There are a total of 13 basic modal auxiliary verbs in the English language. These are verbs that help the main verb form the correct meaning of sentences. With their help we can express desires, wishes, commands, needs or necessities. Their form never changes (even depending on the time).
Modal verbs list:
The verbs “need”, “used to” and “dare” are a bit special and we will focus on them at the end of the article. So how and when to use each modal auxiliary verb?
We have also prepared a more detailed article with more examples of modal auxiliary verbs.
The verb „can“ is primarily used to express different possibilities and to ask for permission. It also expresses an ability of a person or thing (I can swim). It is used when we want to appear educated, formal, or less friendly.
- I can run really fast. (ability)
- OK, You can go out with your friends. (permission)
- I can be with him until 8 P.M. (possibility)
- Can I do it? (getting permission)
- We can’t do this if we don’t practise. (conditional)
- Can you come sooner please? (request)
This is the past tense of the verb “can” expressing conditional sentences.
- She could have been a winner. (possibility)
- I could swim really fast when I was younger. (ability)
- Could you pass me the pepper please? (polite request)
- I could go with you if you want to. (request)
- If I could be a millionaire, I would move to Hawaii. (conditional)
The verb “shall” is not as common in spoken English as it once was. Nowadays, it is mostly encountered in written formal letters. It is used to express offers, questions, intentions and instructions. In its negative form, it expresses rejection.
- What shall I do? (question)
- We shall not do it! (refusion)
- You shall not eat that much bread. (formal directive).
“Should” is often used to politely express an opinion or suggest a solution that the speaker believes is correct. This modal verb can also be used to express, for example, an obligation.
- You should help your grandfather with moving. (obligation)
- Maybe you should send him your CV. (opinion)
- You should work more or you might get fired! (suggestion)
- The bus should be leaving in every minute. (prediction)
- You really shouldn’t do it. (suggestion)
The auxiliary verb “will” is also a modal verb expressing obligations or requests. We use it only to express the future tense.
- You will have to do it anyway. (obligation)
- You will look great in this dress. (prediction)
- Will you do it for me, please? (request)
- He will come sooner. (intention)
This is the past tense of the verb “will”. It is used to express possibilities or polite requests.
- Would you mind moving a little bit, please? (polite request)
- I would like to go to the pub, what do you think? (proposal)
- I would never do this. (announcement)
- If I was President, I would change everything. (conditional)
The verb “may” expresses a sort of uncertainty in behaviour or in an event. It is used to express approval, to ask for permission, or to express strong disapproval.
- I may come a bit later. (possibility)
- You may leave now. (permission)
- May I go to the cinema, please? (request)
- She may not go with you Jake! (emphatic refusion)
The modal verb “might” is used to express uncertainty, different possibilities or to form a polite question. The verb “might” is more formal than the verb “may”.
- Might I have a cup of coffee, please? (polite question)
- You might not do this! (disagreement)
- I might come later. (possibility)
- We might go there, what do you think? (suggestion)
The modal verb “must” is used to express various possibilities, certainties, or strong commitments to someone. Its negative form “must not/mustn’t” expresses strong disapproval.
- I must do this right now! (necessity)
- You must visit me in Prague! (recommendation)
- She must get a visa if she wants to fly to China. (obligation)
The verb “ought to” expresses obligations and recommendations that the speaker believes are correct.
- You ought to clean up your room. (recommendation)
- Our math team ought to win this competition today! (probability)
The verb “need” is a “semi-modal verb” – it can be used separately as the main meaning verb, but also as a modal auxiliary verb. When the verb “need” is used as a modal verb, we form its negative form by adding the negation “not”.
Forming the negation for the modal form of the verb need:
|Need – main verb||Need – modal verb|
|Need à Do not/didn’t need||Need à Need not/needen‘t|
Correctly formed negation for semi-modal meaning:
- You needn’t spend that much money on presents.
- Need it to be so cold in here?
The verb “dare” is also considered a “semi-modal verb”. It is used when you want to call someone to action or encourage them and give them courage. The negative form of a modal verb is formed by adding the negative “not”.
|Need – main verb||Need – modal verb|
|Dare à Do not/didn’t dare||dare à dare not/daren’t|
- Dare anyone go there?
- He daren’t think how many problems he has to solve. (expressing fear)
It expresses events that have been repeated several times in the past or events that once occurred but are no longer current.
It is the only verb that forms its negative form with the auxiliary verb “did not/didn’t”.
- I used to be the best baker in my job. (past)
- She used to do everything on time. (repetitive activity)
- We didn’t used to be friends.