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Modal verbs (Can, Could, May, Might, Must, Should)
Transcript of Modal verbs (Can, Could, May, Might, Must, Should)
Modal verbs (can, could, must, should, ought to, may, might, will, would, shall) are modal auxiliary verbs that express ability, necessity, obligation, duty, request, permission, advice, desire, probability, possibility, etc. Modal verbs express the speaker's attitude to the action indicated by the main verb.
A modal auxiliary verb gives much information about the function of the main verb that it governs. Modals have a wide variety of communicative functions, but these functions can generally be related to a scale ranging from possibility ("may") to necessity ("must"), in terms of one of the following types of modality:
"Can" is one of the most commonly used modal verbs in English. It can be used to express ability or opportunity, to request or offer permission, and to show possibility or impossibility.
Use of Can
Possibility and Ability
"Might" is most commonly used to express possibility. It is also often used in conditional sentences. English speakers can also use "might" to make suggestions or requests, although this is less common in American English.
Modal verbs are also called modal auxiliaries or modals. Modal verbs are sometimes called defective verbs, because they do not have all the functions of main verbs. They can't be used without a main verb, can't form gerunds or participles, and do not have any endings to show person, number, or tense.
Modal verbs (Can, Could, May, Might, Must, Should)
- She can drive. (ability)
- I must go. (strong necessity)
- You should call me. (advice)
- Could you help me with this report, please? (request)
- You may stay here. (permission)
- He must be at the tennis club. (strong probability)
- He might leave soon. (possibility)
Modal verbs form questions without the help of the other auxiliary verbs.
Can you do it?
May I take it?
Should I go there?
Modal verbs also have quite a few peculiarities in the formation of tenses.
epistemic modality, concerned with the theoretical possibility of propositions being true or not true (including likelihood and certainty)
deontic modality, concerned with possibility and necessity in terms of freedom to act (including permission and duty)
dynamic modality, which may be distinguished from deontic modality, in that with dynamic modality, the conditioning factors are internal – the subject's own ability or willingness to act.
The following sentences illustrate epistemic and deontic uses of the English modal verb must:
epistemic: You must be starving. ("It is necessarily the case that you are starving.")
deontic: You must leave now. ("You are required to leave now.")
I can speak five languages. (ability)
We can stay with my brother when we are in Paris. (opportunity)
She cannot stay out after 10 PM. (permission)
Can you hand me the stapler? (request)
Any child can grow up to be president. (possibility)
We use can to talk about what is possible, what we are able or free to do:
- Tanea can sing very well.
- Can you help me with a project?
Normally, we use can for the present. But it is possible to use can when we make present decisions about future ability.
- Can you help me with my homework? (present)
- Sorry. I'm busy today. But I can help you tomorrow. (future)
Can: Requests and Orders
We often use can in a question to ask somebody to do something. This is not a real question - we do not really want to know if the person is able to do something, we want them to do it! The use of can in this way is informal (mainly between friends and family):
Can you make a cup of coffee, please.
Can you put the TV on.
Can you come here a minute.
Can you be quiet!
We sometimes use can to ask or give permission for something:
Can I smoke in this room?
You can't smoke here, but you can smoke in the garden.
(Note that we also use could, may, might for permission. The use of can for permission is informal.)
Could is an auxiliary verb, a modal auxiliary verb. We use could to:
- talk about past possibility or ability
- make requests
- Could you pass me salt please?
- She could swim
- They couldn't find the hall
- Could you speak clearly?
Could is invariable. There is only one form of could.
The main verb is always the bare infinitive.
The use of Could
Could: Past Possibility or Ability
We use could to talk about what was possible in the past, what we were able or free to do:
I could swim when I was 5 years old.
My grandmother could speak seven languages.
When we arrived home, we could not open the door. (...couldn't open the door.)
Could you understand what he was saying?
We use could (positive) and couldn't (negative) for general ability in the past. But when we talk about one special occasion in the past, we use be able to (positive) and couldn't (negative).
- My grandmother could speak Spanish. (general)
- A man fell into the river yesterday. The police were able to save him. (specific occasion)
We often use could in a question to ask somebody to do something. The use of could in this way is fairly polite (formal):
Could you tell me where the bank is, please?
Could you send me a catalogue, please?
- Your purse might be in the living room. (possibility)
- If I didn't have to work, I might go with you. (conditional)
- You might visit the botanical gardens during your visit. (suggestion)
- Might I borrow your pen? (request)
Might - The use
- used as the past tense of may when reporting what somebody has said:
He said he might come tomorrow.
- used when showing that something is or was possible:
He might get there in time, but I can't be sure.
I know Vicky doesn't like the job, but I mightn't find it too bad.
- used to make a polite suggestion:
You might try calling the help desk.
