Modal Verb: What is it?

Modal Verb

A modal verb is an auxiliary verb used to express modalities (the states or ‘modes’ in which a thing exists) such as possibility, ability, prohibition, and necessity. Some common examples of modal verbs include should, must, will, might, and could.

Modal Verb

A modal verb is an auxiliary verb used to express modalities (the states or ‘modes’ in which a thing exists) such as possibility, ability, prohibition, and necessity. Some common examples of modal verbs include should, must, will, might, and could.

What is modality?

Before getting to the bottom of ‘What is a modal verb?’ we need to start with modality. While this might seem like an odd place to begin our guide, it’s important to know about modality to understand modal verbs and their roles. So, to start us off, what’s modality?

When we talk about modality in this context, we mean the particular state, form, or ‘mode’ in which something exists or happens. In grammar, modality is used to demonstrate necessity and authority. A low-modality word like ‘could’ is much less convincing than a high-modality word like ‘must.’

What is a modal verb?

A modal verb, also known as a modal auxiliary verb, is a word used to modify the modality of the main verb. Modal verbs are a kind of auxiliary verb; they are important because they can affect the meaning of a sentence. Auxiliary verbs can help form the mood, tense, and voice of other verbs, commonly using ‘be,’ ‘have,’ and ‘do.’ Whereas modal auxiliary verbs more specifically affect the ‘mode’ of a sentence.

These verbs can’t work alone; they need to be used with another verb in the sentence to affect it. This is what makes them special! By now, you are probably wondering, ‘what is a modal verb going to do?’ Well, here is an example of how a modal verb can change a sentence:

‘I have clean hands.’
‘I must have clean hands.’

Adding the modal auxiliary verb ‘must’ to the sentence changes from saying that the speaker has clean hands to indicate that they need clean hands. Instead of having clean hands, the speaker is now obliged to have them clean. Showing obligation is one of four key ways modal verbs can affect the other verbs in the sentence.

These are the ways the words can affect sentences with modal verbs examples:

  • obligation (‘You should do your homework’),
  • possibility (‘I might have pizza for tea’),
  • ability (‘You can ride a bike now’) or
  • prohibition (‘You may go out now).

What are the nine common examples of modal verbs?

Before we get into the specifics of how modal verbs can be used, let’s take the time to look at a few simple examples. Here are a few quick examples of modal verbs, along with how they could be used in a sentence:

  • Can – I can jump.
  • Could – We could go to the cinema tomorrow.
  • May – They may be coming to our house tomorrow.
  • Might – It might rain on Friday.
  • Should – You should tell him.
  • Shall – If it’s dry, shall we play outside?
  • Will – I will try my best.
  • Would – My parents wouldn’t give me any pocket money.
  • Must – You must be quiet.
  • Have – I have to see the doctor about my leg.

It’s important to give students context for new words and grammar rules. Using modal verbs examples, like the ones above, demonstrates sentence structure and provides real-world meaning to what they are learning. Plus, you can’t see a modal verb’s effect without knowing the verb it is working with and the rest of the sentence it’s a part of!

When teaching or introducing modal verbs, you could list out these main modal verbs for your class and then have them discuss which words are the most important and which are less convincing. You can use these nine modal verbs examples to make the activity less challenging. This will help them realize that they might already understand how modality works – they didn’t have a name for it!

Once they are confident with how modality can be used in a sentence, have your students write their own list of modal verbs examples. This will make the different modal verbs easier to remember and gives students important writing practice to help them structure their sentences. Writing their own examples will help the students understand grammar and build their communication skills.

Why are modal verbs important?

Modal verbs allow us to quickly give more detail about action in a sentence. As a kind of auxiliary verb, modal verbs are useful for helping us communicate more clearly.

These words are often used in instructions, rules, and guides – all areas where being precise and commanding are important. Knowing the difference between ‘must’ and ‘might’ will help the reader make a mental note of the importance of instruction. This makes us better communicators in our day-to-day life.

Not just that, but having a full grasp of this topic will allow young language learners to be more particular about the words they use, which will improve their ability to communicate with others.

What are the uses of modal verbs?

As we mentioned before, modal verbs can be used to express several different things. Let’s take a look through some of the main uses of modal verbs:

1) Modal verbs of prohibition

Modal verbs can be used to convey obligation and necessity within a sentence. These command-focused words are useful to direct a reader or listener with clear guidance for what to do in a given situation.

For example, saying ‘you must do your homework tonight’ is very clear, putting the importance of this action right at the top of the sentence.

Here are some examples of modal verbs of prohibition in action:

  • We must hurry if we are to get there on time.
  • She will have to eat all her dinner if she wants ice cream.
  • Jenny has got to learn how to tie her laces.

As you can see in these three examples, the modal verbs of prohibition can be used to describe an action happening in the present tense, present continuous, or future tense, depending on the situation. Words used to express this prohibition are must, ‘have,’ ‘should,’ ‘can,’ and ‘do.’

2) Modal verbs of suggestion

Modal verbs can also be used to give advice or to suggest an action. This is more suitable for situations where it might be considered rude to give an outright order or for more conversational guidance.

Modal verbs that can give a suggestion are ‘could,’ ‘should,’ ‘ought to,’ and ‘had better.’ These examples get more strong in their urges as they go on. Compare the tone in the following sentences to see this effect in action:

  1. You could stay at home if it’s raining.
  2. You should stay at home if it’s raining.
  3. You ought to stay at home if it’s raining.
  4. You had better stay at home if it’s raining.

By the final sentence, it sounds less like advice and more like a command! This shows how modal verbs can affect our tone depending on the situation.

3) Modal verbs of possibility and promise

The two final examples to look at are possibility and promise. The speaker gives advice and direction to someone else in the two above usages of modal verbs. Possibility and promise could still be used for this, but they are also commonly used to describe our actions in the world.

For example, if we are making plans with a friend, saying ‘I could meet up on Thursday’ is an example of a possibility. Saying ‘I will meet up on Thursday’ sounds much firmer, like a promise. These are all important things to keep in mind while using modal verbs.

4) Inverting modal verbs

Did you know that we can turn phrases with modal verbs into questions by simply changing the word order around? We can form a question by inverting, or switching around, the modal verb and the subject of a sentence. This means that ‘We could go to the cinema tomorrow’ becomes ‘Could we go to the cinema tomorrow?’


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