5 Useful Ways to Play Around with Your Spanish Modal Verbs

Let me tell you a little secret.

I once had a Spanish teacher I really didn’t like.

She always picked favorites, and I wasn’t one of them.

I learned best by “taking notes” in her class.

These weren’t exactly class notes, they were notes like this:

Aun si pueda ser su favorito, no lo haría. (Even if I could be your favorite, I still wouldn’t.)

No debería chismear sobre mi profesora pero no puedo resistarlo. (I shouldn’t gossip about my teacher but I can’t resist it.)

Most of my sentences were about what I “would” do if I “could” be elsewhere, versus what I “should” be doing in class. I wrote modal verb sentences all over that notebook.

When learning Spanish modal verbshay que jugar—we have to play around!

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So in this post, we’re going to show you how you can get out your favorite notebook and pencils to play around with your modals (and sharpen them to perfection), too.

What Are Modal Verbs?

In English, the verbs “can,” “could,” “will,” “would,” “shall,” “should,” “may,” “might” and “must” are all considered modal verbs. So, what do these verbs have in common?

  • They express meanings such as ability, necessity and possibility.
  • They’re auxiliary verbs. This means they always precede other verbs in a sentence.

Let me give you an example:

I can talk for hours about nothing.

Notice that the modal verb “can” is followed by the infinitive verb “talk.” Infinitives are undecorated: They offer us no clue about verb tense or person. Let’s look at the same sentence in Spanish:

Puedo hablar durante horas sobre nada.

In the Spanish version of the same sentence, the verb poder is conjugated for first person, present tense to puedo (I can) and followed by the infinitive hablar (talk). For both languages, the formula for using modal verbs is generally:

modal verb (including verb tense and person) + infinitive verb

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Note: Modal verbs in English tend to have just a present form such as “can” and a past simple form such as “could.” They have neither a participle form, nor an infinitive form. Therefore, we don’t use them after other auxiliary verbs (i.e., I might can eat with you vs. I might be able to eat with you).

Now that we understand a little bit about modal verbs in English, let’s turn to Spanish.

5 Playful Tips for Sharpening Your Spanish Modal Verb Skills

Speaking of picking favorites, one of my favorite Spanish teachers always said “if you don’t use it, you lose it.” These tips are designed to help you use your modals as much as possible.

1. Master the Most Commonly Used Spanish Modals

There are just a handful of super common Spanish modals. As you learn them, to begin with, just stick with present tense.

  • Next, memorize their meanings in English.
  • Read a sample sentence and then start to play around!
  • Make 10, 20, 50 present tense sentences on your own.

poder (can, to be able to, to be allowed to)

Ellos pueden trabajar legalmente en los EEUU. — They can work legally in the US.

Note: Poder is the most common among the common Spanish modal verbs. Be sure to give it extra attention.

saber (to know how to)

¿Sabes bailar la salsa? — Do you know how to dance salsa?

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querer (to want)

Queremos criar pollos. — We want to raise chickens.

deber (must, ought to, should)

Ella no debe pelearse por todo. — She mustn’t fight over everything.

Note: If the infinitive verb following the modal verb is reflexive, the separable person-marker, in this case, “se,” can also be placed before the modal verb (Ella no se debe pelear por todo).

haber que (to have to do something)

Hay que limpiar la casa. — We must clean the house.

Note: “Hay que” is only used in third person in a general sense, without conjugation, to suggest something that “we all” should do.

tener que (to have to do something)

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El tiene que trabajar cada día. — He has to work every day.

soler (to be in the habit of doing something)

No suelo conducir el auto en la nieve. — I’m not used to driving the car in the snow.

Note: Soler is not used in the future, preterite and conditional tenses.

acabar de (to have just done something)

Acabáis de perder el vuelo. — You’ve just missed the flight.

