Free English Lessons

English Modal Verbs Introduction – Video

by Oli Redman on 27 January, 2015 , No comments

What are modal verbs, and how are they different to normal verbs? More importantly, why do you need to know about modal verbs? Find answers to these questions in this free video lesson about English modal verbs.

1. What Are Modal Verbs?

Modal verbs add meaning to another verb. They follow different grammar rules to other, ‘normal’ verbs.

There are nine basic modal verbs in English; do you know them?

They are: can, could, may, might, will, would, shall, should and must.

There are other verbs which are called ‘semi-modal verbs’. These have some of the features of full modal verbs, but not all.

For example, have to and ought to are semi-modals.

Modal verbs add meaning to another verb. That means that the next word after a modal verb must be a verb.

What kind of meaning can modal verbs add to other verbs?

Modal verbs have many different meanings and uses. You can use modal verbs to do things like: give advice, talk about possibility, ask permission or show certainty.

You’ll learn about this in more detail later in the lesson.

First, I want you to think about a question: what makes modal verbs different from other verbs?

2. How Are Modal Verbs Different?

Most verbs can be followed by different things. For example, think about the verb like.

After like, you can use a noun:

  • I like cake.

You can use a verb with to:

  • I like to get up early.

You can use an –ing verb:

  • I like swimming in the sea.

You can use a clause:

  • I like the way it looks.

So, you have many choices.

Modal verbs aren’t like this. With modal verbs, you only have one choice: you must use a verb in the infinitive, without to. For example:

  • She can speak fluent Spanish.
  • We shouldn’t do anything until we know more.
  • They won’t be here before ten.

Next, most verbs can be used in different tenses. For example:

  • She decided to go anyway. → in the past
  • She’ll decide next week. → in the future
  • She’s already decided what to do. → this is present perfect, meaning that she decided sometime in the past, but her decision is still relevant now.

Modal verbs can’t be used in different tenses.

Generally, if you use a modal, it can have either a present or a future meaning. Often, we use other words or phrases to show the time.

For example:

  • It might rain this afternoon. → You can understand that this is in the future because of the words this afternoon.
  • Shall we start now? → You can understand that this has a present meaning because of the word now.
  • He could do it if he wanted to. → Now, or in the future. Here, there’s no time reference, so we can’t say that this is present or future. It’s both!

There are some exceptions to this. For example, could can be the past tense of can in some situations. Would is sometimes the past form of will.

However, generally, modal verbs don’t have past, present or future forms.

Finally, you can sometimes give a modal verb a past meaning by using have plus a past participle after the modal verb, like this:

  • He might have overslept. → We’re trying to guess why he’s late, and what has happened to him in the past.
  • You shouldn’t have said that. → You said something rude or inappropriate, and now I’m criticising you for what you did in the past.

Even here, you can’t do this for every modal verb.

So, there are two key points here. Can you remember them?

One: modal verbs can only be followed by another verb, in the infinitive form without to.

Two: modal verbs can’t be used in different tenses. They don’t have past, present, future, continuous or perfect forms like other verbs do.

Next, let’s look in more detail at what modal verbs actually do.

3. Using English Modal Verbs to Express Different Meanings

Let’s take a modal verb: can.

What does can mean?

Actually, can can mean at least five different things. How many things did you say? Do you know the five basic meanings of can?

You can use can to express:

  • Possibility → It can get really cold in winter here.
  • Certainty → That can’t be a banana—it’s red!
  • Asking permission → Can I borrow your pen?
  • Making a request → Can you help me with something?
  • Ability → She can speak Spanish really well.

So now, you can see how modal verbs work. Modal verbs express different ideas, like possibility, certainty or permission.

Every modal verb can be used to express many different meanings. Let’s do another example. What about must? What does must mean? What ideas can it express?

Hopefully, even if you don’t know all the meanings of must, you’re at least thinking that there’s more than one answer here.

And of course, there are many answers! You can use must to express:

  • Certainty → It must be late—it’s dark outside.
  • Obligation → Employees must keep records of all expenses.
  • Prohibition → You mustn’t say things like that.
  • Strong advice → You must read this article. It’s so interesting!

We won’t go through every modal verb, because it would make this video hours long. You can find many other videos about modal verbs and how to use them on our channel and our website.

