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grammar-rules

Modal Verbs

Modal and Modal Phrases (Semi-Modals)

A modal is a type of auxiliary (helping) verb that is used to express: ability, possibility, permission or obligation. Modal phrases (or semi-modals) are used to express the same things as modals, but are a combination of auxiliary verbs and the preposition to. The modals and semi-modals in English are:

  1. Can/could/be able to
  2. May/might
  3. Shall/should
  4. Must/have to
  5. Will/would

Can, Could, Be Able To

Can, could and be able to are used to express a variety of ideas in English:

Ability/Lack of Ability

Present and Future:

can/can’t + base form of the verb

  1. Tom can write poetry very well.
  2. I can help you with that next week.
  3. Lisa can’t speak French.

am / is / are / will be + able to + base form of the verb
am not/ isn't / aren't/ won't be + able to + base form of the verb

  1. Mike is able to solve complicated math equations
  2. The support team will be able to help you in about ten minutes.
  3. I won’t be able to visit you next summer.

Past:

could / couldn't + base form of the verb

  1. When I was a child I could climb trees.

was / were + able to + base form of the verb
wasn’t / weren't + able to + base form of the verb
hasn’t / haven't + been able to + base form of the verb

  1. I wasn’t able to visit her in the hospital.
  2. He hasn’t been able to get in touch with the client yet.

Note: Can and could do not take an infinitive (to verb) and do not take the future auxiliary will.

  • Incorrect: I can to help you this afternoon.
  • Correct: I can help you this afternoon.
  • Correct: I will (I’ll) be able to help you this afternoon.

Possibility / Impossibility

can / can’t + base form of the verb

  1. You can catch that train at 10:43.
  2. He can’t see you right now. He's in surgery.

could + base form of the verb

  1. I could fly via Amsterdam if I leave the day before.

Ask Permission / Give Permission

Can + Subject + base form of the verb (informal)

  1. Can you lend me ten dollars?

Can + base form of the verb (informal)

  1. You can borrow my car.

Could + subject + base form of the verb (polite)

  1. Could I have your number?
  2. Could I talk to your supervisor please?

Make a suggestion – To make a suggestion use:

Could + base form of the verb (informal)

  1. You could take the tour of the castle tomorrow.