There are ten modal verbs, and they are all used in different ways. It’s important to note that with the exception of ‘ought’ every modal verb is followed by the infinitive without ‘to’. Without further ado, let’s get straight to them!
1. Can. Can is used mainly to talk about abilities (He can run fast), possibility (We can get there if we hurry), to ask about willingness to do something (Can you help me?) and, in the negative, to show inability or impossibility used as cannot or can’t (I can’t help you, I can’t fly).
2. Could. Could is used to make a request (Could you repeat the question, please?), to give a suggestion (We could go to the cinema), to show a past ability (he could run very fast in his youth), to speak about a possibility in the future that is dependent on a present action (If she practiced more, she could play guitar beautifully), and to speak about a possibility in the present (we could go to the cinema, or we could just watch a film on TV).
3. May. May is used to speak about a possibility in the present and future (Mr Jones may be your teacher next year). It’s important to note here that may and might are interchangeable in this context. May is also used to ask for permission in a formal way (May I help you? May I be excused?).
4. Might. Might is used to express possibility in the past (He might have seen the film before he read the comic) to speak about possibility in the present and future (Mr Jones might be your teacher next year) and to ask for permission in a more formal way than ‘may’ (Might I be excused from the table?).
5. Will (and in the negative, won’t). Will is used in many ways. We can use it to express an intention to do something (I’ll make breakfast if you clean up), to make a prediction (the weather will be sunny enough for the beach tomorrow), for habitual behaviour (I’m not surprised you didn’t hear. You keep talking in class), to make informal requests (Will you help me?), to show willingness or interest (We’re going to the cinema. Will you come with us?), to express a threat or promise (If you do that again, you’ll go to bed early), to reassure someone or to make a decision (Don’t worry. You’ll get used to your new job in no time!) and to talk about the future or past with certainty (Don’t call them, they’ll have left already by then).
6. Would (in the negative, wouldn’t). Would can be used for requests (would you pass the ketchup, please?), for preferences (Would you like tea or coffee? I’d like tea, please), to request permission (would it be ok if my girlfriend joined us?), to show a habitual activity in the past (the parrot would scream every time we opened his cage), to comment on a likely truth (The doorbell rang! It would likely be your friend), and to talk abou an imaginary situation (If I had a million pounds, I would buy a house on the beach).
7. Shall. Shall is used for suggestions (Shall I come round after lunch?), to ask for advice (What shall I do today?) and to indicate a future promise (the parcel shall be delivered on Friday).
8. Should. Should can be used to make a suggestion or give advice (you should try this food, it’s delicious!) and to make an obligation (He should come to the meeting on time).
9. Ought to. Ought to is used in the same way as should, but it is stronger (He ought to attend the meeting, he’s the boss!)
10. Must. Must can be used to show that something is forbidden (you mustn’t smoke here), to make a polite command (you must finish your dinner before you see your friend) and to make an assumption with some certainty (It’s 11pm. You must be exhausted!).
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