Use of Modal Verbs – Explained with Examples

Dive into our comprehensive guide, where we demystify modal verbs, provide real-world examples, and enhance your language skills. Whether you’re a grammar enthusiast or a language learner, this article sheds light on how to use modal verbs effectively.”


In English grammar, there are a certain category of verbs called modal auxiliaries. These are words such as will, would, shall, should, can, could, may, might, must, and ought to.

They are typically used with verbs (usually preceding the main verb) to express the mode or manner of the action indicated by the verb. Known as modals or modal auxiliaries, they convey concepts like ability or capacity, probability or possibility, permission, command, compulsion, duty, and obligation. While modals often suggest present or future time frames, they can sometimes denote past actions.

Use of Modal Verbs


Will is used

To express the pure future, use the modal verb ‘will’ followed by the base form of the main verb:

  • He will visit me again.
  • The match will begin at 9 am tomorrow.

To express willingness, intention, promise, or determination with the first person (I, We), use ‘will’ followed by the base form of the main verb. The meaning depends on the context and tone of voice:

  • I will help you. (Promise)
  • I will stand by you in time of need. (Willingness/Intention)
  • They will win the match. (Determination)


Shall is used to express pure future, we can use the modal verb ‘shall’ with the base form of the main verb:

  • We shall succeed in winning the Oscar one day.
  • I shall help you in your need.

To ask for advice, suggestion, request, etc. with the first person (I, We) in the interrogative, we can also use ‘shall’ with the base form of the main verb and a question mark:

  • Shall I bring a cup of tea for you? (Request)
  • Shall I call a doctor for you? (Advice)
  • Shall we sit together and settle the matter? (Suggestion)


Would (past form of will) is used

To express a habit :

  • He would sit for hours reading this book.
  • He would rise early in the morning and go for a jog in the crisp air.
  • She would wake up before dawn and meditate in the quiet stillness of her room.

To offer help:

  • “Would you mind if I helped you with those groceries?”
  • “Would you like me to take your coat?”

To express a polite request/make suggestions/ seek permission :

  • Would you open the door, please?
  • Would you mind coming tomorrow again here?
  • Would you be interested in trying this new restaurant?
  • Would you mind if we listened to a different song?”
  • Would you like me to close the window?
  • Would you mind if I used your phone to make a quick call?

To express a wish, preference :

  • I wish you would come with us.
  • Would that (I wish) he were here.
  • I would absolutely love to join you for dinner tonight.
  • Honestly, I would much prefer to stay in and watch a movie.
  • I would rather have a coffee than milk.
  • I would like to come with you.
  • I wish I would see again this beautiful view with you.
  • Wouldn’t it be great if she could join the party?”

To express an imaginary condition :

  • I would do it, if I were allowed.
  • I would buy a bike if I won a lottery.
  • I would travel the world if I had the chance.
  • She would learn a new language had she more free time.


Should (Past form of shall) is used to express duty/obligation or advise or desirability :

  • We should obey our parents. (duty)
  • We should always tell the truth. (duty)
  • Children should respect their elders. (duty)
  • Everyone should contribute to keeping their community clean. (duty/obligation)
  • You should exercise daily. (advice)
  • You should get enough sleep each night to function well. (advice)

NOTE : Should often implies a mild suggestion or advice. It is milder form of must and ought to.

“You should eat green-leafy vegetables.” (Suggests it’s healthy, but doesn’t force them to eat)

Compared to:

  • “You must eat green-leafy vegetables.” (Stronger, implies a command)
  • “You ought to eat green-leafy vegetables.” (Similar to “should” but slightly less common)

Use of “Lest” to Express Purpose after Fear:

“Lest” is a conjunction used to introduce a clause expressing a fear or consequence that someone wants to avoid.

The clause following “lest” explains the purpose of the action in the main clause.

Example: “Work hard, lest you should fail.” (They work hard because they fear failing)

Here’s how it works:

Main clause: They work hard. (Action)

“Lest” clause: you should fail. (Feared consequence)

Combined meaning: They work hard to avoid failing.

One more exaple is given below:

They hired a taxi lest they should miss the train.


May is used

To express possibility :

  • My girlfireind may come today.
  • It may rain tonight.
  • He may or may not spare you from punishment

To express permission :

  • You may leave now.
  • May I come in. Sir?
  • May I stay tonight at here.

