Modals and their meaning

Modals and their meaning

What are modal verbs?

Modals (also called modal verbs, modal auxiliary verbs, modal auxiliaries) are special verbs which behave irregularly in English. They are different from normal verbs like "work, play, visit..." They give additional information about the function of the main verb that follows it. They have a great variety of communicative functions.
Here are some characteristics of modal verbs:
  • They never change their form. You can't add "s", "ed", "ing"...
  • They are always followed by an infinitive without "to" (e.i. the bare infinitive.)
  • They are used to indicate modality allow speakers to express certainty, possibility, willingness, obligation, necessity, ability

List of modal verbs

Here is a list of modal verbs:
can, could, may, might, will, would, shall, should, must
The verbs or expressions dareought tohad betterand need not behave like modal auxiliaries to a large extent and my be added to the above list

Use of modal verbs:

Modal verbs are used to express functions such as:
  1. Permission
  2. Ability
  3. Obligation
  4. Prohibition
  5. Lack of necessity
  6. Advice
  7. possibility
  8. probability

Examples of modal verbs

Here is a list of modals with examples:
Modal Verb
Strong obligation
You must stop when the traffic lights turn red.
logical conclusion / Certainty
He must be very tired. He's been working all day long.
must not
You must not smoke in the hospital.
I can swim.
Can I use your phone please?
Smoking can cause cancer.
ability in the past
When I was younger I could run fast.
polite permission
Excuse me, could I just say something?
It could rain tomorrow!
May I use your phone please?
possibility, probability
It may rain tomorrow!
polite permission
Might I suggest an idea?
possibility, probability
I might go on holiday to Australia next year.
need not
lack of necessity/absence of obligation
I need not buy tomatoes. There are plenty of tomatoes in the fridge.
should/ought to
50 % obligation
I should / ought to see a doctor. I have a terrible headache.
You should / ought to revise your lessons
logical conclusion
He should / ought to be very tired. He's been working all day long.
had better
You 'd better revise your lessons


Modal verbs are followed by an infinitive without "to", also called the bare infinitive.


  • You must stop when the traffic lights turn red.
  • You should see to the doctor.
  • There are a lot of tomatoes in the fridge. You need not buy any.

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