz, may I leave the class early to go to band practice?
  • No, Randy. You may not leave the class early.


  • I have to clean the house, my mother-in-law may visit tomorrow.
  • Randy may not qualify for the loan because of his outstanding debts.


  • Forrest may seem aloof, but I’m sure he cares about you.
  • Without their star player, the team may not win the game.

Might/ might not are more formal in nature. Use it to show the following:


  • Robert asked me last week if he might come over today.
  • Might I ask you to come to the ball with me?
  • I might not lend you my car after what you did to it last time.


  • I might watch the movie later.
  • Traffic is awful! I might not make it in time for the meeting.


  • She might come if we decide to visit the carnival tomorrow.
  • This dress is really pretty, but I might not be able to afford it.

Shall and Should


modal verbs shall should helping verbs auxiliary verbs

Shall may also be used to pose a question, however, it is seldom used unlike ‘can’ and ‘may’ as it is considered too formal and archaic. Should is the past tense of ‘shall’ and is more commonly used. Shall not is the negative form of shall, and should not is the negative form of should

Use shall/ shall not to express the following:


  • I shall take you to school tomorrow.
  • As your president, I shall not engage in anything that will cost our country’s freedom.


  • Shall I help you?
  • Shall I take the train instead of the bus?

Use should/ should not to express the following:


  • You should join a workshop if you want to be a serious actor.
  • Someone told me that I should try teaching because I have a knack of explaining things well.
  • You should not start a family if you’re not ready financially.


  • Children should always respect their parents.
  • Responsible pet owners should not beat their pets.
  • Students of this school should not engage in illegal activities while in the campus.


  • If you want to know more about World War II, ask grandpa. He should
  • It’s almost December, it should start snowing soon.
  • You’ve studied biology. Human anatomy should not be that hard.


Will and Would

Will is often used to talk about anything regarding the future. Like the rest of the modal verbs, it may also be used to pose questions. Would is the past tense of ‘will’. The negative form of will is will not, and the negative form of would is would not. Use will/would to express the following:


  • She will still talk while her mouth is full, no matter how much you tell not to.
  • When I was young, I would usually spend my afternoons catching dragonflies.


  • You will accompany me to the grocers this afternoon.
  • The guards would not allow anyone without an ID in.


  • The librarian would not lend me the book.
  • Will you let me hold the baby even if I haven’t showered yet?


  • In thirty years or so, we will be able to fly cars.
  • The chance that it will rain tomorrow is nil.


  • I promised to take her out if she would arrive on time.
  • If I lived in the city, I would not be able to save a penny.


The negative form of must is must not. Use ‘must’ to express the following:


  • Scholars must never neglect their studies.
  • People under oath must not lie when they’re on the stand.


  • The mall must be full of people because today is a Sunday.
  • They closed down the bakery. It must not have many customers.


Ought To


modal verbs ought to helping verbs auxiliary verbs

Ought to is synonymous with ‘have to’. Like ‘shall’, it is seldom used as it is also considered archaic. Its negative form is ought to not. Use ought to to express the following:


  • Short people ought to wear clothes with vertical patterns to look taller.
  • You ought to be nicer to people if you want to have friends.


  • In a buffet, you ought to finish your food first before filling up your plate again.
  • You ought to not talk with your seatmate while taking a test.


How to use ‘modal verbs’

In the second part of this discussion, we will be talking about how modal verbs are used to show the following:

  • Ability
  • Advice
  • Habit
  • Obligation
  • Permission
  • Possibility
  • Probability



Generally, ability refers to someone’s skills. It also refers to anything that an object, animal, or phenomenon can or cannot do.

Modal verbs used to express ability: can, could

  • The circus elephant can balance itself on a beam.
  • Everyone should prepare for the coming storm. Its winds could devastate a house.
  • Untrained singers cannot sustain that high note without enough practice.



An advice is a suggestion or an opinion given to someone regarding how they should behave.

Modal verbs used to express advice: ought to, should

Use should if you want to sound polite.

