Doctor, can you help me? My dog must be ill.
Errr. You shouldn’t have washed it so often.
Look at the underlined words. How do we call them in English?
Yes, they are modal verbs.
In this lesson we’ll learn the following:
what modal verbs are;
why they are different to normal verbs;
why they are important and difficult;
different meanings of modal verbs;
how to use them correctly in English.
So, let’s start.
What are modal verbs?
Modal verbs are the verbs which add meaning to another verb.
There are nine basic modal verbs in English.
There are other verbs which behave like modal verbs in some ways although they don’t have all the features of a full modal verb, for example: ought to, have to, need.
Our next question is: How are modal verbs different to normal verbs?
They are different in several ways:
Modal verbs are always followed by the infinitive (without to).
You can leave your car here.
I must meet Pall tonight.
Modal verbs come before the subject in questions and are followed by “not” in negations.
May I come in?
You shouldn’t have done it.
Modal verbs don’t have past, future or perfect forms.
Generally, if you use a modal, it can have either a present or a future meaning. Often, we use other words or phrases to show the time.
It might rain this afternoon. - We understand that this is in the future only because of this afternoon.
There are exceptions could is used as the past simple of can, and would can have a past meaning in very few situations, but generally modals don’t have past or future forms.
You can sometimes give a modal verb a past meaning by using have+ V3 after the modal verb.
He might have overslept. - We are trying to guess why he is late, and what has happened to him (in the past).
You shouldn’t have said that. - You said something rude or inappropriate, and now I’m criticising you for what you did (in the past).
Why are modal verbs important?
You could hardly say or write anything in English without using modal verbs. Modal verbs are used to express many, many different meanings.
Giving advice: I think you should take the job.
Talking about possibility: We could do it by Friday, if you wanted.
Asking permission: May I take this seat?
Expressing certainty: You can’t have seen him - he’s on holiday in Germany!
Now let's look at all those meanings.
To express the ability of doing something (возможность, умение, способность) we use modal verb can and modal expression be able to:
They can get there by bus.
He can read French now.
He’s able to run a marathon.
I’ll be able to help you tomorrow.
and could or was/were be able to (in the past).
He could/was able to speak three languages before he was twelve. (general ability in the past)
He was able to win the game. (managed to do smth in a particular situation)
Another function of modal verbs is Possibility (возможность).
Possibility is a ‘yes/no’ quality. Either something is possible, or it isn’t.
She can win the race. (90% certain)
They could/may/might still be at school. (50% certain.)
could have done is used to say that we had a possibility to do smth but didn’t do it.
We could have gone to the restaurant yesterday but we decided to stay at home.
may/might have done
He may/might have seen to Ann yesterday. (Perhaps he saw her yesterday)
Certainty (уверенность) is also a ‘yes/no’ quality. Either you’re certain that something is true, or you aren’t.
To say you are certain about something in the future, use will or won’t:
It’ll be cold tomorrow (= I’m sure about this).
There won’t be a lot of people there in November (= I’m certain).
If you are certain about something in the present, the most common verb to use is must:
They must be very rich—their house is huge! (= I’m sure they’re rich, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to have such a big house)
The opposite of must in this case is usually can’t:
She can’t be at home—I just knocked at her door and no one was there
If you are certain about something in the past, the most common modal to use is must have done:
She must have been exhausted after doing shopping all day. (= I’m sure she was exhausted, because anyone would be exhausted after shopping for such a long time)
The opposite of must have is usually can’t have:
You can’t have seen him—he’s on holiday! (= You think you saw him, but I’m sure you didn’t)
Talking about probability is nice and simple, because there’s only one modal verb you can use: should/shouldn’t:
Your delivery should arrive in the next 2-3 days (= It will probably arrive within this time, 90% certain)
You shouldn’t have to wait long (You probably won’t have to wait long)
Probability is always in the future - you can’t talk about probability in the present or the past.
Giving advice or recommendation or expressing the duty (совет, рекомендация, долг) we use the following modal verbs:
You should be careful. (general advice; I advise you)
You ought to respect the elderly people. (it’s the right thing to do)
You must revise for the test (strong advice)
To criticize someone else’s actions or to talk about mistakes in the past use should have done.
You should have gone to the Great Wall while you were in Beijing = It’s a pity that you didn’t go.
He shouldn’t have worked so much = He worked without a rest, that’s why he got into hospital.
We use modal verbs to talk about obligations (долг, обязанность) - things you cannot choose not to do. You have no choice.
Must is used when you have a strong feeling about the obligation.
I must go on a diet. (It’s my decision. I say so.)
Have to is used when the obligation depends on rules or laws.
I have to go on a diet. (the doctor says so.)
Mustn’t means that something is forbidden - you cannot do it.
You mustn’t run on the plane. (it’s forbidden; you can’t do it)
Don’t have to means that something is not necessary. If you don’t have to do something, you can choose to do it or not.
I don’t have to finish it today. (I can leave it until tomorrow if I want to)
For giving permission (разрешение) we normally use modal verbs can/may.
You can make a phone call here. (informal)
You may make a phone call here. (formal, probably written)
Could I borrow your dictionary? Yes, you can. Yes, you may. (Not: Yes, you could.)
When refusing permission can’t/ mustn’t/ may not are used.
I’m afraid you can’t/mustn’t see the patient. (informal)
You may not sit on the fence. (formal, written notice)
There are several modal verbs that help us to make a request.
Bill to his friend: Can I use your phone? (informal)
Bill to a stranger: Could I use your phone? (very polite)
Bill to a police officer: May/Might I use your phone? (formal/very formal)
Asking somebody else to do smth for you:
Will/Can you help me with the cooking? (very friendly; informal)
Would/Could you send this e-mail? (polite)
Offers and Suggestions (предложение, предположение, пожелание)
You look tired. I’ll do the house for you. (I’m willing to do smth for you; informal)
Shall/Can/ Could I carry this bag for you?
We can/could go for a walk tonight.
Would you like me to do anything for you?
Shall I explain it again? (asking for suggestions or instructions)
This structures show that you are not allowed to do smth/ it is against the rules/ law to do smth.
You can’t/ mustn’t smoke here
You may not walk on the grass. (formal, probably written).
As you can see, each modal verb can express many different meanings, and each meaning can be expressed by many different modal verbs.
Hopefully, now you understand what modal verbs are, how they are different to normal verbs, why they are important for your English.