What are the modal verbs?:

Can Could

Shall Should

Will Would

May Might


MODALS INTRODUCE THE JUDGEMENT OF THE SPEAKER. If we are describing a situation, we do not use a modal; if we are describing the speakers attitude/judgement of a situation, we use a modal or adverb (e.g. probably). Here are some examples:

I have to study (non-modal) describes the situation (my teacher/parents etc. make me, but perhaps I do not see the need!); I must study expresses my view of the need to study.

He’s going to crash! describes what I can see in front of me (e.g. crazy driver going towards tree at 150kph but looking at the person in the passenger seat instead of the road); one day he will crash might describe my judgement of the same driver, who I know, but he may not be driving while I speak – i.e. I am not describing the situation in front of me

I used to go fishing with my grandfather expresses a fact, with no indication of my attitude towards that action; I would go fishing with my grandfather focusses on my will to do the action, and therefore introduces a sense of nostalgia.

Give an example of a MODAL PERFECT in context.

(convict in prison): “I shouldn’t have robbed those banks!”

Give an example of a MODAL CONTINUOUS in context.

Where’s John?” “I’m not sure – he might be having a coffee break”

What do the different modal verbs express about the main verbs they are used with?

THIS IS A COMPLEX QUESTION! Grammar books still struggle with putting modality into a nutshell! To investigate further, keen students might want to research ideas of intrinsic and extrinsic meaning and take it from there.

Here are the essential meanings as I see them:

Can and could express the speaker’s judgement of ability

May and might express the speaker’s judgement of probability



“He might be dangerous” – this is possible, I don’t know

“He can be dangerous” – he is dangerous at times; there is no question he has that ‘ability’ or characteristic


Will/Would expresses the speakers judgement of the ‘will’ to do something and are used in decisions/predictions

Shall/Should expresses the speaker’s judgement of what is right (either morally, or in a person’s interest)



“Shall we go out tonight” – “OK, good idea.”

“Will we go out tonight” – “I have no idea. You tell me!”

“If I were rich, … … I could buy a Ferrari” (ability)

… I would buy a Ferrari” (decision/will)

… I might buy a Ferrari” (possibility)

… I should buy a Ferrari” (morally correct action, or in my interest, even if I don’t want to)


Must expresses the speakers judgement of necessity. “I must study harder” Once the moment has passed, so has the necessity. Therefore ‘must’ has no past, and we would use ‘should have’ to describe our judgement on an action not done, or ‘had to’ to describe the past situation.



Coming soon, our final part in this series:

Holistic Grammar – Part 5: Overview

What are the three most important factors involved in choosing a verb form?

How does each factor help us express what we want to communicate?

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