2. Work on Your Verb Tense Flexibility

Up to this point, we’ve just focused on mastering modal verbs for present tense. Now let’s branch out into different verb tenses. Unlike other verbs, the meanings of modal verbs sometimes change in different verb tenses. Here are some key things to remember:

  • Most modal verbs are not used in all verb tenses.
  • Modal verb meanings tend to vary depending on their uses in preterite or past imperfect. In preterite, modal verbs generally express something that didn’t happen, whereas in imperfect, modal verbs generally express something that may or may not have happened by now, leaving the possibility uncertain.
  • Modal verbs in conditional either express politeness or emphasize that something is a possibility.

Below, you’ll find a list of examples for uses of different tenses for some modal verbs. Practice playing around to find examples that will stick permanently in your mind.

poder (could)

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Conditional: Podríamos comprar un auto. — We could buy a car. (Given as a polite suggestion.)

Preterite: No pudo escaparse. — He/she couldn’t escape. (It could have happened, but it didn’t.)

Imperfect: No podía escaparse. — He/she couldn’t escape. (But may have escaped later. The conclusion isn’t certain.)

saber (found out or knew)

Preterite: Supe la verdad ayer. — I found out the truth yesterday.

Imperfect: Siempre sabía qué hacer. — I always knew what to do.

querer (wanted to, would like to)

Preterite: Quise hablar con José. — I wanted to talk to Jose. (But I failed, or couldn’t manage to do it.)

Imperfect: Quería hablar con el encargado. — I wanted to talk to the manger. (And may or may not have succeeded.)

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Conditional, subjunctive: Querría/Quisiera volar una cometa. — I would like to fly a kite.

deber (should, should have)

Conditional, imperfect: Deberías/Debías escucharme. — You should listen to me. (Both the conditional and imperfect tenses are used for the present tense to mean “should.”)

Preterite: Ella debió decírtelo antes. — She should have told you before.

3. Think About the Differences Between Spanish and English Modals

Modal verbs can’t always be translated directly from Spanish to English (and vice versa).

Here are some details for avoiding “first language interference,” in other words, applying principles from English to Spanish in a way that causes errors:

  • There’s no equivalent word in Spanish for “must.” To indicate the word “must” we have to use deber, haber que or tener que.
  • “Would,” a modal in English, is already suggested by the Spanish conditional verb tense.
  • “Want” is followed by “to + infinitive” in English, but querer is just followed by the plain infinitive in Spanish (not a + infinitivo).
  • Some Spanish modal verbs have more than one use, so their English translation varies.

You can take it from here. Can you think of any other differences to remember?

4. Play with Different Contexts for Using Spanish Modals

Flex your creativity by putting words in their most common context. Modal verbs are especially common for the following purposes. Try making positive, negative and question sentences using Spanish modal verbs for each category. (If you’re like me, you’ll use your least favorite class for inspiration.)

Desire: Querría ganar más dinero, pero no quisiera ser avaro. — I would like to earn more money, but I wouldn’t like to be greedy.

Ability: ¿Sabes cocinar paella? No, no pude aprenderlo porque estuve muy ocupado el verano pasado. — Do you know how to cook paella? No, I couldn’t learn how to cook it because I was very busy last summer.

Permission: No podemos hablar ni correr en la biblioteca. — We are not allowed to talk or run in the library.

Polite requests: ¿Podrías traerme una pluma? — Could you bring me a pen?

Suggestions: Deberías ver el Coliseo por lo menos una vez en tu vida. — You should see the Colosseum at least once in your life.

Offers and invitations: ¿Querrías viajar a Roma conmigo? — Would you like to travel to Rome with me?

Obligation and necessity: No dudo que debió hacer ejercicio todos los días para participar en los Juegos Olímpicos. — There is no doubt that he had to exercise every day to participate in the Olympics.

Possibility: Parece que podría llover mañana. — It seems it could rain tomorrow.

5. Have Fun Using Spanish Modals in New Situations

Once you’re fed up with writing devious sentences in your notebook, try them in jokes, in songs, in slang and most of all… in conversation!


Remember, don’t take Spanish modals (or life) too seriously.

And One More Thing…

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