  • You should start getting ready in an hour.
  • We should probably head home before it gets dark.

Use should to refer to an advice that was given.

  • My sister told me that I should eat healthier.
  • Jessica told her that she should start her own catering business.

Use ought to if you want to sound more formal, or authoritative.

  • Next time, you ought to pay more attention so you will know what to do.
  • You ought to redo this dish. It tastes terrible.



If you do something repeatedly, that is called a habit. Habits also refer to something that has been repeatedly done in the past, and still continues up to the present. Or it could be something that has only been repeatedly done in the past.

Modal verbs used to express habit: will, would

Use would to talk about something that was done in the past.

  • When I was younger, I would often climb trees to snatch bird’s eggs from their nests.

Use will to talk about something that happens in the present.

  • John will snore whenever he falls asleep drunk.



An obligation is a duty assigned to a person. It also refers to something that is performed out of necessity (i.e. out of responsibility).

Modal verbs used to express obligation: must, ought to, shall, should, will

Use must to emphasize the importance of an action.

  • You must call me back after you receive this message.
  • Museum visitors must not take pictures with any of the exhibits without asking permission

Use ought to if you want to sound polite and formal.

  • Children ought to behave when dealing with their elders
  • You ought to pay your old debts before you make new ones.

Use shall to give a command.

  • You shall not
  • Before making any final decisions, you shall speak to me first.

Use should to refer to something that is universally accepted or expected.

  • We should always be thankful for everything we have.
  • Parents should not neglect their children.

Use will to talk about something that is about to happen in the future.

  • I will be the one to take her to school once it starts.
  • From now on, Peter will be in charge of the ship.



Permission is a granted consent to do something.

Modal verbs used to express permission: can, could, may, might, shall, will, would

Use can to ask and give permission.

  • Can you take me to the park?
  • Sure, I can accompany you to your cousin’s house.

Use could/ may/ shall to politely ask and give permission.

  • Could you lend me some money to see the concert?
  • I may give you a discount.
  • Shall I teach you how to solve the equation?

Use will to ask permission with a condition.

  • Will I be able to use the computer once I finish my homework?
  • Will you let me join the group even if I don’t know how to dance?

Use would to talk about whether permission was granted or not in the past.

  • Her father would not allow me take her out.
  • Grandpa would often let his grankids sit on his lap.



A possibility refers to something that may or may not happen.

Modal verbs used to express possibility: can, could, may, might, will, would 

Use can/could to make general statements regarding something that is possible.

  • In the tropics, it can rain really hard.
  • Mother-in-laws could be overbearing.

Use may/might to say that something is possible but uncertain.

  • I just heard thunder, it may
  • Overly sensitive people might cry once they watch this movie.

Use will/would to say that something is possible sometime in the future.

  • After a year in this job, we will enjoy longer vacation days.
  • Hopefully, in a few days you will learn how to drive.



The possibility of something happening, once certain conditions are met is referred to as probability.

Modal verbs used to express probability: can, could, may, might, must, should, will, would

Use can/could/may/might to talk about something that will happen if certain conditions are met.

  • Male lions leave their prides once they can fend for themselves.
  • You could teach in the university once you finish your doctorate degree.
  • The strong rain may flood the streets.

Use must to talk about something you believe is true.

  • Jane must be really nervous now that her wedding is coming soon.
  • A lot of people attended the meeting today, it must be really important.

Use should to talk about something that you are sure is true, or will be true in the future.

  • It’s been three hours since she entered the salon. She should be done by now.
  • Traffic during rush hour can be heavy. If you leave now, you should arrive in an hour.

Use will/would to talk about something that will happen in the future if certain conditions are met.

  • We will be having kids, once we settle down completely.
  • I would buy myself a castle in England, if I win the lottery.


You can use modal verbs in many different ways. But, some modals will still work better under certain functions. As a learner of the language, the challenge is for you to figure out which modal works best under which function. Do you have any questions? Please feel free to share it with us in the comments.

Read: English Conjunctions and the Things It Connects