- used to ask permission politely (only British English):
Might I use your phone?
- used to ask for information (formal):
How might the plans be improved upon?
- used to show that you are annoyed about something that somebody could do or could have done:
I think you might at least offer to help!
- used to say that you are not surprised by something:
I might have guessed it was you!
- used to emphasize that an important point has been made:
'And where is the money coming from?’ ‘You might well ask!’
"May" is most commonly used to express possibility. It can also be used to give or request permission, although this usage is becoming less common.
- Cheryl may be at home, or perhaps at work. (possibility)
- Johnny, you may leave the table when you have finished your dinner. (give a permission)
- May I use your bathroom? (request permission)
The use of modal verb May
The verb may only exists in the simple present, and past forms The simple past form of may is might .
- The modal may is used to imply potentiality (limited possibility) or authority to do something. Using the modal may is frequently the same as qualifying a statement with the word perhaps.
- We may (perhaps) go to England next year, if we have enough money.
- The policeman said "You may go now".
Note that a synonym of perhaps is maybe.... which is of course composed of the words may and be.
- Used in the present perfect form (may + have + past participle), may is also used to express possibility that occurred (something that perhaps occurred) in a relative past , i.e. in past time with relation to the present or to some other moment.
- I may have left my mobile phone on the train.
- It's five o'clock; they may have finished by now.
- May (or might) can also express irrelevance in spite of certain or likely truth: He may be taller than I am, but he is certainly not stronger could mean "While it is (or may be) true that he is taller than I am, that does not make a difference, as he is certainly not stronger."
- May can indicate presently given permission for present or future actions: You may go now. Might used in this way is milder: You might go now if you feel like it. Similarly May I use your phone? is a request for permission (might would be more hesitant or polite).
- A less common use of may is to express wishes, as in May you live long and happy or May the Force be with you.
"Must" is most commonly used to express certainty. It can also be used to express necessity or strong recommendation, although native speakers prefer the more flexible form "have to." "Must not" can be used to prohibit actions, but this sounds very severe; speakers prefer to use softer modal verbs such as "should not" or "ought not" to dissuade rather than prohibit.
- This must be the right address! (certainty)
- Students must pass an entrance examination to study at this school. (necessity)
- You must take some medicine for that cough. (strong recommendation)
- Jenny, you must not play in the street! (prohibition)
Use of modal verb Must
- In general, must expresses personal obligation. Must expresses what the speaker thinks is necessary. Must is subjective:
Examples: I must stop smoking.
You must visit us soon.
- In each of the above cases, the "obligation" is the opinion or idea of the person speaking. In fact, it is not a real obligation. It is not imposed from outside:
- We can use must to talk about the present or the future:
Examples: I must go now. (present)
I must call my mother tomorrow. (future)
It is sometimes possible to use must for real obligation, for example a rule or a law. But generally we use have to for this.
Must not, mustn't (prohibition)
We use must not to say that something is not permitted or allowed, for example:
Passengers must not talk to the driver.
The Use of Must not:
- Must not expresses prohibition - something that is not permitted, not allowed. The prohibition can be subjective (the speaker's opinion) or objective (a real law or rule). Look at these examples:
I mustn't eat so much sugar. (subjective)
Students must not leave bicycles here. (objective)
We can use must not to talk about the present or the future:
- Visitors must not smoke. (present)
- I mustn't forget Tara's birthday. (future)
We cannot use must not to talk about the past. We use other structures to talk about the past, for example:
We were not allowed to enter.
I couldn't park outside the shop.
Should is an auxiliary verb, a modal auxiliary verb. We use should mainly to:
- give advice or make recommendations
- talk about obligation
- talk about probability and expectation
- express the conditional mood
- replace a subjunctive structure
The use of Modal verb Should (giving advice, opinions)
- We often use should when offering advice or opinions (similar to ought to)
You should see the new James Bond movie. It's great!
You should try to lose weight.
John should get a haircut.
Should (obligation, duty and correctness)
Another use of should (also similar to ought to) is to indicate a kind of obligation, duty or correctness, often when criticizing another person:
- You should be wearing your seat belt. (obligation)
- I should be at work now. (duty)
- You shouldn't have said that to her. (correctness)
Should for probability and expectation:
We use should to indicate that we think something is probable (we expect it to happen):
- Are you ready? The train should be here soon.
- Let's call Mary. She should have finished work by now.
We sometimes use should (instead of would) for the first person singular (I) and first person plural (we) of some conditionals:
-If I lost my job I should have no money. (If he lost his job he would have no money.)
"If I were, I should..."
We often use the conditional structure "If I were you I should..." to give advice.
- If I were you, I should complain to the manager.
- If I were you I shouldn't worry about it.
- I shouldn't say anything if I were you.
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