Everybody can use a little help now and then!
That goes for English verbs, too.
Sometimes, one verb alone just won’t cut it.
A modal verb can help the main verb do its job.
Modal verbs add more meaning to your sentences and let you express more complex ideas.
But what are modal verbs? How do you use them?
In this post, I’ll introduce you to the most important English modal verbs. I’ll show you how they work and how to use them correctly.
What Are Modal Verbs?
Modal verbs are a type of “auxiliary verb,” also called a “helping verb” as we hinted above. That means they work alongside other verbs to give your sentence a new meaning.
For example, they can change the tense of your main verb, or indicate the possibility, permission or necessity for something to happen.
Common English modal verbs are:
I’ll discuss what each one means and how to use them below. I’ll add examples, and as you read through them I encourage you to try to find more examples of each. Once you understand how modal verbs work it’ll help you speak English conversationally as well as in an academic setting.
Where to Practice Modal Verbs
As with many English grammar concepts, the trick to learning modal verbs is to practice them as much as you can!
- FluentU is the best resource to see and hear modal verbs in context.
The videos are organized by genre and learning level, so it’s easy to find ones that work for you. For starters, you’ll hear several modal verbs in this interview with musician Will.i.am. You can check out the full video library for free with a FluentU trial.
- Ginger Software has some helpful exercises where you’ll choose the correct modal verb to put in a sentence.
- Frankfurt International School has a multiple-choice quiz to test your modal verb knowledge.
- Mad Libs is a popular English word game that’ll expose you to modal verbs among many other types of English vocabulary.
- Journaling is a great technique to practice your English while incorporating modal verbs. Write about your plans for the upcoming day or week, like what you will do, what you should do, etc.
Will, Would, What!? The Simple Guide to Modal Verbs in English
One of the most common uses for this modal verb is to express ability. In this case, can is another way of saying “be able to.”
I can play piano.
This also works if you’re asking a question. To ask about someone’s ability to do something, typically you would say: Can you _____?
Can you speak English?
In a similar way, can is also used sometimes as a way to offer help or to ask for permission.
I can watch your dog while you’re on vacation.
Can you please pass the butter?
You’ll also often hear this modal verb used to express the possibility of something happening.
Houses can flood in this region during rainstorms.
Could expresses the past tense of can. Use it to express ability, but when talking about the past.
I could understand German when I was a kid.
Could you hear the birds chirping yesterday morning?
Could is sometimes used to express possibility, similar to can. However, unlike can, it’s used for less concrete possibilities and suggestions.
We could go to the park or we could go to the mall.
Will is most commonly used to put an English sentence in the future tense. It indicates that something’s going to happen in the future.
I will wash my plates after I finish eating.
They will visit their grandmom next month.
In question form, will is used to ask if something’s going to happen in the future.
Will there be a storm tomorrow?
Will we have a quiz in English class?
Would often talks about a habitual action in the past. That means an action repeated more than once, often by routine.
When I was a kid I would play with dolls every day.
Would can also show a willingness to do something in the future, often as part of the phrase “would like to…”
She would like to come to the party.
Would is used in a question to ask someone to do something. In this way, it’s similar to can—however, using would sounds more polite.
Would you please close the door?
Another very common usage of would is in conditionals—showing that something depends on something else. You may recognize the sentence structure would… if, as in the examples below:
She would go to the mall if you asked her.
He would become fluent in English if he practiced more often.
Finally, would often pairs up with the verb wish to express a desire.
I wish you would stop tapping your pencil.
You’ll often hear should used to as a way to give or ask for advice or an opinion.
You should do your homework.
The governor should visit our neighborhood.
Should I meet you at your apartment?
In a similar way, it can be used to describe something necessary but perhaps not wanted.
She should comb her hair but she doesn’t want to.
Should is also used to show an expectation.
He should be back by 10 p.m.
The mall should be empty at this time of night.
May is another modal verb that’s similar to can, but more formal and polite. It’s used to express or ask for permission, and is often considered the most polite way to do so.
May I sit beside you?
You may pour yourself a cup of tea.
May is also often used to describe a possibility.
We may go downtown tonight.
Like may, might can present a possibility. It’s not uncommon to hear may and might used interchangeably in this context, although may is slightly more formal.
He might get the job at the factory.
Might can also be used to suggest something. Within the phrase “might as well,” it indicates that there isn’t a good alternative.
I might as well go home since there’s no one else here.
Must is a way of saying “have to” or “need to,” though it’s more formal than either of those.
You must finish your homework by Wednesday.
Must also expresses a strong suggestion.
You must see the Louvre while you’re in Paris!
Must can also be used as a guess, though only if you think that your guess is correct or if you have evidence to back up your guess.
He must be smart because he studied engineering.
Shall is a good modal verb to recognize, but it’s rarely used in everyday language because it feels so formal and polite to native English speakers. Its use is similar to will. You may see it most often in literature from past eras.
I shall call your mother if you misbehave.
We shall arrive at 5:00.
Modal Verb Practice Dialogue
Here’s a short sample conversation that uses several of the modal verbs we covered above. You can practice this conversation or find ways to modify it or use the dialogue in your own English conversations. The modal verbs are in bold.
Diana: When will you come over tomorrow?
Mandy: I can come over after work. Should I bring anything?
Diana: You could bring some snacks if you want.
Mandy: I could bring chips or cookies.
Diana: Would you bring cookies?
Mandy: Yes! I will make some chocolate chip cookies right now and I might bring chips too.
This should help you express a range of ideas in English more fluently. Don’t forget to keep practicing!
Cailey Thiessen is a freelance writer, translator and editor. She writes in English and Spanish and sometimes a mix of the two, and is fascinated by language and is eager to learn more languages and help others overcome barriers of language and culture.
And One More Thing...
If you like learning English through movies and online media, you should also check out FluentU. FluentU lets you learn English from popular talk shows, catchy music videos and funny commercials, as you can see here:
The FluentU app and website makes it really easy to watch English videos. There are captions that are interactive. That means you can tap on any word to see an image, definition, and useful examples.
For example, when you tap on the word "searching," you see this:
Learn all the vocabulary in any video with quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
The best part? FluentU remembers the vocabulary that you’re learning. It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You have a truly personalized experience.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or from the Google Play store.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn English with real-world videos.