English modal verb

English modal verb
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English grammar
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In the English language, a modal verb is a type of auxiliary verb. The key way to identify a modal verb is by its defectiveness (they have neither participles nor infinitives). In addition, modal verbs do not take the inflection -s or -es in the third person singular, unlike other verbs.

The modal verbs in English are as follows, paired as present and preterite forms.

  • shall and should
  • will and would
  • may and might
  • can and could
  • mote (Archaic) and must

Note that use of the preterite forms does not necessarily refer to past time.

The following have also been categorized by some as modal verbs:[1]:p. 33;[2]

  • ought (to)
  • had better
  • dare
  • need

Note that dare and need are much more commonly used as non-modal verbs, taking -s in the third person singular and having an infinitive and past and present participles. Further, some authors[3]:pp.3,8 do not mention had better and explicitly reject ought (to) on the grounds that the main verb infinitive is required to include the particle to.

The following are not modal verbs although they have some similar characteristics:

  • used to
  • do
  • be going to
  • have to



If a verb is preceded by multiple auxiliary verbs including a modal, as in "it could have been eaten," the modal will always appear before the other auxiliary verbs. A verb or auxiliary verb following a modal always appears in its basic form (for example, "could have gone" instead of "could had gone" or "could has gone", and "He could walk" rather than "he could walks").

Replacement for defective forms

Replacements for defective modals
Modal Equivalent
can be able to
must have to
will, shall (future) be going to
should, ought to be supposed to

All English modal auxiliaries are defective in that they cannot be conjugated throughout the full range of forms that are normal for a verb. For example, none of the modal auxiliaries have infinitives; hence it is impossible to say e.g. "*I want to can speak French". In these circumstances, alternative expressions are used to replace the modal, e.g. "I want to be able to speak French."

Reduction of pronunciation

In fast speech, a minor word following a modal is often pronounced in a diminished way: for example, "oughtta" /ɔːtǝ/ for "ought to", "shoulda" /ʃʊdǝ/ for "should have", "coulda" /kʊdǝ/ for "could have", "musta" /mʌstǝ/ for "must have", etc.

Types of usage of some preterite forms

Past time use

Some preterite forms may be used when referring to situations seen from the perspective of an earlier time. For example, would is originally the past tense of will, and it can still be used in that sense. The statement "People think that we will all be driving hovercars by the year 2000", spoken in the 1960s, can be represented after 2000 by replacing the verbs in italics by the appropriate preterite forms: "In the 1960s, people thought we would all be driving hovercars by the year 2000." Likewise, "I can do that" may become "I could do that when I was younger, but not anymore."

Conditional use

The preterite forms can also be used in the apodosis (the then clause) in the conditional mood, such as in counterfactual conditionals: "If you bought a bus pass, you could catch as many buses as you liked without worrying about the cost of the fares." "If he were more polite, he might / would be better liked." In each of these cases, the "if" clause has present time reference despite the past subjunctive form of its verb, indicating something contrary to fact, and the main clause has present / future time reference. The time reference of the conditional can be shifted back to the past using the modal + "have" construction, in which case the if clause takes the pluperfect subjunctive: "If they had wanted to do it, they would have done it by now."

There is not always an explicit protasis ("if" clause) in this use: "Someone who likes red and hates yellow would probably prefer strawberries to bananas" means the same as "If someone who liked red and hated yellow were offered a choice of fruit, he or she would probably prefer strawberries to bananas." Similarly, "I could help you with your work" gives a more tentative sense of ability to help than, say, "I can help you with your work" would; the implied protasis could, depending on the context, be along the lines of "if I wanted to help" or "if you wanted me to help".

Subjunctive use

The preterite forms would and could can be used as subjunctive forms of will and can respectively, appearing in counterfactual dependent clauses. For example, the indicative will as in He will come tomorrow is replaced by the subjunctive form would as in I wish that he would come tomorrow. Likewise, the indicative can as in He can do it now is replaced by the subjunctive form could as in I wish that he could do it now.

The preterite form should can be used as the subjunctive form of shall in the context of doubtful conditional statements about the future. For example, the indicative shall in I shall go there is replaced by the subjunctive form in If I should go there, ...."

Usage of specific modal verbs

Shall and will

Shall is used in many of the same senses as will, though not all dialects use shall. In prescriptive English usage, shall in the first person, singular or plural, indicates mere futurity, but in other persons shows an order, command or prophecy: "Cinderella, you shall go to the ball!" Likewise, will generally indicates futurity in the second and third persons but willingness/determination in the first person.

