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  • Writer's pictureTom Garside

What is a modal verb?

Despite their name, modal verbs aren’t really verbs at all. They do form part of verb phrases, and are closely connected to verbs, but modals themselves do not communicate actions. They are the small additional words such as ‘can’, ‘will’, ‘may’, should’, etc. which work together with verbs to add functional meaning. So these important parts of speech are actually auxiliaries. Modals work in the same way as other auxiliaries such as ‘do’, ‘be’ and ‘have’, though they do not denote tense, as these three do. 

Unlike other auxiliaries, modals are always followed by infinitives, no matter what the subject of the sentence is, singular or plural:

I will go / you will go / he will go / she will go / we will go / they will go

So what are the functions of modals?

Modal auxiliaries work to show certain functions, such as ‘ability’, ‘permission’, ‘possibility’, ‘advice’, etc. by connecting to the verb which is connected to that function, for example:

She can swim really well (meaning she is able to swim (verb) really well - ability)

We might win the cup this year (meaning it is possible that we will win (verb) the cup - possibility)

He should get more sleep (meaning ‘I advise him to get more sleep (verb phrase)’ - advice)

Modal auxiliaries can communicate a wide range of functions, though the relationship between modal structures and the functions that they communicate is not simple. Many modal forms can communicate several functions, and one function can be communicated by several different modals, depending on how they are used.

Can we use modals to talk about the past or the future?

In addition to functional meaning, modals also have present, past and perfect forms, in order to communicate an aspect of time along with the function that they carry. We must remember, though, that the past and perfect versions of modals are only forms, which can relate to time, not tense. Only full verbs can carry tense, and some past forms of modals actually have present meanings, for example, focusing on the forms of the modal ‘can’, we can see that the past form of can (could) has past, present and future meanings:

Present form (can)

He can’t ride a bike (present ability)

It can get hot in the afternoons (present - general possibility)

Can you pass me the scissors (present, direct request)

Past form (could)

He couldn’t ride a bike until he was ten (past ability)

It could get hot this afternoon (future possibility)

We could go out to eat tonight (future suggestion)

Could you pass me those scissors, please? (Present, polite request)

Perfect form (could have)

We could have gone out to eat last night! (past possibility, hypothetical)

He could have worked harder (past ability, hypothetical)

Notice also that ‘can’ / ‘could’ in question forms can also be used to mark levels politeness in requests. This is a specific level of functionality within the general function of ‘request’, which shows how specific the functionality of modals can be.

Can you think of other sets of modals, in their present, past and perfect forms?

For this reason, when teaching modals, it is important to focus on with either one structure (one modal or set of modal forms) and work with the various functions that it can express, or work with one function, and teach the various modals associated with that function. Teaching more than one structure or function at a time gets very messy very quickly, as meanings overlap and functions look the same for different forms.

Modals and speaker-subjectivity

Most modal auxiliaries add meaning to main verbs in a way that is specific to the speaker, or seen subjectively by the speaker. In this way, modals can be difficult to teach in an objective, black-and-white way. After all, it is difficult to identify a ‘correct’ use of a modal without knowing how the speaker thinks or feels about the action they are describing with the modal. For example, a common task used to teach modals asks students to rank the possibility / probability modals according to the level of ‘certainty’ that the speaker feels about an event:

100% positive



Won’t 50% (unsure)



100% negative

However, when we think about how these modals are actually used by speakers, the differences in meaning are not so clear.

Think about the following sentences - what degree of probability / certainty does the speaker have in each case? Can you put a percentage value to this?

  1. I don’t think it will rain this weekend.

  2. He didn’t perform well last year, but this year he could actually win. 

  3. It might be a risk, but I think it’s worth giving it a try.

  4. I’m not sure he can finish this on time

As you can see, modality is often bound up with other phrases which also modify the strength of the modal auxiliaries themselves, often in collocations or other common chunks of language. For more examples of how modals can be part of bigger structures, think about how they are used in conditional sentences. The essence of modality is that the precise meaning of modals, beyond their overall function, depends on a range of contextual and personal factors which do not have consistent patterns of strength. It depends on the situation, the speaker and the reason for the modal being used, so as usual, be very careful when presenting modal auxiliaries out of the context of sentences, as this can mislead students greatly, especially at early levels of study.

Rather, after presenting modals individually, set up some sentence examples where students can discuss the precise meaning in each case, and see how that changes their perception of these forms. In this way, they are more likely to be able to pick them up and use them for their own purposes more flexibly.

However you work with modals in class, make sure that you work with them in context, and don’t overload students with too many forms presented at the same time. They are not intuitive forms, and being so subjective, it is important that students get plenty of practice applying modality to their own ideas rather than just examples from a textbook.

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