Modal Verbs In English: Rules and Examples

Modal verbs are a type of auxiliary verb that go directly before the main verb. You probably know that verbs indicate actions– they tell us what someone or something did and how. Modal verbs work alongside the main verb to indicate the action’s possibility, ability, or obligation.

In this article, we’ll break down modal verbs for you, explain how they work, and give you plenty of examples so you can start using them immediately!

Modal verbs examples

Advice or Suggestion Modal Verb Examples

Advice modal verbs offer direction or instruction. The advice modal verbs are:

  • Should
  • Shouldn’t (negative)

Sentence examples:

  • She should go to the ER.
  • You should try out trampolining! (Present continuous)
  • They shouldn’t change schools just yet. (Negative)
  • Should I buy a new car? (Interrogative)

Obligation Modal Verbs

Next up, we have modal verbs of obligation. These auxiliary verbs are used when talking about something that needs to be done; think of it as a duty or commitment. The modal verbs of obligation are:

  • Must
  • Musn’t (negative)
  • Should

Sentence examples:

  • You must tell your teacher the truth.
  • You should tell your teacher the truth.
  • You mustn’t tell her the truth. (negative)
  • You shouldn’t tell her the truth. (negative)

Note: ‘must’ is a stronger obligation modal verb than ‘should,’ as should is more a suggestion.

Modal Verb Examples: Permission

Can I tell you about the modal verbs of permission? These auxiliary verbs are used to ask permission to complete an action; they are naturally questioning. The modal verbs of permission are:

  • Could
  • Can
  • Shall
  • Would
  • May

Note: ‘may’ is typically used in response. To say no, you can use ‘may not.’

Sentence examples:

  • Could I borrow your shirt? - Yes, you may.
  • Can you lend me your new shirt? (Casual) - no, you may not.
  • Shall I bring extra cookies? - Yes, you may.
  • Would you like to come with us? - Yes, you may.

Modal Verb Examples: Possibility

The last modal verb category is modal verbs of possibility. They refer to things that could or might happen. They are:

  • Can
  • Could (interrogative)
  • Might
  • May

Sentence examples:

  • If you jump over that rock, you could get hurt.
  • You might be able to go on the field trip if your parents say yes.
  • Logan may change his mind; let’s see.
  • I think I can come; I’ve just got to look at my budget.

You can also use the modal verbs of possibility ‘shall, or will.’ These are stronger modal verbs and indicate a higher likelihood of something happening.

  • I shall go on the field trip.
  • Logan will change his mind.
  • You will get hurt if you jump over that rock.

Modal Verb Examples: Past 

1) In English, modal verbs can be used to talk about past actions using ‘could, might, would, or should.’ Like this:

Past modal verb + have + past participle

  • She should have explained it better

2) For positive sentences, we use the following structure:

Past modal verb + have + past participle

  • They may have seen it.

3) For negative sentences, we add -not.

Past modal verb + have + -not + past participle

  • She might not have become a doctor if she didn’t study.

Note:

  • Not all modal verbs can be used in the past, such as ‘can or shall.’
  • May or might’ in the past predict actions that could have happened.

Different Types Of Verbs And Phrases

There are a few modal verbs we haven’t covered. These are semi-modal verbs and function similarly, but they’re phrases or expressions commonly used in casual language.

  • Ought to
  • Have to
  • Had better
  • Need to
  • Be able to

Sentence examples:

  • She ought to go to the doctor.
  • I need to go to the mall.
  • She’ll be able to go home soon.

Conclusion

Modal verbs are used to show intention rather than action. They modify the principal verb to give us more information. If you’ve enjoyed modal verbs, why not check out our Active Voice vs. Passive Voice article?