Modal verbs are also known as modals and are used to give additional information about the main verb. Let us learn more about them.

"Modals" in the English Grammar

What Are 'Modals'?

'Modals' (also called modal verbs or modal auxiliary verbs) are special verbs that follow the main verb and modify its meaning and function in a sentence. Modals serve a wide variety of communicative functions, such as expressing probability, ability, obligation, willingness, and habits, as well as giving advice and permission.

The following is a list of modal verbs in English:

It's important to note that modal verbs do not have a tense division like regular verbs. This means that some modal verbs can be used in both past and present forms.

General Rules of Modal Verbs


Modal verbs only have one form, which is the base form of the verb, and they do not change to indicate tense, aspect, or agreement with the subject. This means that modal verbs are not affected by the rules of adding -s, -ing, or -ed, which are used for conjugating main verbs in English. Pay attention to the examples:

Nikolai must have been here. (Not 'Nikolai musted be here.')

I will swim in this pool. (Not 'I willing swim in this pool.')

She shall ride at dawn. (Not 'She shalls ride at dawn.')

using the modal 'will' in a sentence

Can They Stand Alone?

Modal verbs do not function as the main verb of a sentence, and they require another verb to complete the meaning of a sentence. The rule for using modal verbs is to add the base form of the main verb after the modal verb to create a complete verb phrase. For example:

I might walk to my house, if it doesn’t rain.

Without the main verb the sentence doesn't make sense: 'I might to my house, if doesn't rain'.

I can drive trucks and it is fun.

She would like to drink a cup of coffee.

You should wash your hands every time you enter the house.


To create the negative form of a modal verb, you can simply add 'not' after the modal verb.

Alina cannot get out of her room.

If I were you I wouldn't marry Damon.

You must not smoke here, look at the no-smoking sign!


Sometimes contracting negative modal verbs leads to a change in the overall appearance of the verb. For example:

He won't travel to Italy.

Here in this example, 'won't' is the contracted form of 'will not'.

The modal verb 'can', has two negative forms, one is can not and the other is cannot which is used as a single term in formal writings. However, the only correct contracted form is can't.

David can't pay the rent.

My sisters can not get along with each other.

Researchers must do more to ensure that human cells cannot be taken without consent.

However, the use of shan't, which is the contracted form of 'shall not is not common in informal and daily spoken English.

I shan't drink alcohol at all.

Forming Questions

When forming a question using a modal verb, the modal verb is placed at the beginning of the sentence.
In wh- questions, an interrogative word such as 'what', 'where', 'when', 'why', 'who', or 'how' is placed at the beginning of the sentence followed by the modal verb and the subject. Pay attention to the examples:

Should I accept his proposal?

May I go out?

When will you arrive to the station?

What would you do, if you were me?

Forming Tag Questions

Modal verbs can also appear in tag questions. Tag questions using modal verbs are formed without the main verb being expressed, such as "Can he?" or "Would they?"
In general, if the main sentence is affirmative, the modal in the tag question must be negative, and if the main sentence is negative, the tag question must be affirmative. Take a look at the examples:

He can speak Italian, can't he?

Not 'He can speak Italian, can he?'

They wouldn't follow us, would they?

You cannot be more patient, can you?

I shouldn't call him, should I?

Punctuation in Tag Questions

There must be a comma before tag questions.

You won't ever leave me, will you?

Jake should start practicing for the big match, shouldn't he?

Are Modal Verbs Different from Auxiliary Verbs?

Modals are a special kind of auxiliary verbs. That is why they are also called modal auxiliary verbs.

modal verbs auxiliary verbs
can indicate tense/voice
can be conjugated
can be inverted/negative
can be used more than once

For example:

It will have been made.

'Will' and 'have' are auxiliary verbs. So it is possible to have more than one auxiliary verb in a sentence.

When a sentence contains both auxiliary verbs and modal verbs, the modal is used for negation and interrogation. Look:

I will be walking there. → Will you be walking there?

She should not have done that.


Modal verbs precede the main verb to give more information about the function of a verb. These verbs are used to express probability, possibility, ability, obligation, advice, permission, prohibition, lack of necessity, habits by using the following words as modal verbs:

  • can
  • could
  • may
  • might
  • must
  • will
  • would
  • shall
  • should


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