Modal verbs

We need modal verbs to express different levels of certainty and possibility. Also, we use them to speak about ability, to make requests and offers, to ask for permission, to express necessity or obligation.

There are 9 modal verbs in the English language. They all have their own meanings and differences in usage. That means, as a rule, we can not use them interchangeably.

At first, here is the list of modal verbs:










โ—๏ธ ought to 

Some grammarians move the verb 'ought to' to a special place and call it semi-modal. We have dedicated a distinct article to this verb. You can read it here.

In addition, you can find separate articles about certain modal verbs here๐Ÿ‘‡

Now, let's focus on what modal verbs really are, their grammatical functions and general rules.

Modal verbs general rules

Modal verbs do not act like main verbs in a sentence. That is why, some grammarians call them defective. This aspect makes them easy to use. But you need to remember these simple rules of usage of modal verbs:

โœ…   no endings (-ed, -ing, -es)
โœ…   no gerund and to-infinitive (except for 'ought to')
โœ…   no tenses as a rule. They refer to the present or the future
โœ…   form questions by inversion

Look at the examples below ๐Ÿ‘‡

Mike can swim — no ending to show person, no particle 'to' after

Can Mike swim? —  forms a question


Modal verbs and tenses

As we have mentioned above, modal verbs don't change their forms to make tenses. Also, we remember that the majority of them refer to the present and the future. Though, there are some of them that can refer to the past. 

Then, we have different ways to make up tenses without avoiding modal verbs.


Present Past Future
She says Mike can go to the GYM tomorrow. Sandra said Mike could go to the GYM the next day. Mike can go to the GYM tomorrow.
Can you give me your pen for a while? Could you give me your pen for a while? — more polite  
You may go with Mike if you want. You might go with Mike if you want. — more formal  
You should be more attentive. You should have been more attentive.  
He must be waiting for us. He must have been waiting for us for 4 hours.  


Take a quiz ๐Ÿ”ฅ

Choose a correct modal verb

1 / 10
Daddy, ____ I go for a walk? (ask for permission)
Next ย  ย  ย โ†’


When we ask for permission we use 'can', 'could' or 'may'. The modal verb 'may' is used in case when we want to be very polite.

Find more information about modals of permission here.