Modal Verbs of English

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English modal verbs

When we talk about the verb tenses in English,   we explain that we did not want to make a very dense post, because we did not want to burden you with a lot of theory. But little by little we have been telling you about other topics that are closely related to verb tenses, such as the post about Stative Verbs (Static Verbs).

Now, it’s time to talk about another topic that you have to control and that you will need for the verb tenses: MODAL VERBS or ‘Modal Verbs’.

What are ‘Modal Verbs’?

They are auxiliary verbs that express modality; These verbs have the particularity of modifying the meaning of a verb when it accompanies them. These are used in combination with other verbs to express different degrees of capacity, possibility, permission, need, obligation, prohibition, security … referring to the main verb.

But they are auxiliary verbs different from the already known TO BE, TO HAVE and TO DO, since these can be used as the main verb.

These verbs are used in the formation of futures, conditionals and pasts; As we mentioned before, they are accompanied by another verb that will always be in the infinitive form .

Modal Verbs have a peculiarity , and that is when they are formed in the third person singular, the typical -s is not added. They cannot be conjugated either by adding the ending -ing, or -ed.

Another peculiarity of these verbs is that they are not conjugated and have no verbal tempo.


How are ‘Modal verbs’ used?

– CAN –

MEANING: Indicates physical ability or mental ability to do something. It translates as power.

NEGATIVE FORM:   Cannot or Can’t.

USE: The modal verb Can can be used in the present, but not in the past or future .

  • Use to explain what you can do: She can come before six o’clock.  (Ella puede venir antes de las seis)
  • Use to talk about a possibility: These chair can be painted  (Esas sillas pueden ser pintadas)
  • To talk about something that is allowed: You can pay with a credit card (Usted pude pagar con tarjeta de crédito)
  • Use to place an order (be careful, if it is used in this way, it is for an informal environment, the correct thing is to use the modal verb MAY ):  Can you come here, please?  (¿Puedes venir aquí, por favor?)


MEANING: It  indicates physical ability or mental capacity to do something, but if we want to use the verb CAN in the past tense . Another meaning that it acquires is in its way of showing possibility (informal use, for a more formal language we would use the verbs MAY and MIGHT), translating as the conditional could.

NEGATIVE FORM: Could not, couldn’t


  • Conditional:You could pass the test if you studied  (No aprobarás el examen si no estudias)
  • Use of Past: I couldn’t sleep last night  (No pude dormir anoche)


This modal verb, MAY , is very closely linked to MIGHT , since they both have the same use and meaning, but MAY is used when there is a greater degree of certainty.

Both are used in very polite and courteous language, with the second form, MIGHT, being the highest degree of courtesy.

NEGATIVE FORM:  May not / Might not

USE: It is used for actions or situations embedded in the present or future. Also, to give permission for an action to be performed. One last use would be for those situations that are hypothetical.

  • Show Possibility: It May rain  (Quizás llueva)  /     The weatherman said it might rain   (El hombre del tiempo dijo que podría llover)
  • Request Information: May I speak? (¿Puedo hablar?)    /       I might visit on Saturday  (Tal vez haga una visita el Sábado)

– MUST –

MEANING: It expresses an obligation, prohibition, need, duty or condition that cannot be changed. We will use it when we want to indicate that we are very sure of the certainty of something and when expressing an opinion, to emphasize why it is necessary to do that. It could be translated as duty.



  • Indicate that you have to do something because it is a rule or because it is very important: You must pay your taxes (Debes pagar tus impuestos)
  • For the prohibitions: You mustn’t steal (No debes robar)
  • Rhetorical questions: Must you always be late? (¿Siempre tienes que llegar tarde?)
  • To talk about something that is very logical or that we are sure will happen: They must be really rich to live in such a house (Deben ser muy ricos si viven en semejante casa).


MEANING: It also expresses an obligation or recommendation, but a type of obligation that can be dispensed with is not as strict as Must. It could be considered as a suggestion.

NEGATIVE FORM: Should not / Shouldn’t


  • To say the right thing: You should be helping your mother (Deberías estar ayudando a tu madre)
  • Give advice:You should try the new restaurant  (Deberías probar el nuevo restaurante )
  • To express an obligation: We should invite mom and dad to dinner tonight (Deberíamos invitar a mamá y a papá a cenar esta noche)

– WILL –

NEGATIVE FORM: Will not, won’t


  • To talk about the future:I hope he will pass his exams (Espero que apruebes tus exámenes)
  • Give promises: I won’t do that again, I promise (No volveré a hacer eso, lo prometo)
  • To request information or a favor: Will you help me move? (¿Me ayudarás a mudarme?)


NEGATIVE FORM: Would not / wouldn’t


  • In the form of Will’s past in an indirect speech: He said he wouldn’t be late  (Él dijo que no llegaría tarde)
  • To talk about an imaginary situation: What would you do if you were a millionaire?   (¿Qué harías si fueses millonario?)
  • To order politely: Would you get me the paper, please?  (¿Me comprarías el periódico, por favor?)
  • To invite someone in a polite way: Would you like a drink?  (¿Te gustaría tomar algo?)

To express that you want something, or do something: I would like a cup of coffee, please  (Me gustaría una taza de café por favor)  / We’d rather study with you  (Preferiríamos estudiar contigo)


It is used mostly with I  and WE  (but this is more so with British English), although it is not unusual to find it in other ways.

NEGATIVE FORM: Shall not / Shan’t


  • To talk about the future: I shall leave tomorrow morning (Me iré mañana por la mañana)
  • For questions or suggestions: Shall I close the door?  (¿Cierro la puerta?)
  • To make suggestions: Shall we go to cinema?  (¿Vamos al cine?)


It stands for SHOULD . In American English, it is never used interrogatively.

NEGATIVE FORM: Ought not to


  • To say what is right: I believe you ought to apologize  (Creo que deberías pedir perdón)
  • To express an opinion:   They ought to work less. (Deberían trabajar menos.)

And so far, all the modal verbs that are used in English . We know that right now you will have to have a head like a hype, because almost all (if not all), will seem the same to you. Do not worry, because in another post we are going to help you clarify all the doubts that may arise, but first we wanted to leave you the part of theory that you should know.

And if you are doing this review of verbs because you want to obtain an official English title, here are the next calls.

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