To express wish, faith, hope :

  • Wish: May you have a happy birthday!
  • May God bless you, my son!
  • May you live long!

Hope: May it rain tonight, the garden needs water.

Faith: May the force be with you. (famous line from Star Wars)

To express a purpose : She is working hard so that she may win the final match.


Might (Past form of may) is used

To express less possibility :

  • She might come today.
  • It might rain tonight.

To express permission :

  • Might I ask a question?


Can is used

To express permission :

  • You can leave now.
  • You can stay here as long as you wish.
  • Can I sit by your side on the seat?

To express possibility :

  • The news can be true.
  • Anyone can make mistakes.
  • The enemy can be more powerful than we are.

To express ability or capacity :

  • I can climb this mountain.
  • She can dance very well.

NOTE : Can never indicates past time. In the sense of ability, the past and the future tense forms are was/were able to and shall/will be able to :

  • He was not able to cross the road. (Past)
  • I hope I shall be able to solve this problem. (Future)


Could (past form of can) is used

To express ability/capacity in the past :

  • She could dance very well in the youth.
  • I could give him an answer if he had asked me.

To express a polite request :

  • Could I borrow your book?
  • Could you wait for some time?

To express possibility under certain conditions:

  • If we had money, we could buy a car.
  • It could not be true.


Must is used

To express obligation or duty :

  • You must work hard.
  • Soldiers must obey the orders of their officers.
  • We must not cheat others.

To express necessity or compulsion :

  • The letter must be written today.
  • She must do as I say.

To express emphatic advice or determination :

  • You must see a doctor at once.
  • You must not leave before you finish your breakfast.

To express assumption, conclusion/inference, certainty/strong probability :

  • The Postmaster must be in his office at this time.
  • She must be twenty one.
  • He must have reached by now.

Ought to

Ought (always followed by a ‘to’ infinitive) is used

To express the subject’s obligation or duty :

  • We ought to respect our parents.
  • We ought not to deceive anyone.

NOTE : There is no external authority in ought as there is in must which expresses the speaker’s authority. Must compels action on the part of the subject.
Ought expresses duty, inner conscience, a sensible action or advice. It has the same sense as should.
To give advice :

•You ought to mediate for mental peace.

NOTE : Would, should, could, might, must, ought to before have refer to past.
Examples: He should have come in time. I could have scored better marks. He must have done some some wrong.


Need (not)

Need (not) is used

Chiefly to show absence of necessity or compulsion in the negative or interrogative :

  • The negative is formed by need not and the interrogative by inversion.
  • He need not pay your fees right now.
  • You need to take a sound sleep.
  • Need I speak to him.

It does not take ‘s’ in the third person singular (he, she, it) present tense. Its past is ‘had to in the affirmative, need not have in the negative and need have in the interrogative.

  • You need not have wasted your time in this useless activity.
  • Need I have to see my doctor?


Dare is used

In the negative and interrogative. The negative is formed by dare not and the interrogative by inversion. It does not take s in the third person singular present tense.

  • I dare not kill this snake.
  • How dare you come here?
  • Dare we interrupt him?

Both dare and need can be used as main verbs. Then they take ‘s’ in the third person singular present tense. They form their negative and interrogative with do and are followed by to infinitive.

  • He needs your help. (main verb)
  • They do not need your help. (main verb)
  • I need to go there (main verb)
    I need not go there. (need as a modal verb)
  • Sometimes he dares to come near me. (main verb)
  • Dare not come near me. (modal verb)

Used to

Used (to) is used

To express past habit :

Used to + verb (base form):

  • She used to getting up early for work. (She does not do so now)
  • I used to carry a lunch box to school. (I don’t carry now)
  • I used to often quarrel with my maternal grandma in my childhood. (I don’t sing now)
  • I used to play video games all the time, but now I prefer reading.
  • We used to live in a small town, but we moved to a big city a few years ago.

To express the existence of something in the past :

Used to + be + adjective:

  • My town used to be quiet, but now it’s quite noisy with all the new construction.
  • This road used to be bumpy, but it’s been recently paved.
  • There used to be a big palace over here.
  • We used to be best friends, but we haven’t spoken in years.

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