Modals: Explanation with Examples

Modal verbs are a type of auxiliary verb that express possibility, necessity, permission, or prohibition. They are used to add shades of meaning to our speech and writing, and can make our language more concise and expressive. In this post, we will explore the different types of modal verbs, how they are used, and how they can be used to improve our writing.

What are Modal Verbs?

Modal verbs, also known as modal auxiliaries, are a type of auxiliary verb that express modality, which is the speaker’s attitude or viewpoint towards the action or state expressed in the main verb. They modify the meaning of the main verb in terms of possibility, necessity, permission, ability, and more.

In traditional grammar, modal verbs include “can,” “could,” “may,” “might,” “shall,” “should,” “will,” “would,” “must,” and “ought to.” These verbs have specific characteristics that set them apart from regular verbs.

Modal Verbs and Regular Auxiliary Verbs:

Modal AuxiliariesRegular Auxiliaries
CanBe (am/is/are/was/were/been/being)
CouldHave (have/has/had)
MayDo (do/does/did)

Characteristics of modals:

  1. Modality is concerned with the speaker’s attitude toward the proposition expressed by a sentence. In other words, it reflects how the speaker thinks about the truth or likelihood of the statement being made.
  2. Modal expressions often include auxiliary verbs or other words that modify the main verb of a sentence to indicate the speaker’s attitude. Examples of such words in English include “can,” “could,” “may,” “might,” “should,” “must,” “will,” and “would.”
  3. Modals can be used to express various attitudes, such as ability, permission, obligation, possibility, probability, and certainty. For example, “I can swim” expresses ability, while “You may leave now” expresses permission.
  4. Modal expressions can have different degrees of strength, ranging from very weak (e.g., “might” for a low probability) to very strong (e.g., “must” for a high degree of certainty).

Usage Properties of Modals

Modals are special words that we use in sentences to talk about things like ability, permission, and possibility. Here are some things to remember when using modals:

  1. Modals don’t change, no matter who or what we’re talking about. We always use them the same way, whether we’re talking about “I,” “you,” or “he/she/it.” For example, “I can swim” and “She can swim” use the same form of the modal verb “can.”
  2. After a modal, we use the base form of the verb, which means we don’t add “s” or “ing” to the end. For example, instead of saying “He cans swim,” we say “He can swim.”
  3. When we ask questions or make negative sentences with modals, we don’t use the word “do.” We just use the modal by itself. For example, we say “Can you swim?” instead of “Do you can swim?”
  4. To make a negative sentence with a modal, we add “not” after the modal. For example, “She cannot swim” or “She can’t swim.”
  5. When we talk about something that happened in the past, we use “have” with the modal and the past participle of the verb. For example, “He should have gone.”
  6. Each modal word has a different meaning. For example, “must” means something is very important, and “should” means it’s a good idea but not necessary.
  7. Modals can be used to express conditionals or hypothetical situations. For example, “If I had more time, I could study more” (indicating a hypothetical situation in the present).

Difference between Modals and regular auxiliaries

Modal VerbsRegular Auxiliaries
Meaning and UsageExpress attitudes, ability, permission, possibility, necessity, or obligation.Assist in forming tenses, questions, negations, and emphatic statements.
Examples1. He can swim.
2. She may come late.
3. They should study.
1. He is eating dinner.
2. She was running fast.
3. They have finished their work.
ConjugationModals do not have different forms for different subjects. They remain the same regardless of the subject.Regular auxiliaries change forms based on the subject and tense.
Negative FormAdd “not” after the modal verb.Add “not” after the auxiliary verb.
QuestionsInvert the subject and modal verb.Invert the subject and the auxiliary verb.
Emphatic StatementsUse “do” or “did” before the modal verb to add emphasis.Use “do” or “did” before the auxiliary verb to add emphasis.
Continuous and Perfect FormsModals do not have continuous or perfect forms.Regular auxiliaries can be used to form continuous and perfect tenses.

Examples showing the difference in usages:

  1. Possibility:
    • Modal: She may come to the party.
    • Auxiliary: She is coming to the party.
  2. Ability:
    • Modal: I can swim very well.
    • Auxiliary: I am swimming in the pool.
  3. Permission:
    • Modal: You may go to the movies tonight.
    • Auxiliary: You are allowed to go to the movies tonight.
  4. Obligation:
    • Modal: We must finish the project by tomorrow.
    • Auxiliary: We are required to finish the project by tomorrow.
  5. Necessity:
    • Modal: He should study for the exam.
    • Auxiliary: He needs to study for the exam.

Use of ‘Dare’

“Dare” can function as both a regular verb and a modal verb in certain contexts. As a regular verb, “dare” means to have the courage or audacity to do something.

For example: “I dare you to jump off the diving board.”

As a modal verb, “dare” is used in negative or interrogative sentences to express challenge, defiance, or permission. In this context, “dare” is followed by the base form of the main verb without “to.”

For example:

  1. Challenge/Defiance:
    • How dare you speak to me like that?
    • She didn’t dare criticize her boss.
  2. Permission:
    • Dare I ask a question?
    • How dare he enter without knocking?

In these examples, “dare” functions as a modal verb because it doesn’t change its form based on the subject, and it is used to express a specific attitude or action.

As an ordinary verb “dare” means “to challenge someone to do something.” It is used in positive sentences, and is followed by a to-infinitive. For example:

Positive sentences:

  • dare you to jump off the diving board.
  • She dared him to kiss her.
  • dare you to tell her the truth.

