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Modal Verbs

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Overview:

Modal verbs modify the meaning of the main verb that follows it, with the main verb always staying in its base form. Unlike other helping verbs, modal verbs cannot act alone; that is, they can never function as the main verb in sentence, and must always be paired with another verb.

Modal Verbs

Can-                expresses ability/used in questions

Could-             past tense of can/expresses possibility  

May-                expresses possibility/used for asking permission

Might-              expresses possibility

Must-               expresses necessity

Should-            good idea/recommendation 

Would-            past tense of will/used for asking questions

Will-                 used for the future

Examples of modal verbs:

The baby can eat soft food now.

The baby could drink only milk.

The baby may use her pacifier now.

The baby’s nap time must change.

The baby should take her nap now.

The baby would like to be held.

The baby will go to pre-school when she’s older.

Note that the verbs immediately following the modal verbs are the main verbs in the sentence and remain in the simple present tense. This is generally true for all modal verbs, UNLESS you are using a modal verb phrase, which often changes the verb tense. 

Modal Verb Phrases

Modal verb phrases combine the modal verb with a helping verb, which is why the tense of the main verb changes.

Modal verb + “have” + past tense verb

    Margie should have taken the brownies home.

Modal verb + “have” + “been” + [verb + ing]

    The mother must have been wondering where her children ran off to.

Modal verb + “have” + “to” + verb

    Robert will have to buy diapers on his way home from work.

Style Matters:

Modal verbs change the meaning of the main verb, so be careful when using them. For example, the weatherman said it might rain today is much different from the weatherman said it will rain today.  Now check your own writing.  Do you find any sentences using modal verbs or modal verb phrases?  If so, are they expressing the meaning you intended?  Do you find any sentences where you might employ modal verbs to help your reader better understand your meaning?


Copyright (C) 2010. All rights reserved.

This handout is part of a library of instructional materials used in California State University, Long Beach’s writing center, the Writer’s Resource Lab. Educators and students are welcome to distribute copies as long as they do so with attribution to all organizations and authors. Commercial distribution is prohibited.