The use of modals in English (EFL/ESL Grammar: rules, use and practice) modals in the present

The use of modals in English (EFL/ESL Grammar: rules, use and practice) modals in the present

What are modal verbs?

Modals are very important words in English. They are auxiliary verbs that provide additional and specific meaning to the main verb of the sentence. There are several examples of modals in English and each one is used to mean a specific thing.

  • Can / can’t
  • Could / wouldn’t
  • Will
  • Would / wouldn’t
  • Shall
  • Should / shouldn’t
  • Ought to
  • Must / Mustn’t
  • Have to
  • May
  • Might
  • Need to / Needn’t


  • Modal auxiliaries can’t be conjugated and don’t need other auxiliary verbs.
  • There is no “S” of the singular.
  • They don’t need “does/do” in the question.
  • There is no don’t/doesn’t in the negative.
  • Modal auxiliaries do not have infinitives or “ing” forms. Ex: (*to must, *musting, *to can, *canning).
  • Modal auxiliaries are never followed by “to”. Ex: You should to go to school.
  • Modal auxiliaries use other verbs to complete the tenses. Ex: “be able to” completes “can” / “have to” completes “must”.


  • They can play basketball. They will be able to play basketball.
  • You must come early. You had to come early.
Request Asking someone something politely
Obligation Duty and responsibility to do something
Probability Likelihood
Advice A statement that shows what others should do in certain situations.
Permission Asking someone (an authority) to do something.
Impossibility Something that is impossible, can’t be done or can’t exist.
AbilityThe physical/mental skill to do something.
Inability The physical/mental inability to do something
Necessity The need for something
Lack of necessity Lack of need
Prohibition The act of stopping something being done or used by law.
CertaintyThe state of being certain and sure about something.

 What do modals express?

ModalsUsed to expressExamples
Will – would Can  


Request Will you open the door, please?

Could you give some money?

Would you lend me your pen?

Can you share your answers?

Must – have toObligation You must do the homework.

You have to listen to your parents.



Probability I may not come tomorrow.

I might be late for a couple of minutes.


Ought to

Advice You should visit a doctor.

You ought to drink this juice.



Permission Can I go out, Sir?

May I take your order, lady?

Can’tImpossibility She can’t be at home. I saw her at the market.
CanAbility I can run very fast.

I can do the math.

Can’tInability I can’t lift this.

I can’t

Need toNecessity I need to get some vegetables. The fridge is empty.
Needn’tLack of necessity I needn’t buy this milk. I already have some.


Prohibition You mustn’t smoke here. It’s a hospital.
Must beCertaintyYou must be sick. Your face is pale.

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