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What is a Modal Verb?
There are many definitions. The simplest is a verb that follows these three rules:
– The word does not change in any tense or any situation. It has no ‘….ing’ form and does not use ‘-s’ in third person singular.
– They do not use ‘Do’ or ‘Be’ as Auxiliary Verbs in any situation.
– It is not followed by ‘to…’ (exception: ought to…)
By this definition, the complete list of Modal Verbs is the following:
*Also: ‘May (not)’
**Also: ‘Ought (not) to’
By this definition, HAVE TO and (BE) ABLE TO are not Phrasal Verbs, because they change form and use other Auxiliary Verbs (Do and Be, respectively) but we have to talk about them because they are closely related to this topic.
- Permission and Ability: CAN, COULD, MAY, BE ABLE TO….
CAN is used for ability:
“Can you play the piano?” “ No, I can’t, but I can play the trombone.”
CAN is also used for permission:
“Can I come in?” “Of course you can!”
COULD is used as….
..the past of Can (Podía):
“I couldn’t swim until I was 11 years old, but I could read when I was 5!”
…the conditional version (more formal) of Can (Podría):
“Could you tell me the time, please?”
“I could finish today, but I want to leave early.”
….the subjunctive of Can (Pudiera):
“I wish I could help you!”
MAY is the most formal way of asking for permission. It is not so common:
“May I come in?”
What happens if we want to talk in the Present Perfect (He podido…) or Future (Podrán…)? These Modals have no participle, nor can you combine two Modals (will + can).
The answer is to leave the Modals and use something completely different: (BE) ABLE TO (able = capaz, o sea ‘ser capaz de…’).
“I haven’t been able to speak to John. He hasn’t been in the office all morning!”
“When will you be able to take me to Paris?”
(BE) ABLE TO is often used to replace COULD with no real change in meaning:
“I didn’t have the key, but I could/was able to get in through the window.”
- Obligation and Advice: SHOULD, OUGHT TO, MUST, HAVE TO and NEEDN’T
SHOULD is your opinion or advice given to somebody (Deberías..)
“You shouldn’t eat so many cakes, and you should do more exercise.”
“I think the Government should do more to protect wildlife!”
“My boss hates me! What should I do?”
OUGHT TO is the same as SHOULD. It is not as common, and is generally only seen in affirmative, very rarely in negative, and never in a question.
“You ought to speak to him face to face”
YOU’D BETTER (You had better) is another variant.
MUST is obligation, both in negative and affirmative. It is not very common as a question. Being very abrupt and authoritarian, it is generally used only by someone in authority (Police, Judge…) or to oblige yourself:
“I must do more exercise- I’m getting fat”
“Excuse me sir- this is a public building. You mustn’t smoke here.”
HAVE TO (not a modal) is more commonly used to oblige other people. It has a similar tone to NEED TO (not a modal):
“That´s the end of the class. Remember you have/need to study for the exam next Tuesday.”
“What time does James have to start work?”
DO(es)N’T HAVE TO has a different meaning to MUSTN’T. MUSTN’T is a prohibition. DO(es)N’T HAVE TO is similar to DO(es)N’T NEED TO:
“You don’t have/need to do exercises 3 or 7. They aren’t very useful.”
“You mustn’t tell James anything! It’s a surprise for his birthday.”
“You don’t have to tell John the meeting has been cancelled- he already knows.”
DON’T HAVE TO has an equivalent: NEEDN’T. It is used the same as a Modal, but is not so common in modern English.
- Future: WILL, WON’T, MIGHT and MAY.
For a more detailed article on these Modals and the Future, click here. This is the basic idea:
WILL and WON’T are used for your interpretation of the future. You are making clear that this is your opinion, prediction, promise, etc. and that although you are sure, it does not have the general certainty of ´(BE) GOING TO’
“Chelsea are going to play Barcelona tomorrow.” (planned)
“I’m sure they’ll (they will) win.” (opinion)
MIGHT is basically FUTURE + PERHAPS:
“Chelsea might play that teenager they signed from Southampton.”
- 2nd Conditional: WOULD.
While ‘WILL’ is basically the future suffix: irÉ, verÁS, tendrÁ, llegarEMOS, etc. ‘WOULD’ is the conditional suffix: irÍA, verÍAS, tendrÍA, llegarÍAMOS, etc.
“I would help you if I could.”
- Suggesting: SHALL…?
In the past, SHALL had a similar sense to WILL. However, its modern use is fairly different. It is basically a question of suggestion, with a similar sense to ‘Let’s’. For more detailed information, click here.
“Let’s go to the cinema!”
“OK. What film shall we see?”
“Let’s watch a horror film!”
“Shall we invite Jane? She loves horror films!”
SHALL in this sense is only used as SHALL WE (similar to a question form of ‘Let’s’) and SHALL I (similar to a question form of ‘Let me’:
“Let me take your umbrella.”
“Shall I take your umbrella?”
SHALL has no direct translation into Spanish (“hacemos tal cosa?”). That’s the reason why people often forget it. When you think of ‘Let’s’, ‘How about..?’ and other such expressions, try to use ‘Shall…?’
In another article I will show you how to put these Modals in the past. It’s not so difficult and gives you a lot of options….
That’s the theory, folks! Until you put it into practice, theory counts for nothing. Try these exercises below.
Press ‘Start’ to begin. In many questions there is more than one correct answer. Choose all that are correct: