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 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.

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