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Modal Verbs in English

The main modal (auxiliary) verbs in English are: Will, Shall, May, Might, Can, Could, Must, Ought To, Should, Would, Used To, Need. These verbs are followed by the verb in the infinitive without to (apart from ought to and used to). The present forms may, can, must, need do not use do - does in the negative and interrogative forms, and are invariable (that is, no -s is added to the third person singular).
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WILL and SHALL

  • WILL (shall is rarely used in modern English) is used to form the future; in this function "WILL" or "'LL" is used for all persons and WON'T (=will not, pronounced [wount]) in the negative.
  • In the past "shall" was used for the first persons. In current English, sometimes SHALL can indicate an obligation or a promise; in this case 'shall' is usually stressed in the pronunciation, and never contracted; its negative form is SHAN'T (=shall not). The question "Shall I/we (do something)?" is used as a suggestion or proposal, in the meaning "do you want me/us to (do something)".
  • In the same way, WILL may correspond to the Italian "voglio" (as in the marriage formula: will you take...? I will).
      Examples:
    • She will go to London next year.
    • He shall go to school! (obligation)
    • I shall ask him! (promise)
    • Where shall we eat this evening?

MAY and MIGHT

    May and might (negative: may not, mightn't)correspond to the Italian verb "posso / potrei".
  • MAY expresses permission or possibility; as permission, 'may' has the same function as 'can'
  • MIGHT expresses only possibility
  • the interrogative form is used for permission only.
      Examples:
    • She may go to the cinema.
    • She may not go to the cinema.
    • It may (might) rain today.
    • May I leave now?
    • May I leave work at 16.00hrs? No, you may not.
    • We may go to dinner tonight, I'm not sure.

CAN and COULD

    CAN and COULD (negative form can't / couldn't) are used to express capability, permission, possibility, polite requests. The two modal verbs correspond to the Italian "potere" or "sapere + infinito"
  • CAN and COULD cannot be used in the future. The future is formed with 'will be able to', or, if it is clear that the action is in the future, directly with CAN.
  • COULD is a past tense and also a conditional, corresponding to the Italian "potei, potevo, potrei, potessi".
      Examples:
    • She can speak English. She could speak English when she was 10. (=sa / sapeva parlare) (capability
    • Can I park my car here? No, you can't. It is a no parking zone. (permission)
    • A car can be a useful means of transport or a dangerous weapon. (possibility)
    • Could you tell me the time, please? (polite request)

MUST = TO HAVE TO

    These modal verbs are used to express obligation or necessity, corresponding to the Italian verb "dovere".
  • We only use 'must' in the present. For all other tenses we use 'have to'.
  • While MUST is a real modal, taking no auxiliary in negative and interrogative forms, HAVE TO behaves as a regular verb, taking do /does/ did.
  • HAVE TO in the negative forms means lack of necessity, not a negative command
  • For negative commands we use MUSTN'T in the present, and verbs as "to be (obliged to, supposed to)" in other tenses.
      Examples:
    • I must go (present). I had to go (past). I will have to go (future).
    • I mustn't go (present). I didn't have to go (past). I won't have to go (future).

SHOULD and OUGHT TO

    These two modal verbs correspond to the Italian "dovrei". They are invariable and have the following main functions:
  • Moral obligation
  • Advice
  • Probability
      Examples:
    • A good mother ought to love her children.
    • He shouldn't drive his car too fast.
    • It should be sunny on the weekend.

NEED

Need is both a regular verb, with -s in the 3rd person singular, simple past in -ed, use of do - does - did and a modal verb used especially in the negative and interrogative form.
    Examples:
  • She needs to see him immediately.
  • He needed to change his job.
  • "You needn't do it" (= there's no need for you to do it) as opposed to "You mustn't do it" (=it is forbidden)
  • Need you go? (do you really have to go?)

WOULD

  • Would + infinitive (without to) is the auxiliary used to make the present conditional tense of verbs, and would have + past participle for the past conditional.
  • Would rather ('d rather) + infinitive (without to) corresponds to the Italian "preferirei"
  • Would + subject + mind is a very polite form used to ask someone to do something for you or used to ask permission - corresponding to the Italian "ti dispiacerebbe se..."
  • Would + like expresses desire and is also often used in polite forms, corresponding to the Italian "vorrei".
      Examples:
    • I would ask him if he was here. (=Glielo chiederei...)
    • They would have left if it hadn't rained. (=Sarebbero andati...)
    • If I had the money I would buy a large house.
    • She would have visited us if she had known that we lived here.
    • She'd rather go to Spain than to Italy this summer.
    • Would you mind looking after the children tonight?
    • Would they mind if I came with you?
    • Would you like something to drink?
    • I would like a ticket to London, please.

USED TO

Used to + infinitive refers to a past habit; the negative is "didn't use to". This verb corresponds to the Italian "ero solito" or simply to the Italian "imperfetto". There is no present form.
    Examples:
  • I used to play football when I was a boy. (Giocavo a calcio da bambino)
  • She used to smoke but she stopped three years ago.
  • They used to live in Paris before the war.