Modal Verbs: Definition & Usage Examples

modal verbs

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Modal verbs are an essential part of English grammar and language usage. They are auxiliary verbs that add a deeper layer of meaning to sentences by expressing possibility, necessity, ability, and permission. A modal verb can change the attitude of the entire sentence and some examples include might, should, must, would, could, and can.

They are crucial for creating correct pronunciation in certain contexts as well as making sure that sentences convey what is intended. If you want to sharpen up your English grammar knowledge, then it is well worth learning how to use modal verbs properly!


Definition of Modal Verb

Modal verbs are an essential part of English grammar, used to add various shades of meaning to a sentence. A modal verb is always followed by another verb and can express certainty, possibility or necessity.

Examples of commonly used modal verbs include ‘can’, ‘shall’, ‘could’, ‘should’ and ‘must’.

It’s important to note that these verbs don’t always have to be used in their full form; common contractions like “aren’t” are considered modals as well. Learning how to use these versatile words correctly is key to forming writing with greater insight and expression.

Usage Examples

Modal verbs allow people to express a variety of shades of meaning. To understand the many usages, it’s useful to observe examples in context.

For instance, adding “might” to a sentence conveys uncertainty about something that might happen, such as, “I might go for a run later in the day.” The verb can also be used as an auxiliary verb to indicate a past form of deduction or speculation, e.g., “We must have missed the turnoff somewhere.”

Additionally, it can denote politeness and willingness when making an offer or request, as in “Would you mind helping me with this?” Used judiciously and with creativity, modal verbs are invaluable for maintaining clarity and achieving precise degrees of expression.

Types of Modal Verbs

Modal verbs are a cornerstone of English grammar and can be tricky to master. They’re used to express ideas like mood, probability, permission, ability, advice, and more. These verbs behave differently from the other kinds, changing the meaning and structure of a sentence with often subtle nuances.

Some of the most common modal verbs include shall or will for making promises or expressing determination; could for possibility or permission; ought to for moral obligation; may for asking permission; must for certainty; and would for preference. Having solid knowledge of these verbs will give you the confidence to confidently express yourself in English!

A. Possibility/Probability

Modal verbs provide a way to express ideas related to possibility and probability. Often, the modals used in this context are “could,” “might,” and “may.” For example, you might say things like “I could meet you at 4 PM” or “It might rain tomorrow.” These phrases indicate a certain level of likelihood associated with the idea being expressed. Other modals related to this context include “will” for expectation and “would” for hypothetical situations. As such, these words offer subtle ways of expressing what we can expect from a situation.

  • Can – expressing ability or possibility
  • Could – expressing past ability, suggestion or polite request
  • May – expressing permission or possibility
  • Might – expresses possibility in the present or future tense

B. Necessity/Obligation

Modal verbs of necessity and obligation are used to express an action that must be done. They show determination, a strong obligation, or even urgency. For example, modal verbs like ‘must’, ‘have to’, and ‘need to’ can all be used to talk about what is necessary or obligatory. Moreover, there are also semi-modal verbs such as ‘ought to’ and ‘should’ which carry a weaker sense of obligation than the other modal verbs. It is important for writers and speakers using these verbs to understand how each one conveys different levels of perception to effectively communicate their meaning.

  • Must – expresses strong obligation, necessity, certainty and determination
  • Have to – expresses an obligation that is either external or self-imposed

C. Advice and Suggestions

Modal verbs can be an important part of any conversation or written document. They are used to express advice, suggestion, and certain kinds of probability. Perhaps the most common type of modal verb is ‘should’ which is often used to provide suggestions or advice.

  • For example, if you are watching a movie with a friend and they say they don’t know what they should do next, you might respond by saying “You should think about what kind of food to order”.

Modal verbs such as ‘may’, ‘might’, and ‘could’ also express possibilities when talking about future events. To take the same example above, if your friend isn’t sure what activities to do next weekend you could say “We could go for a hike or try out that new restaurant”. All of these auxiliary verbs give the conversation nuance and provide more information than simply stating facts without them.

  • Should – expressing advice, suggestion or expectation
  • Ought to – expresses an obligation or recommendation


Modal verbs are an important part of the English language. With a little practice and understanding, they can give your writing or conversation nuance and provide more information than simply stating facts without them. This will give you the confidence to confidently express yourself in English!


What are modal verbs?

Modal verbs (also known as “modals”) are auxiliary verbs used to express certain meanings such as ability, possibility, permission and obligation. Examples of modal verbs include ‘can’, ‘could’, ‘shall’, ‘should’ and ‘would’.

When are modal verbs used?

Modal verbs are used to express concepts such as ability, possibility, permission and obligation. They can be used in combination with other verbs to form more complex meanings. For example, ‘can’ can be combined with ‘go’ to mean ‘I am able to go’.

What are some examples of modal verb usage?

Some examples of modal verb usage include: “I must finish this homework by tomorrow”, “You should eat a balanced diet” and “We could visit the museum this weekend”. In all these cases, the modal verb gives additional meaning to the main verb (e.g., ‘must’, ‘should’, and ‘could’).

Can modal verbs be used in negatives?

Yes, modal verbs can also be used in negatives. For example, “I must not forget to do my homework” or “You should not go out late at night”. In both cases, the negative form of the modal verb is used to express an opposite meaning.

Do all modal verbs have the same meaning?

No, different modal verbs can have slightly different meanings and usages depending on the context they are used in. For example, while ‘can’ expresses ability, ‘may’ expresses permission, and ‘must’ expresses obligation. It is important to understand the specific meaning and usage of each modal verb to use them correctly.

Are modal verbs only used in English?

No, modal verbs are also widely used in other languages such as German, French, and Spanish. However, the exact form and usage may differ from language to language. It is important to research the particular language you are using before using a modal verb in it.

How can I practice using modal verbs?

The best way to practice using modal verbs is by writing sentences that include them and testing your understanding of their meanings and usages. Additionally, you can also practice using these verbs in conversations with native speakers to get feedback on your usage. With enough practice, you should be able to confidently use these type of verbs in different contexts!

Is there anything else I need to know about modal verbs?

When using modal verbs, it is important to remember that they are always followed by the base form of a verb. Additionally, certain modal verbs (such as “can” and “will”) can be used for both present and future tense, so it is important to pay attention to the context when deciding which one to use. Lastly, some dialects may use different forms for certain modals so it is best to check if your usage is appropriate for the context.

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