In dialects that seldom use shall, will has a number of different uses[4]:pp.86-97;[5]:pp. 21, 47-48:

  • It can express aspect alone, without implying futurity: In "He will make mistakes, won't he?", the reference is to a tendency in the past, present, and future and as such expresses habitual aspect.
  • It can express probability in the present time, as in "That will be John at the door", or obligation, as in "You will do it right now".
  • It can express both intention and futurity, as in "I will do it."
  • It can express futurity: "The sun will die in a few billion years."

Shall is also used in legal and engineering language to write firm laws and specifications as in these examples: "Those convicted of violating this law shall be imprisoned for a term of not less than three years nor more than seven years," and "The electronics assembly shall be able to operate within its specifications over a temperature range of 0 degrees Celsius to 70 degrees Celsius." In both cases, in accordance with prescriptive usage, shall is used in the third person to express determination on the part of the speaker.

The time reference of a shall or will statement can be shifted from the future to a time prior to a specified time in the future by using shall / will + have + past participle of main verb, as in Tomorrow at 5:00 I will have already arrived.


Should is commonly used, even in dialects where shall is not. The negation is "should not" (or the contraction "shouldn't").

Should can describe an ideal behaviour or occurrence and imparts a normative meaning to the sentence; for example, "You should never lie" means roughly, "If you always behaved perfectly, you would never lie", so obligation. The sentence "If this works, you should not feel a thing" means roughly, "I hope this will work. If it does, you will not feel a thing", so probability is being expressed. In dialects that use shall commonly, however, this restriction does not apply; for example, a speaker of such a dialect might say, "If I failed that test, I think I should cry," meaning the same thing as, "If I failed that test, I think I would cry"; here the use of should is for conditionality.

In some dialects, it is common to replace the subjunctive mood with the modal auxiliary should: "It is important that the law should be passed" (where other dialects would say, "It is important that the law be passed"); likewise "If it should happen, we are prepared for it" or "Should it happen, we are prepared for it" (where early Modern English would say, "If it happen, we are prepared for it," and many dialects of today would say "If it happens, we are prepared for it" or would use the subjunctive "If it were to happen, we would be prepared for it.").

The time reference of a should statement can be shifted from the present or future to the past by using should + have + past participle of main verb, as in "I should have done that yesterday" (duty) or, less commonly, "It should have happened by yesterday" (high likelihood).


The contracted form of would is 'd as in "I'd go if I could". The negation is either would not or wouldn't.

As indicated above, would can be used for the conditional mood in main clauses having a counterfactual meaning: "I would go if I could (but I can't)".

Would can be used in some forms that are viewed as more formal or polite: for example, "I would like a glass of water" compared with "I want a glass of water"; and "Would you get me a glass of water?" compared with the bare "Get me a glass of water."

It is also used to make a hypothetical statement about a doubtful future situation even if it is not known to be counterfactual: "If we went to Keri Keri for Easter, that would be nice.

The time reference of a counterfactional conditional can be shifted from the present / future to the past by using the would + have + past participle construction, as in "I would have done it yesterday if I had seen the opportunity". This construction is known as the conditional perfect.

Would can also be used for the imperfective aspect in past time. In the sentence "Back then, I would eat early and would walk to school...." "would" signifies not the conditional mood, but rather, repeated past actions in the imperfective aspect (specifically, habitual aspect)[6][7] and one must use care when translating to other languages.

Furthermore, would can be used to shift the time of perspective of a future event from the present to the past: "In 1982 I knew that in 1986 I would graduate from college."

The meaning of the negated "would" form depends on the particular usage of "would". In its conditional usage, the main verb is negated: "I would not go even if I could" means "I would not-go..." = "I would refrain from going...." However, in the future-of-the-past form, "In 1982 I knew that I would not graduate in 1986" means "...I not-would graduate..." = "...It is not that I would graduate...." Likewise, in the past habitual form, "Back then I would not eat early" does not mean "...I would not-eat early" = "...I would fast early" but rather means "...I not-would eat early" = "...it is not that I would eat early...." In the latter two examples either the modal or the entire verb phrase is being negated.

May and might

May and might do not have common negative contractions (equivalents to shan't, won't, can't, couldn't etc.), although mightn't can occur in asking questions. ("Mightn't I come in if I took my muddy boots off?" as a reply to "Don't come in here! You'll get the floor dirty!")

