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English Modal Verbs: Definitions

Modal verbs are a distinct set of verbs unique to Germanic languages and to Modern English especially that differ from prototypical verbs in form and function. The nine full modal verbs in English are can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, and would. Although the meanings of the nine modal verbs are numerous and nuanced, discover the most common definitions with examples.

Can

1. Expresses ability

  • She can run ten miles. (Having the power, ability, or capacity, she is able to run a mile.)

2. Expresses permission

  • He can go to the party. (He has permission to go to the party.)

3. Expresses possibility

  • You can substitute Greek yogurt for sour cream. (Substituting sour cream is possible with Greek yogurt.

4. Expresses contingency

  • If he can bring the steak, then she will provide the condiments. (Her providing the condiments in contingent on him bringing the steak.

5. Expresses requests

  • Can you close the window? (I am requesting that you close the window.)

Could

1. Expresses ability, specifically past ability

  • The old woman could play the drums. (The old woman used to be able to play the drums.)

2. Expresses permission

  • You could have borrowed my shoes. (It was permissible for you to borrow my shoes.)

3. Expresses suggestions

  • You could comb your hair once in a while. (I am suggesting that you comb your hair once in a while.)

4. Expresses possibility and to a lesser extent probability

  • The package could have ended up in Texas. (It is possible for the package to have ended up in Texas.)
  • Unattended campfires could start a forest fire. (It is probable that unattended campfires will start a forest fire.)

5. Expresses requests

  • Could you pass the potatoes? (I am requesting that you pass the potatoes.)

May

1. Expresses possibility

  • Your son may fail the exam. (It is possible that your son will fail the exam.)

2. Expresses probability

  • The library may charge a fine for the overdue book. (It is probable that the library will charge a fine for the overdue book.)

3. Expresses permission and requests for permission

  • May I go to the bathroom? (I am asking for permission to go to the bathroom.)
  • You may go to the bathroom. (You have permission to go to the bathroom.)

Might

1. Expresses possibility

  • She might apply for graduate school once she finishes college. (It is possible that she will apply for graduate school once she finishes college.)

2. Expresses suggestions

  • You might wash your hands before you eat dinner. (It is suggested that you wash your hands before you eat dinner.)

3. Expresses commands

  • You might watch your tone with me. (It is commended that you watch your tone with me.)

Must

1. expresses obligation

  • You must attend the recital. (You are obligated to attend the recital.)

2. Expresses necessity

  • You must buy a ticket to board the train. (It is necessary for you to buy a ticket to board the train.)

3. Expresses commands including prohibitions, demands, suggestions, and permissions

  • You must not steal. (You are prohibited from stealing.)
  • You must bring your apple pie. (You are demanded to bring your apple pie.)
  • You must try the cranberry cookies. (It is suggested that you try the cranberry cookies.)
  • You must not borrow my car tomorrow. (You do not have permission to borrow my car tomorrow.)

4. Expresses deductions of certainty

  • A lack of butter must be the problem. (It is deduced that a lack of butter is the problem.)

Shall

1. Expresses futurity including decisions, predictions, intentions, and promises

  • We shall travel to Rome next year. (We decided to travel to Rome next year.)
  • This winter shall be snowier than usual. (I predict that this winter is snowier than usual.)

2. Expresses suggestions and offers

  • Shall we try a new restaurant? (I suggest that we try a new restaurant.)

3. Expresses commands including obligation, prohibitions, and threats

  • Members shall not mingle with non-members on the golf course. (Members are prohibited from mingling with non-members on the golf course.)
  • I shall see your head on a stake. (I am threatening to put your head on a stake.)

Should

1. Expresses advisability including suggestions and recommendations

  • You should take the first exit, not the second. (It is suggested that you take the first exit, not the second.)

2. Expresses necessity and, to a lesser extent, obligation

  • You should avoid pesto if you are allergic to nuts. (It is necessary for you to avoid pesto if you are allergic to nuts.)
  • You should bring a gift to the reception. (You are obligated to bring a gift to the reception.)

3. Expresses predictions and deductions

  • Poppy should be walking by now. (It is deduced that Poppy is walking now.)
  • The train should be here shortly. (It is predicted that the train will arrive shortly.)

4. Expresses conditionality and contingency

  • Should Grandpa arrive early, my brother will pick him up. (Grandpa arriving early is the condition necessary for my brother picking him up.)

Will

1. Expresses futurity including decisions, predictions, intentions, and promises

  • My flight will leave for Europe in the morning. (My flight leaves for Europe in the morning.)
  • Next summer will be dry. (It is predicted for next summer to be dry.)

2. Expresses commands

  • You will take off your shoes when you enter my house. (It is commanded that you take off your shoes when you enter my house.)

3. Expresses suggestions

  • He will want to bring some extra cash. (It is suggested that he bring some extra cash.)

4. Expresses offers

  • She will mail the package for you. (It is offered for her to mail the package for you.)

5. Expresses requests

  • Will you please shut up? (It is requested that you please shut up.)

Would

1. Expresses conditionality and contingency

  • If you were me, then you would understand. (Your being me is the condition necessary for you understanding.)

2. Expresses futurity including decisions, predictions, intentions, and promises within past tense constructions

  • You said you would come to my party. (You said, “I will come to your party.”)

3. Expresses desires and preferences

  • My daughter would love more Elmo toys. (My daughter desires more Elmo toys.)

4. Expresses suggestions

  • He would want to wash the fruit first. (It is suggested that he wash the fruit first.)

5. Expresses offers

I would take the table off your hands. (I am offering to take the table off your hands.)

6. Express requests and commands

  • Would you bring some of your famous pickles? (It is requested that you bring some of your famous pickles.)

7.Eexpresses habituality, specifically past habituality

  • She would always nurse to sleep at night. (She used to always nurse to sleep at night.)

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