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What Are Modal Verbs? (Explained, Plus Examples)

All about modal verbs.

If you want to communicate that you can be somewhere later that week, or that you should be free (but you‘d have to check first).

Then you’d be using modal verbs, which are some of the most regularly used verbs in the English language.

What are modal verbs?

If you look up ‘modality’ on the internet, you’ll probably end up more confused than you already were (re: modality, “a particular mode in which something exists or is experienced or expressed”).

So . . . it sounds like everything you could possibly conceive of counts as a ‘modality’. In that case, we’re moving on to our own exegesis.

Modal auxiliary verbs/modal verbs

Verbs like am, is, was, have/had and do oftentimes join ordinary/main verbs to form other aspects of tense (e.g., the present continuous, present perfect, past perfect, and so forth). We call them auxiliary verbs because they play a part in forming tense, but cannot do so on their own.

Modals, or modal auxiliary verbs, act similarly to regular auxiliaries that are non-modal in that they pair with participle verb forms (ending in –ing or the past participle, –ed/some other ending) to inflect its meaning. The most common modal verbs are:

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

We use modals before ordinary verbs to indicate meaning; such as, permission, ability, possibility, certainty and necessity.

Uses of modals can and may

To show ability or permission, we use can or may (though the latter can be formal):

  • Can you open this jar?
  • I can lift these boxes.
  • We may go on a picnic later on.

Could and might are past equivalents of can and may:

  • They said I could go.
  • I thought they might be home by now.

Though in present tenses, we use could and might as less assertive or positive versions of can and may:

  • We could attend the party (vs. I can attend the party)
  • It might rain later on.
  • Could I borrow these books?

Uses of the modal verb, “will”

We use ‘will‘ for all persons to express the future, intent for the future:

  • We’ll be there on time. I promise.
  • He will be attending university in the fall.
  • They’ll have moved from the country by then.

Read more on the types of verbs


  1. “Exegesis.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 4 Mar. 2024.

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