Both forms can be used to express a present time possibility or uncertainty ("That may be."). Might and could can also be used in this sense with no past time meaning, although may conveys less hesitance (a somewhat higher probability) than do might and could.

When used in the perfect aspect, "may have" is used to indicate a lack of knowledge about events in the past, and "might have" is used for possibilities that did not occur but could have in other circumstances, in a similar way to other conditional statements.

  • "She may have eaten cake, if it was there." (Possibly it was there, and possibly she ate it.)
  • "She might have eaten cake, if it hadn't been gone". (But it was gone; her eating cake in the past was contingent on the untrue circumstance of its not being gone.)

May is also used to express irrelevance in spite of certain or likely truth: "He may be taller than I am, but he is certainly not stronger" may mean roughly, "While it is true that he is taller than I am, that does not make a difference, as he is certainly not stronger." (However, it may also mean, "I am not sure whether he is taller than I am, but I am sure that he is not stronger.") This is the meaning in the phrase "Be that as it may." Might can be used in this sense as well.

May or might can be used in the first person to express that future actions are being considered. "I may/might go to the mall later" means that the speaker is thinking about going to the mall; as such it means the same thing as maybe will.

May and might can indicate presently given permission and presently given mild permission, respectively, for present or future actions: "You may go now", "You might go now if you feel like it." May or might can be used in a question to ask for permission. One who is saying "May I use your phone?” is asking for permission to use the phone of the person being spoken to. "Can" or "could" can be used instead, although formal American English prefers "may". In both cases the preterite form is viewed as more hesitant or polite.

For the sense of permission (as opposed to possibility), there is no past form for may: "He may have done it" unambiguously means "Maybe he did it", and not "He had permission to do it". However, "He might have done it" could be interpreted as either "There is a slight possibility that he did it" or "It would have been okay for him to do it".

The meaning of the negated "may" or "might" form depends on the usage of the modal. When possibility is indicated, the main verb is negated: "That may/might not be" means "That may/might not-be" = "That may fail to be true." But when permission is being expressed, the modal or the entire verb phrase is negated: "You may not go now" does not mean "You may not-go now" = "You may stay now", but rather means "You not-may go now" = "You are forbidden to go now." Sometimes, though, the main verb is negated by putting stress on both "not" and the main verb: "You may go or not go, whichever you wish."

Can and could

The negation of can is the single word "cannot", occasionally written as two words "can not"[8] or the contraction "can't". The negation of could is "could not", or "couldn't".

Can is used to express ability. "I can speak English" means "I am able to speak English", or "I know how to speak English". The past form for this meaning is as in "Twenty years ago I could speak [was able to speak] English".

Can or could is also used to express that some state of affairs is presently possible, without referring to the ability of a person to do something: "There can be a very strong rivalry between siblings" can have the same meaning as "There is sometimes a very strong rivalry between siblings"; and "That can happen" is similar in meaning to "That could happen" except that using could rather than can expresses more doubt.

Cannot and can't can be used to express beliefs about situations: "That can't be true" expresses strong disbelief"; but in the affirmative with doubt, could must be used, as in "That could be true".

Both can and could can be used to make requests: "Can you pass me the cheese?" means "Please pass me the cheese". Could can be used in the same way but indicates greater politeness.

Informally, can is frequently used to mean may in the sense of permission: "You can go now."

The form could can indicate either ability in the past (= was able to) ("I could swim when I was five years old"), permission in the past (= was permitted to) ("My mother said that I could go swimming"), possibility in the present (=maybe) ("It could be raining now"), or conditional ability in the present (= would be able to) ("I could do it if you would let me").

The past counterpart of the use of could to mean present conditional ability ("I could pass that test now (if I were to take it now)") is the use of could + have + past participle, as in "I could have passed that test yesterday (if I had taken it yesterday)".

The negative forms virtually always negate the modal or entire verb phrase, and never just the main verb: "I cannot speak English" = "I am not able to speak English"; "You cannot go now" = "You are not allowed to go now"; "He could not do that" implying either permission or ability means "He was not allowed/able to do that." Rarely, the main verb is negated by putting stress on "not" and the main verb: "I could not do that, but I'm going to do it anyway."

Can is only used in a few situations in the perfect aspect:

  • With negative polarity: "She can't have finished yet." (The speaker believes that she has not finished.)


Must has no corresponding preterite form. The negative form when the meaning is obligation is "must not" or "mustn't", and the negative form when the meaning is near-certainty is "must not". An archaic variant is the word mote, as used in the expression "so mote it be".

