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Modal Auxiliary Verbs (Types, Uses and Examples)

This post, Modal Auxiliary Verbs (Types, Uses And Examples), discusses modal auxiliary verbs as one of the main divisions of Types of Verbs. It identifies examples of modal auxiliary verbs and their various uses with examples.

Modal auxiliary verbs

In English, we use Modal auxiliary verbs to indicate the mood of the speaker. See examples of modal auxiliary verbs:

Non-Negative Non-contracted Negative Contracted Negative
Can Cannot / Can not Can’t
Could Could not Couldn’t
May/Might May not / Might not Mayn’t/Mightn’t
Shall/Should Shall not / Should not Shan’t/Shouldn’t
Will/Would Will not / Would not Won’t / Wouldn’t
Must Must not Mustn’t
Ought to Ought not to Oughtn’t to
Used to Used not to Didn’t use to
Need (to) Need not (to) Needn’t (to)
Dare Dare not Daren’t

Things to Note

  1. We refer to ‘Used to’, ‘Need’ and ‘Dare’ as quasi or marginal modal auxiliaries.
  2. Normally, we do not use ‘Mayn’t’; instead we use ‘mustn’t’.
  3. We usually accompany ‘Ought’ with ‘to-infinitive’. ‘Ought’ is not used without the addition of ‘to’.
  4. ‘Used’ always takes the ‘to-infinitive’ and occurs only in the past tense.
  5. We can use ‘Dare’ and ‘Need’ either as modal auxiliaries (with a bare infinitive and no inflected ‘s’ form) or as lexical verbs (with ‘to-infinitive’ and with inflected ‘s’ form).
  6. The modal verb construction is restricted to negative and interrogative sentences whereas the lexical (main) verbs construction can be used in positive constructions. Let us take some exemplifications:
Examples Modal Auxiliary Construction Lexical Verb Construction
Positive He needs to go home now.
Negative He needn’t go home now. He doesn’t need to go home now.
Interrogative Need he go home now? Does he need to go home now?
Negative Interrogative Needn’t he go home now? Doesn’t he need to go home now?

Uses of Modal Auxiliary Verbs

Modal auxiliaries have different uses that are explored below…

Can

This is used to express the following:

Ability

  • Sola can sew very well.
  • I can drive.
  • The lady can speak French.

Permission

  • Can I read in your office?
  • Can I go with you?
  • You can leave the room now.

Theoretical Possibility

  • Anybody can make mistakes.
  • The examination can be postponed.
  • The task can be done.
  • The equation can be solved.

Could

This is used to express to the following:

Past Ability

  • She could jump when she was younger
  • I could eat a lot when I was in America.

Present or Future Permission

  • Could I read in your office? (now or sometime in the future)
  • Could I have my documents signed?

Present Possibilities (theoretical or factual)

  • We could see the President.
  • The meeting could be postponed.

Polite Request

  • Could Mary go with them?
  • Could you be kind enough to lend me some money?

NOTE:

  • It is not in all cases that ‘could’ or ‘should’ is used to indicate past tense.
  • The ability can bring in the implication of willingness. Examples:

I can help you (I can help and I am also willing to help)




May

This can be used to express the following:

Permission

It means ‘be allowed to’. It is more formal than ‘can’.

  • You may stay here till tomorrow if you wish.
  • You may eat whatever you like.

Possibility

  • The meeting may be postponed.
  • We may sell the car.

Might

We use ‘Might’ to express the following:

Permission 

We rarely use this though.

  • Might I go with you?

Possibility

  • She might come here next week.
  • The money might be stolen if you leave it on the table.
  • It might rain this evening.

Shall

This is used at the following levels:

Expression of simple futurity

(intention of what one is likely to do; intention on the part of the speaker). In this context, ‘shall’ will go with the First Person (I/We), while ‘will’ will go with the Second and Third Persons. E. g.

  • I shall be there tomorrow.
  • We shall come to your party.
  • I shan’t stay too long.
  • We shall be victorious.

