Modal verbs are the secret ingredient to fluent business English.
This might surprise you.
In fact, most native English speakers don’t even realize how important modal verbs are in office speech.
But think about it.
As we’ll discuss more below, modal verbs are often crucial to talking politely, making requests, giving suggestions, setting plans…
Basically, everything that’s important for workplace communication!
So to improve your business English, we’ll show you what the English modal verbs are, how they work and what they mean.
Then we’ll give you some common business English phrases with modal verbs that are useful for many professional situations, from scheduling meetings to hiring new employees.
What Are the Modal Verbs in English?
Modal verbs are a type of “helping” or “auxiliary” verb. That means they work alongside the main (action) verb in a sentence to add deeper meaning.
Modal verbs often indicate possibility, probability, permission, necessity, etc. Take this sentence, for example:
It could rain tomorrow.
This sentence uses the modal verb “could” (more on this below) and expresses the possibility of rain tomorrow.
Now let’s introduce you to the modal verbs in English and what each one means, before we give you examples of how to use them in different business contexts.
The word “can” is used to express ability, permission and possibility.
I can speak English pretty well. (Ability)
Can I use your computer? (Permission)
Riding your bike to work can save you a lot of money. (Possibility)
“Could” is used to express possibility or permission in a more polite tone than “can.”
Could I use your computer? (Polite permission)
You’re probably most familiar with “will” as the helping verb that creates the simple future tense in English.
It will rain tomorrow. (Future tense)
It’s used less commonly in other contexts, but there are some you might encounter. For example, the word “will” can be used to indicate a request:
Will you take this up to the marketing department on the 12th floor? (Request)
The modal verb “would” is used to show a wish or preference. It can also be used to give advice.
I would rather go to work early than stay late. (Preference)
I would talk to the manager if I were you. (Giving advice)
It can also be used in requests, in a way that’s similar to the use of “will” but more polite.
Would you take this up to the marketing department on the 12th floor? (Polite request)
“May” can be used to express permission—similar to “can” and “could,” but even more polite. It can also be used to express possibility.
May I borrow your pen? (Polite permission)
Our competitor may be going out of business. (Possibility)
The modal verb “might” is primarily used to express possibility.
I might go out for lunch today. (Possibility)
You’ll sometimes hear this modal verb used to express permission in a polite, deferential request—for example, between a low-level and high-level employee.
Might I propose an alternative solution? (Polite permission)
“Should” is used for expressing advice and showing that you have to do something or are obliged (required) to do something.
You should talk to your supervisor if you have a problem. (Advice)
I should finish this report by Friday. (Obligation)
“Must” is used to express strong obligation. Use this verb to discuss things that absolutely have to happen.
You must turn off the lights if you’re the last person to leave the office. (Obligation)
Learn Business English Modal Verbs with Phrases You’ll Use All the Time at Work
Now we’ll cover some useful modal verb phrases you can use in different business situations.
To get comfortable with these modal verb phrases, FluentU is a very helpful tool.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Arranging a Meeting
Of course, there are many business situations where you might need to arrange a meeting. Modal verbs will be invaluable in setting up these meetings politely and efficiently.
Could we meet at _____?
I can meet at _____. / I can’t meet at _____.
Should I reserve the conference room?
Might we discuss it over lunch?
The meeting should take about 30 minutes.
Conducting an Online Meeting
In today’s business world, online meetings, video calls or conference calls are very common. If you work for a foreign company, it’s likely that you’ll have to participate in an online meeting at some point.
Modal verbs will help you keep the meeting on track in a clear and formal way.
Could you please mute your microphone when you’re not speaking?
Can everyone hear/see me?
Before we begin, we should each introduce ourselves.
Giving a Presentation
Giving presentations in any language can be nerve-wracking, but it can be especially overwhelming if you have to give a presentation in English. Fortunately, there are several modal verb phrases you can learn in business English to help you give your best presentation.
Might/may I have your attention, please?
Could you please save your questions until the end?
Today, I would like to discuss…
In conclusion, we must find a way to decrease costs/to increase profits/to find our niche/etc.
Speaking to an Employee as a Manager
If you’re a manager, one of the most common relationships you’ll have to navigate in the business world is between you and your employees. Here are some modal phrases that can help you speak with your employees in a respectful, yet commanding manner.
When can you give me the numbers from this quarter?
When will you be finished with the project?
Could you email me a detailed update?
We should plan to move forward with the merger.
Speaking to a Manager as an Employee
When you’re an employee at a company, you’ll most likely need to report to a manager or some other type of superior. It’s important to speak with respect and confidence when communicating with your boss. Here are some types of modal verb phrases that might be useful.
Could you please give me your thoughts on…?
I will finish _____ by _____.
I can find time for theses tasks today.
I would welcome your feedback on…
Speaking to Your Colleagues
Another important relationship in the workplace is the relationship between you and your colleagues. When you’re speaking with employees of a company that are at your same level, it’s nice to be able to talk both about business and more casually. Here are some modal phrases that you might try.
I might attend the conference. What about you?
I could use a day off. What about you?
Can/could I give you some advice?
Can/could I ask you a favor?
Speaking with a Client or Customer
Speaking with a client or customer is an important part of many jobs. It’s important to speak clearly, confidently and politely with them. If you often work directly with clients and customers, you may want to add some of these general business modal verb phrases to your vocabulary.
We would like to set up a face-to-face meeting.
May I offer you …?
It would be my pleasure to…
I might be able to…
Would you like to renew your account/subscription?
Could you give us a list of your requirements?
Taking a Phone Call
No matter what department you work in, making and receiving phone calls is probably a daily occurrence. It’s important to be able to successfully engage in a phone conversation at work. Here are some standard modal verb phrases you can use the next time your desk phone rings.
Could I ask who’s calling, please?
How may I help you?
Can I take a message?
Should I call back later?
Could you repeat that?
Hiring an Employee
One of the most common business interactions is hiring new employees.
Sometimes it can be challenging to interview potential employees, especially if you’re speaking in a second language such as English. Here are some useful phrases you’ll need during the hiring process.
Can/could you tell me more about your work experience?
You must arrive on time for the interview.
You should submit three references with your application.
These are just some of the hundreds of different business modal phrases you might encounter and want to use at your workplace. Start to pay more attention to the different business modal verb phrases you hear around your office or in meetings or at conferences with foreign partners and colleagues. Once you understand the general meaning of each business English modal verb, you can take some time to experiment with different phrases.