Must and have to are used to express that something is obligatory ("He must leave"; "He has to leave"). Must can be used to express a prohibition such as "You must not smoke in here", or a resolution such as "I mustn't make that mistake again".

There is a distinction between "must" and "have to" in the negative forms: "must not" negates the main verb, while "do not have to" negates "have to". In the sentence "You must not go" = "You must not-go", it is being expressed that it is obligatory for the person being spoken to not go; whereas in the sentence "You do not have to go" it is being expressed that it is not obligatory for the person to go.

Must and have to can also be used to express strongly held beliefs (the epistemic rather than deontic use), such as in "It must be here somewhere" or "It has to be here somewhere", with the same meaning as "I believe that it's very likely that it is here somewhere."

There is a past form for the sense of high probability ("He must have done that" = "He very probably did that"), but there is no past tense form for the sense of obligation ("He must have done that" cannot be understood as "He had to do that" = "He was required to do that").

Ought to and had better

Ought to and had better are used to express an ideal behavior or occurrence or suggested obligation, in a similar way to should. The negations are, respectively, ought not to (or rarely, oughtn't to) and had better not. The "had" in "had better" can be contracted, such as "You'd better shut up." In informal American usage, the had in had better is sometimes omitted. The negative forms negate the main verb: "You ought not to do that" = "You ought to refrain from doing that"; "You'd better not do that" = "You'd better refrain from doing that."

In addition, ought to, like should, can be used to express relatively high probability, as in "It ought to rain today."

The time reference of an ought to statement can be shifted from the present or future to the past by using ought to + have + past participle of main verb, as in "I ought to have done that yesterday" (duty) or, less commonly, "It ought to have happened by yesterday" (high likelihood).

Dare and need

Dare and need are not commonly used as auxiliaries nowadays, but formerly they both were. Neither is used in affirmative declarative sentences. An example in an exclamation is "How dare he!", expressing willingness in the face of fear or contrary obligation. The interrogative form "Dare he do it?" or "Need he do it?" is equivalent to the non-auxiliary form "Does he dare to do it?" or "Does he need to do it?"; need, of course, expresses necessity. In a negative context "He dare not do it" is equivalent to "He does not dare to do it", while "He need not do it" is equivalent to "He does not need to do it". In both cases it is the modal or entire verb phrase, rather than the main verb, that is being negated.

However, in the sentence "He does not dare to lose weight" or "He needs to lose weight," dare or need is not being used as an auxiliary, as (1) it takes the full infinitive "to lose" as the head of the verb phrase rather than the bare infinitive "lose" that occurs in a sentence like "He can lose weight", (2) it is conjugated in the third person singular, and (3) it can take the auxiliary "does".

In its use as a modal auxiliary in the negative, need has a form using "have" that shifts the time reference to the past ("he need not have done that"); alternatively, the non-modal form can be substituted, as in "He needed to not do that". However, the modal "dare" cannot be given a past time meaning using "have" (one cannot say "He dare not have done that"); instead, the non-modal form must be substituted, as in "He did not dare to do that").

Words with a similar function to the modal verbs

Used to

Used to is used to express past states or past actions that were habitual but which are no longer. For example, "I used to go to college" suggests that the speaker no longer goes to college. Constructions negating the main verb exist in expressions such as "She used to not like me", or if the speaker is trying to avoid the split infinitive, "She used not to like me".

In Standard American English, although not the most formal style, used to can follow did not (or didn't), as in "She didn't use to like me". Here it is the entire verb form "used to like" that is being negated, to mean "It's not that she used to like me."


As an auxiliary, do is essentially a "dummy"; that is, it does not generally affect the meaning. It is used to form questions and negations when no other auxiliary is present: "Do you want to do it?", "I do not (don't) want to do it." This particular use of do, known as do-support, is attested from around 1400.

It is also sometimes used for emphasis: "I do understand your concern, but I do not think that will happen." Also, do sometimes acts as a pro-verb: "I enjoy it, I really do [enjoy it], but I am not good at it." (Other auxiliaries do this as well: "I can do it, I really can [do it], it just takes me longer"; but it bears particular note that in the case of do, it is often used as a pro-verb when it would be absent if the verb were present.) Because it does not affect the meaning of its verb as regards the attitude of the speaker toward the action, it is not a modal auxiliary. In a sense, it indicates the lack of a modal auxiliary. (Do is also different in that it has a distinct third-person singular form, does, and in that its past tense, did, is used exactly as a past tense, not as a more general remote form).