Willingness on the part of the speaker

(in the second and third person), for example:

  • You shall have the book. (Restricted use)
  • He shall do exactly as he wishes. (Restricted use)

Insistence (Restricted use)

  • You shall wash the plates.
  • You shall not go there even if it becomes dark.

Legal Injunction

  • The tenants shall take good care of the complex.
  • You shall not sublet the room.

Should

We use this for the following:

Expression of Obligation and Logical Necessity

(in this context, it connotes “Ought to”)

  • The students should have eaten by now.
  • The children ought to be sleeping by now.
  • We should obey the constitution of the country.

After certain expressions like ‘it is a pity’, ‘it is surprising’, ‘I am sorry’, etc.

  • It is a pity that you should experience such disappointment.
  • I am sorry that this should have happened to you.
  • It is surprising that he should leave so soon.

Contingent Use in the Main Clause/Expressing Condition

In this sense, it means ‘would’.

  • He would love to go abroad if he had the money.
  • I should inform you if the man comes.
  • I should travel if my father permits me.




Will

We use this to express the following:

Willingness

Here, we use this in a polite request, with or without the addition of ‘please’. For example:

  • She will train you if you ask her.
  • Will you have another plate of food?

Intention

  • We won’t come to your house.
  • I will go to the party tonight.

Specific Prediction

  • The match will be over by now.
  • The soldiers will be here soon.

Timeless Prediction (a prediction that holds for all time)

  • Oil will float on water.
  • The sun will continue to shine.

Habitual Prediction (something that happens always)

  • He will sleep for hours if he is not hungry.
  • Ants will find sugar jars if not properly sealed.

Would

This shows the following:

Willingness

  • Would you wash the clothes?
  • He would love to work in the bank.

Insistence

  • He would take nothing.
  • You would eat the cold food.

Characteristic activity in the past (characteristic ability)

  • Every morning, he would read newspapers.
  • The lazy student would come late to class.

Contingent use in the main clause of a conditional sentence

  • He would spend his earnings on betting if no one stopped him.
  • He would not go to school if he had his way.

Probability

  • That would be the teacher speaking.

Must

We use this to express:

Obligation or Compulsion in the Present Tense

(this means ‘be obliged to’, ‘have to’ or ‘have got to’. consider these examples:

  • You must come there tonight.
  • You must tell me the truth.
  • She must change her ways.
  • I must eat three times daily.

NOTE: In the Past Tense, we do not use ‘must’. Rather, we use ‘had to’. E. g.

  • Yesterday, you had to sleep on the couch.

In Reported Speech, one can have:

  • Yesterday, you said you must sleep on the couch.

Logical Necessity

  • There must be a policeman on duty.
  • There must be a solution.
  • It must be a mistake.
  • He must work hard to succeed.

NOTE: We do not use ‘Must’ in sentences with negative or interrogative meanings, instead, we use ‘can’. Examples:

  • There cannot be a solution.
  • There cannot be a policeman on duty.
  • Who can go on our behalf? (Someone must go on our behalf).




Ought to

We use this to express

Logical necessity or expectation

In this context, it is equivalent to ‘should’. See these examples:

  • You ought to do your homework.
  • She ought to attend the ceremony.
  • The criminals ought to be in jail by now.
  • The rains ought to have begun.

Used to

This usually expresses:

a habitual action in the past

Examples include:

  • He used to love singing as a child.
  • They used to travel abroad frequently.

NOTE: We should not confuse ‘Used to’ with ‘accustomed to’. E. g.

  • We are used to sleeping late at night.
  • I am used to watching the news every morning.

The above examples express habits that are not in the past. They are still sustained habits.

Dare

We use this to express:

Impossibility

Consider the following Examples:

  • Nobody dare insult his father.
  • You dare not spend that money.
  • The man dare not go to his office.

Need to

This is the equivalent of ‘ought to’. In the negative sense, it shows:

Absence of obligation

. E. g.

  • They need to see what he did to her.
  • You needn’t accept the offer.

As noted earlier, some scholars have described these auxiliaries: ‘ought to’, ‘need to’ and ‘dare’ as “quasi-auxiliaries”.

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