In some cases, “dare” can be used as both a modal verb and an ordinary verb in the same sentence.

For example:

dare you to tell her the truth, but I don’t think you dare.

In this sentence, “dare” is used as a modal verb in the first clause (“I dare you”) and as an ordinary verb in the second clause (“I don’t think you dare”).

It’s important to note that the usage of “dare” as a modal verb is less common in modern English compared to its use as a regular verb.

Use of ‘Need

The word “need” can be used as both a modal verb and a main verb. When it is used as a modal verb, it expresses necessity or obligation. It is usually used in the negative form (need not) or in affirmative statements with a negative sense (no one need worry). Like any other modal verb, it is followed by a bare infinitive (i.e., infinitive without “to”) and expresses the absence of obligation or necessity.

Here are some examples of how “need” can be used as a modal verb :

  • You need not worry.
  • No one need tell me that.
  • I need hardly say that you are welcome.
  • I need only ask.
  • All you need do is follow the instructions.

When “need” is used as a main verb, it means “to have a need for something”. It is followed by a direct object and does not express necessity or obligation.

Here are some examples of how “need” can be used as a main verb:

  • I need your help.
  • The car needs gas.
  • The children need new clothes.
  • The plant needs water.
  • The project needs more time.

Modals with Examples

True Modals

CanAbilityI can swim.
 PossibilityIt can rain tonight.
 PermissionCan I borrow your pen?
CouldPast abilityI could run faster when I was younger.
 Past possibilityIt could have been worse.
 Polite requestCould you please pass me the salt?
MayPermissionMay I leave early today?
 PossibilityIt may rain tomorrow.
 Polite suggestionYou may want to take an umbrella.
MightPossibilityIt might snow tonight.
 Past possibilityI thought it might rain yesterday.
 Polite suggestionYou might want to wear a coat.
ShallFuture intentionI shall go to the store tomorrow.
 ObligationYou shall do as I say.
ShouldAdviceYou should eat more vegetables.
 ExpectationThey should arrive soon.
 NecessityYou should study for the test.
WillFuture predictionIt will rain tomorrow.
 VolitionI will help you move.
 Instant decisionI will have the steak, please.
WouldPolite requestWould you mind closing the door?
 HypotheticalIf I won the lottery, I would travel the world.
 Past habitWhen I was younger, I would play soccer every day.
MustStrong obligationYou must stop when the traffic lights turn red.
Logical conclusion / CertaintyHe must be very tired. He’s been working all day long.
Modals with examples

Semi Modals

Semi-ModalUsageExample Sentence
Ought toSuggests moral obligation or duty1. You ought to apologize for your behaviour.
2. We ought to help those in need.
3. You ought to study for the exam.
NeedExpresses necessity or obligation1. She need not worry.
2. Need we go to the party?
DareExpresses challenge or defiance1. I dare not disturb him while he’s working.
2. I dare not speak up against my boss.
3. Dare she question my authority?
4. Dare I ask the boss for a raise?
5. How dare he accuse me without evidence?
6. How dare she criticize my work?
Used toDescribes past habits or states1. I used to play the piano when I was younger.
2. They used to live in a small town before moving.
3. She used to be a vegetarian, but now she eats meat.
Difference between Modals and Regular Auxiliaries

Key Points to Remember While Using Modals

Modals are a type of auxiliary verb that express various shades of meaning such as ability, permission, obligation, and possibility. Here are some key points to consider:

1. Modal verbs: The main modal verbs in English are “can,” “could,” “may,” “might,” “shall,” “should,” “will,” “would,” “must,” “ought to.” These verbs are used to convey different meanings and functions.

2. Expressing ability: Modals like “can” and “could” are used to express someone’s ability or capacity to do something. For example, “I can swim” means that you have the ability to swim.

3. Expressing permission: Modals like “may” and “can” are used to ask for or give permission. For example, “May I borrow your pen?” or “You can use my laptop.”

4. Expressing obligation: Modals like “must” and “should” are used to express obligations or requirements. “Must” implies a strong obligation, while “should” suggests a recommendation. For instance, “You must complete the assignment” or “You should apologize.”

5. Expressing possibility/uncertainty: Modals like “may,” “might,” and “could” are used to express possibility or uncertainty about something. For example, “It may rain tomorrow,” “She might be late,” or “I could go to the party if I finish my work.”

6. Politeness and indirect speech: Modals are often used to convey politeness and soften requests or suggestions. For example, “Could you please pass the salt?” or “Would you mind opening the window?”

7. Form and usage: Modals are followed by the base form of the main verb without “to.” For example, “She can swim,” “We should eat,” or “I must study.” However, the modal verb “ought to” is an exception, as it is followed by “to” and the base form of the verb.

8. Negation and question forms: To form negative sentences, the word “not” is added after the modal verb. For example, “He cannot swim” or “You should not do that.” In question forms, the modal verb is placed at the beginning of the sentence. For example, “Can you help me?” or “Should I call him?”

9. Lack of tense: Modals themselves do not have tense. Instead, the tense is expressed by the main verb in the sentence. For example, “She will eat” (future tense) or “He should have studied” (past tense).

10. Modal verb combinations: Modal verbs can be used together in a sentence to express different meanings. For example, “You must have been tired” (combination of “must” and “have been”) indicates a deduction about the past.

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