Going to

Am/is/are/was/were going to is used in some of the same situations as is will: specifically, to indicate imminent futurity ("It's going to rain"), distant futurity ("The sun is going to die eventually"), intention ("I was going to do that, but I forgot"), or a combination of futurity and intentionality ("I'm going to do it tomorrow"). It always implies prospective aspect, combining the present (or past when used with was/were) focus in the main verb am/is/are/was/were going with the futurity of the second verb. Thus, for example, "It's going to rain" combines a present viewpoint of the situation with a description of the future. This feature is analogous to the retrospective aspect of the English present perfect have/has + VERB + -ed, in which past action is presented from the viewpoint of the present.

Am/is/are/was/were going to is not a modal because (1) it has an infinitive form to go, and (2) it requires a helping verb, which conjugates by person/number.

Have to

Have to is used in a similar way to must, as discussed above, except that have to is used either with an impersonal necessity (such as in "It has to be cloudy for it to rain") or a personal obligation ("I have to go to the dentist") while must is used primarily with personal obligations ("I must go to the dentist"). Have to can be used for an ongoing obligation, such as "he has to be careful". Have to is not a modal verb because (1) it has an infinitive form (to have [to]), and (2) it conjugates in the third person singular ("He has to do it").

Double modal

In standard English usage, it is considered incorrect to use more than one modal verb consecutively, as modals are followed by an infinitive, which they themselves lack. They can only be combined with non-modal constructions that have a modal function, such as have to, which in spite of its function is not a modal verb. Thus, might have to is acceptable, but might must is not, even though must and have to can normally be used interchangeably.

A greater variety of double modals appears in some regional dialects. In Southern American English, for example, phrases such as might could or ought to should are sometimes used in conversation.[9][10] The double modal may sometimes be redundant, as in "I ought to should do something about it", where ought to and should are synonymous and either one could be removed from the sentence. In other double modals, the two modal verbs convey different meanings, such as "I might could do something about it tomorrow", where could indicates the ability to do something and might shows uncertaintly about that ability.

These kinds of double modal phrases are not regarded as standard,[9] although a combination of a modal with a modal-like construction may be used instead. "I might could do something about it" is more often expressed as "I might be able to do something about it", which is considered more standard. Similarly used to could, which appears for example in country singer Bill Carlisle's 1951 song "Too Old to Cut the Mustard":

I used to could jump just like a deer,
But now I need a new landing gear.
I used to could jump a picket fence,
But now I'm lucky if I jump an inch.[11]

is usually expressed as used to be able to. Double modals can also be avoided by replacing one of the modal verbs with an appropriate adverb, such as using probably could or might possibly in place of might could.[10]

Double modals also occur in the closely related Germanic language Scots.

Comparison with other Germanic languages

Many English modals have cognates in German albeit with different meanings in some cases (must = müssen, can = können, should = sollen). The same is true of modern Dutch (may = mogen, must = moeten, can = kunnen, should = zouden) and Danish (may = måtte, must = måtte, can = kunne, will = ville, shall = skal). One of the most interesting questions is why the modals can be used with the auxiliary werden in German to form a future tense, and why the infinitives exist in modern German, Dutch and Danish but not in Modern English.

See also

Tense–aspect–mood#Invariant auxiliaries


  1. ^ Palmer, F. R., Mood and Modality, Cambridge Univ. Press, second edition, 2001.
  2. ^ Palmer, F. R., A Linguistic Study of the English Verb, Longmans, 1965.
  3. ^ Warner, Anthony R., English Auxiliaries, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993
  4. ^ Fleischman, Suzanne, The Future in Thought and Action, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1982.
  5. ^ Comrie, Bernard, Tense, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985.
  6. ^ "UltraLingua Online Dictionary & Grammar, "Conditional tense"". http://ultralingua.com/onlinedictionary/references/spanish/conditional.htm. 
  7. ^ Spanish Conditional. StudySpanish.com
  8. ^ Dictionary.com
  9. ^ a b Kenneth G. Wilson, "Double Modal Auxiliaries", The Columbia Guide to Standard American English, 1993.
  10. ^ a b David Rubin, "might could (double modal)", The Mavens' Word of the Day, Random House, November 20, 2000.
  11. ^ The Carlisles, "Too Old To Cut The Mustard", 1951 single. Lyrics by Bill Carlisle reproduced here under fair use policy.

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