Anyway, what should you remember here?

The most important thing is: modal verbs don’t have one meaning. They don’t do one thing.

Every modal verb has many different meanings.

If you were listening carefully, you’ll see that the two modal verbs can and must have a meaning in common. Do you remember which one?

Both can and must can be used to talk about certainty:

  • It must be late—it’s dark outside.
  • That can’t be a banana—it’s red!

You know that modal verbs can have many different meanings.

However, the same meaning can also be expressed by different modal verbs.

4. Using Different Modal Verbs to Express the Same Idea

Think about the two sentences you just saw:

  • It must be late—it’s dark outside.
  • That can’t be a banana—it’s red!

They both express certainty, but we use different modal verbs: must and can’t. Why do we use different modal verbs?

It’s because these are different kinds of certainty. In the first sentence, It must be late—it’s dark outside, you’re certain that something is true.

In the second sentence, That can’t be a banana—it’s red, you’re certain that something isn’t true.

You can also use will and would to express certainty in some cases:

  • It’ll be cold tonight.
  • He wouldn’t have gone anywhere without telling us.

You could also use couldn’t to express certainty:

  • You couldn’t have seen her. She’s in Japan!

So for one idea—certainty—you have five different modal verbs that can express the idea: must, can’t, will, would and couldn’t.

Which verb do you use? It depends on the sentence and the situation.

For example, you would use must to express positive certainty in the present or past:

  • It must be late. → It must be late now, at this moment.

You can use can’t to express negative certainty in the present or past:

  • That can’t be a banana—it’s red! → You’re certain about something which is in front of you right now.

You can use will to express certainty about the future, or sometimes the present:

  • It’ll be cold tonight. → You’re certain about something in the future.

You can use would to express certainty about something in the past where you don’t know what actually happened:

  • He wouldn’t have gone anywhere without telling us. → You don’t know where he is, but you’re certain about what he did or didn’t do.

Finally, you can use could to express negative certainty in the past, similar to can’t:

  • You couldn’t have seen her. She’s in Japan! → You’re certain about what the person you’re talking to did or didn’t see in the past.

These five verbs in these five sentences all express certainty, but the situations and meanings are slightly different in each case.

That means you can’t choose which modal verb to use.

To use modal verbs correctly in English, you need to think about the exact situation and the precise meaning you’re describing.

At this point, look at a table with all the modal verbs and the meanings they commonly express:

mightasking permission
shallmaking requests

Imagine you want to draw lines connecting the verbs and their meanings.

You know that modal verbs all have many different meanings, so you’d expect each verb on the left to have several lines going to the right.

Complicated, right?

This is a dense topic, so next, let’s look at some practical tips you can use to help you use modal verbs correctly in English.

5. How to Learn and Use English Modal Verbs

Number one: really don’t try to translate modal verbs into your language!

Don't translate English modal verbs

Many English learners have problems because they try to associate one English modal verb with one verb in their own language.

This won’t work well. Modal verbs don’t translate cleanly.

Remember that modal verbs each have many different meanings. That means that English modal verbs will probably have many different translations in your language, depending on the exact situation.

Also, some meanings of English modal verbs might not exist in your language. For example, in Chinese, will and would both translate to one word. That doesn’t mean that will and would are the same!

So, think about the meanings of English modal verbs in English. If you do need to translate into your language, be very careful and remember that there’s almost certainly more than one possible translation.

Number two: pay attention to context.

You know that modal verbs can have many different meanings.

So, you need to think about the context to understand what a modal verb does in one specific sentence. You can’t find the meaning of a modal verb without looking around and understanding how it’s used.

Number three: go into detail. Remember that what you’ve seen in this lesson is a very small part of everything you need to know if you want to use modal verbs well in English.

Keep this idea in your head: this is a big topic and there’s a lot to learn! To really understand and use English modal verbs well, you need to go into a lot of detail on each verb.

We hope this lesson gave you a useful introduction to what modal verbs are and how to use them.

That’s all from us. Thanks for watching!

Modal Verbs Introduction Quiz

Well done - you have finished!
You scored %%SCORE%% out of %%TOTAL%%.
Your answers are highlighted below.
Shaded items are complete.

Oli RedmanEnglish Modal Verbs Introduction – Video