1. There are only ten Modal Verbs.
2. Modal Verbs are easy to use.
3. Modal Verbs are very useful.
1. There are only ten Modal Verbs:
*will, *shall, *might, *may, must, can, could, would, *should, *ought to
2. Modal Verbs are easy to use. The rules are simple.
Modal verbs are always followed by a Base Infinitive (except when they are used for a short answer – Yes, I can. No, I shouldn’t. etc) For example:
|Infinitives with TO||Base Infinitives|
I should be more careful about what I eat.
I might go to the cinema this weekend.
John could make more money if he worked harder.
I would take a holiday if I needed one.
You must try a little harder if you want to impress me.
Will Maria ever learn all this grammar?
People can buy eggs laid by free-range chickens in most supermarkets.
To make a negative statement, simply put ‘not’ or ‘never’ after the Modal Verb.
|Modal verb||not, never||Base Infinitive|
|eat so much fast food.
go to the party.
surf like Mick Fanning!
be able to punch a shark like Mick Fanning did!
swim outside the flags. ≈≈≈
forget what I have told you!
3. Modal Verbs are very useful.
∗ Modals tell us about the speaker’s mood or opinions. (mood = modal)
(∗ The twelve tenses tell us about facts, or actions – now, in the past, or what we think will happen, in the future.)
Have a look at the photo above of a tight-rope walker and then at the following use of modals. See how they provide information about the speaker’s opinions and feelings, not facts or actions.
♦ He might have fallen! / He could have fallen!
♦ He must have been scared.
♦ He must be an idiot or a hero, or both!
♦ No-one should take such risks.
♦ His family would be furious if they knew.
♦ He will have an accident one day!
∗ None of the above sentences are about facts or real time. We don’t know that those things are actually happening, have happened or will happen.
Only the last sentence ∼ He will have an accident one day! ∼ uses one of the twelve tenses: Future Simple – will have. When you think about it, the future is not real, is it? We know the past happened, we have the present, but the future is about predictions, promises, spontaneous decisions, and schedules, all of which may or may not result in action or fact.
However, we all need a way to talk about the future and we know it’s not real yet. In English, we use WILL for future predictions, promises and spontaneous decisions.
∗ The following sentences provide information about real facts and describe actions by using some of the twelve tenses. Unlike with Modal Verbs, we have no idea how the speaker feels or what his/her opinion is. These are simply the facts.
♦ He didn’t fall.
♦ He wasn’t scared.
♦ He is never scared.
♦ He has often taken risks.
♦ He is always taking risks.
♦ His family don’t approve of his lifestyle.
♦ He loves his life.
Features of Modal Verbs
♥ They never change their form (spelling). How good is that!
NO subject + verb agreement. NO 3rd person ‘S’. NO ‘ed’. NO ‘ing’.
♥ They are always followed by a Base Infinitive. See above notes.
♥ They express the speaker’s opinion or feelings about:
|possibility||We might go the party.|
|obligation||I must not forget to renew my passport!
You must obey the speed limit.
|prohibition||You cannot smoke here.|
|necessity||While on holiday, they must take malaria pills every day.|
|ability||He’s only three but he can swim really well!|
He has been training for years for the Olympic Games. He must be determined.
You can‘t possibly be tired! You’ve just been on a month-long cruise! You would have had plenty of rest!
At work: Oh no! Where’s my lunch? It’s not in my bag. I prepared it last night. I must have left it at home! I could have left it on the kitchen bench or my husband might have taken it by mistake.
The Modal ‘must’ is quite interesting in that English students often think that ‘must’ is only used for prohibition and obligation. However, native speakers rarely say ‘ You must … ‘ Instead, we say ‘You need to … ‘ and ‘You should …’ For example, I don’t say to my students, “You must watch the news tonight, or, You must do your homework.” I say something like, ” You really need to do revision if you want to remember what you’ve learnt today. If you want to improve your listening skills, you should watch the news.”
The most common way we use the Modal Verb ‘must’ is for speculating: saying what we believe is or was or has been true, as in the examples above.
There is a song by ABBA which perfectly demonstrates how we use ‘must’ for speculation. The song, ‘The Day Before You Came’, is entirely about how the singer remembers her past. In particular, she thinks about how boring and predictable her life was before she met her lover. She knows that she followed the same routines every day, so she sings:
I must have left my house at eight because I always do.
I must have read the morning paper going into town (on the train).
I’m pretty sure it must have rained the day before you came.
She believes that she is reporting facts about her life. However, perhaps one day she fell asleep in the train and didn’t read the morning paper. Perhaps one day her watch was wrong and she left her house at five minutes past eight.
When we are reporting past facts, we use past Tenses which are real. Of course, we can’t remember every little detail about our pasts, so we say what we believe must have happened, or what would have happened, or what might have happened, or what could have happened. We use Modal Verbs!
Click on the video below to watch and listen to this very helpful song! I hope you enjoy it enough to listen a few times so that you will remember the structure:
Modal + have + past participle
For the song lyrics with the Modal Verbs of deduction highlighted: