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What Are Modal Verbs? – Definition, Usage & Examples

Learning English with The AN and freSy

Any competitive government exam, including those for CGL, banking, and the armed services, assesses a candidate’s command of the English language. There is a focus on testing the use of grammar in the English language section. As a result, understanding grammar rules becomes essential.

One should be aware of modal verbs in this context and their importance in sentence formation. Even though everyone uses modals in their daily oral and written communication, a complete understanding of them is nevertheless necessary from the aspect of exams. In light of this, we will go over some key Modals principles in the sections that follow.

What are Modal Verbs?

Modal verbs are helping verbs that show the possibility, intent, ability, or necessity of a subject. These are basically helper verbs and are used alongside the main verb of the sentence because they are a sort of auxiliary verb.

When are Modal Verbs Used?

Modal verbs are used to define certain hypothetical situations, such as advice, capability, or requests. A modal verb alters the meaning of the other verb from basic fact to something else. Since they’re auxiliary verbs, they can’t necessarily be used on their own. The modal verbs are different from other (ordinary) verbs, such as:

1) they don’t have an “-ing” and “-ed” form.

2) they do not even have an “-s” form the third-person singular.

Some of examples of modal verbs are:

  • Can
  • May
  • Will
  • Must
  • Could
  • Should
  • Would
  • Might
  • Shall
  • Ought to

List of Modal Verbs

*Likelihood – Some things may be likely but we may not be sure. Here, we can use the modal verbs like should and must to express probability without certainty. For eg.,

i) Your parents must be so proud.

ii) Isha’s baby sister should be asleep by now.

*Possibility – There are some situations where something is possible but not certain. Here, we can use the modal verbs like could, may or might. For eg.,

i) Seeing the clouds, it might start thundering today.

ii) Swati may become the youngest pro tennis player.

*Ability – Modal verbs like ‘can’ explains whether the subject is able to do something or not. Its negative form like ‘cannot or can’t’ explains that the subject is unable to do something. For eg.,

i) Riddhi can speak five languages, but none of them well.

ii) Vishu can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

*Asking permission – If you want to seek permission for something, you may begin your question with ‘can, may, or could.’ In more formal and polite usage, ‘may’ is more suitable for permission. If you ask “can I go to the washroom?” it could be misinterpreted as, “do I have the ability to go to the washroom?” However, in modern usage, ‘may’ and ‘can’ can be used interchangeably while describing possibility or permission. For eg.,

i) May I leave early today?

ii) Could Trisha play too?

*Request – While asking someone else to do something, always begin your question with ‘will, would, can, or could.’ For eg.,

i) Would you get that container off the top shelf?

ii) Will he turn the music down?

*Suggestion/advice – When you want to recommend something but not order it, you’re giving suggestions or advice. You can use the modal verb ‘should.’ For eg.,

i) Rahul should try the pasta.

ii) Malti should wear less cologne.

*Command – While commanding someone, use the modal verbs ‘must, have to, or need to.’ For eg.,

i) Children must wash hands before meal.

ii) The teacher needs to be at the park before 8:00 am.

*Obligation or necessity – Modal verbs express a necessary action, such as an obligation, duty, or requirement. Whereas the negative form expresses that an action is not necessary. Use the same modal verbs as with commands: must, have to, or need to. For eg.,

i) People have to wait for our owner to arrive before we leave.

ii) You don’t need to go if you don’t want to.

*Habit – It shows a habitual action, something the subject does regularly. We can use the modal verb ‘would’ for the past tense and ‘will’ for the present and future. The phrase ‘used to’ is also acceptable when we talk about a habit that no longer exists. For eg.,

i) When Susheel lived alone, he would fall asleep with music.

ii) Nitika will arrive early and leave late to every meeting.

Use of Modal Verbs (with Examples)

Let’s see their use one by one:

a) is used to show capacity and ability

e.g. I can lift that heavy box easily.

e.g. Can Vinod lift that heavy box?

b) is used for permission

e.g. You can do your work now. (May is more formal)

c) is used for the possibility (negative and interrogative)

e.g. Can this all be true?

e.g. This cannot be true.

a) is used to show past ability (that one could do in the past)

e.g. Ridhima could easily run 10 miles when she was in school.

b) is used as a past equivalent of ‘can’

e.g. Shweta wondered if all that could be true.

e.g. My boss said that I could go.

c) is used to seek permission

e.g. Could I borrow your dress for tonight’s party?

d) is also used in the present-time contexts as a less positive version of ‘can’

e.g. I could go with you. (not confident enough; more hesitant)

a) is used to ask permission

e.g. May I drop you at your place?

b) is used in affirmative sentences as a possibility

e.g. It may rain today cats and dogs.

c) is used to express a wish

e.g. May you have a good life!


a) is used as a past equivalent of ‘may’

e.g. Rajan’s boss said that he might go.

e.g. Reena thought that her husband might be at home.

b) is used to show weaker possibility (weaker than ‘may’)

e.g. She is not answering my call. She might be in some problem.

c) is used to seek permission (very politely)

e.g. Might I borrow your dress for tonight’s party?

d) is used to reproach someone; to show dissatisfaction

e.g. Rachna, you might pay a little more attention to your performance in the class.

Perfect infinitives of may, might, can and could

  • May have – to show the possibility that an action took place in the past.
    e.g. The little girl may have lost the key.
  • Might have – to show a past possibility.
    e.g. Our neighbours might have heard some noises when our car was stolen.
  • Can have – is used to ask questions.
    e.g. Where can he have put the keys? I can’t find them anywhere.
  • Could have – used for a past reference about something that was not carried out.
    e.g. Yogesh could have participated in the event.

a) to express future

e.g. I will go to my hometown tomorrow.

e.g. He, along with his family, will visit us tomorrow evening.

b) to show a strong will

e.g. I will do your work for you, don’t worry.

c) to talk about someone’s characteristic habit

e.g. He will sit for hours watching movies on his laptop.

d) to show possibility (strong)

e.g. It will definitely rain tomorrow.

e) to request someone or to invite someone

e.g. Will you lend me your headphones?

e.g. Will you come to Sharma’s house party?


a) is used to express the future with the first person

e.g. I shall go to college tomorrow.
*Nowadays, we use ‘will’ in place of ‘shall’ (for the first person).

b) To ask the person’s will (with the first person)

e.g. Shall I open this jar for you?

e.g. Where shall we go for dinner tonight?

c) We use ‘shall’ with second and third persons to express a command, threat, or promise:

e.g. Your brother shall pay for this nuisance.

e.g. Sheela shall not enter my house again.

FAQs on Modal Verbs

A modal verb is a helping verb used along with the main verb to define the ability and probability of a subject to perform an action and emphasizes on the necessity of an action.

Modal verbs in German are words like ‘want, may, like, must, can, should etc.’ These verbs express an obligation or possibility. For eg., while ordering some food, talking about our preferences, or seeking permission, a modal verb is required. Thus, modal verbs cover a lot of everyday speaking situations. In German, the modal verbs are dürfen, können, mögen, müssen, sollen and wollen.

A modal auxiliary verb (simply known as a modal verb or just a modal), is used to alter the meaning of other verbs (main verbs). Modal auxiliary verbs show a necessity, capability, willingness, or possibility. For eg., may, might, must, can, could, shall, should, will, would and ought to.

The nine modal verbs are- shall, should, can, could, will, would, may, must, might.
Also, the quasi-modal verbs are- ought to, need to, has to.

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