Modal auxiliary verbs in English grammar

Shree Ganeshay Namah


A modal auxiliary verb is such an important part of English speaking and writing that we can’t even imagine mastering it without them.

The sad reality about them is not much detailed material is available for their study as it was not part of the old syllabuses in the countries where English is taught as a third language.

Even I have learned modals after my graduation. But the way I mastered made me perfect in the use of modals.

The same pattern I am going to explain here with explanation and real-life examples with the definition of modal, types, functions, and various general and specific uses with a lot of examples in an easy manner. Let’s get started.

What are modals

1)Modals are helping verbs. They are basically in the present and past forms but sometimes show the future also.

Modal auxiliaries show modality which means possibility, command, request, urge advice, different abilities, suggestions, strong obligation, compulsion necessity, and certainty.

List of modals–








8)Ought to




12)Used to

2)Some modals are present modals. We use v1 after them.

Eg. 1)I can play polo.

2)We must study hard.

3)Modals are given in the past by adding have+v3

Eg. 1)He should have informed you

2)They must have given my message.

4)To is not used after any modal except ought to and used to.

5)We can show continuity with any present modal as follows.

Sub. +present modal+be+v1+ing+——-

Eg. 1)you must be helping us.

2)She should be asking questions.

6)We can show possession with modals.

Sub.+present modal+have+noun……

Eg. 1)You must have confidence.

2)He should have a car.

7)We can show state-of-being with present modals.

Sub. +present modal+be+adj/noun….

1)She must be a doctor.

2)He must be busy.

8)Modals need and dare can be used as main verbs also.

Eg.1)I need your advice.

2)He dared to go there.

9)There is no impact of gender, or number on modals.

Eg. 1) I must come.

2)We must come.

How to study modals for complete understanding—

Modals play a very important role in expressing a wide range of meanings for speaking and writing in English. The best way to study them is to divide them as per use.

1)Past modals ( could and would)(Modal+ have+v3)–

2)Present modals—-

3)Modals of the present, past, and future ability.–

Past modals in English grammar

Basically, there are only two past modals. They are 1)Could 2)Would. Even both past modals can be used in present. Modals with have+v3 are not considered purely past as they indicate what did not happen in the past.

Whatever differences there maybe we will study past use of could and would here and their present uses separately in present modals.


It is the past form of can.

It shows past ability.

Eg. 1)I could win the cycle race.

2)He could barely reach in time.

3)She could finish her project.

2)Would—It is used for past habitual actions.

Eg. 1)I would play with dolls in my childhood.

2)She would draw pictures in her school days.

3)Babies would laugh alone.

Know more about modal+have+v3 structures which give an impression of the past happenings but they are imaginary.



Use of should have as past modal—-Should have is used to express repentance(Regret) for the past happenings and also for telling what you should have done in the past or what you should not have done.

The following examples will make it clear.

Eg. 1)You should have spoken the truth.

2)You should not have taken an impulsive decisions.

3)Mother should have cooked my favorite dish.

4)Children should not have played in the rain

5)People should have followed personal distancing during a pandemic.

2)Would +have+v3—-


Use of would have as past modal—-Would have is used to express past imagination. It tells future thoughts in past. Suppose yesterday you thought it would rain. It is the future in the past but we can’t use the normal future tense here. So we use would+have+v3 for it.

Eg. 1)Yesterday I thought that we would go for a picnic.

2)He would have passed the board exam.

3)If he had studied hard, He would have passed the board exam.

4)If I had seen you, I would have called you.

5)If you had told me, I would have helped you.

Would have is also used for pure imagination

1)If I were the prime minister, I would have solved all the problems.

2)If he were the merchant, He would not have earned profit.

3)If we were birds, We would have flown in the sky.

4) If I were the poet, I would have composed humorous poems.

5)If she were the principal, She would have transformed her school.

3)Must have+ v3—-


Uses of must-have as past modal—-It is used to express a little bit stronger possibility of some happening in the past.

Eg. 1)He must have lied about his work.

2)Bus must have departed.

3)She must have purchased i-pad.

4)Activists must have raised their voices against injustice.

5)John must have gone mad after this shocking incident.

4)Ought to have+v3—-

Syntax—Sub.+ ought to have+v3+obj.+…..

Use of ought to have as past modal—It is used to express moral duties of past happenings.

Eg. 1)You ought to have helped that poor person.

2)Children ought to have served their parents.

3)People ought to have donated blood.

5)Could have +v3—-

Syntax—Sub.+could have +v3+obj.+….

Use of could have as past modal—It is used to express the feeling that you had power /ability/capacity to do something but you did not do that thing.

Eg. 1)He could have told me the secrets of success.

2)World leaders could have avoided many wars.

3)We could have become the reason for positive change.

Use of could have + v3 for pure imagination past possibility—

Eg. 1)If I had money, I could have purchased a car.

2)If he had time, he could have written his masterpiece.

3)If we had information, we could have done many good things.

6)Might have+v3—

Syntax—-Sub.+ might have+v3+obj…..

Use of might have as past modal—It is used to express the possibility of some happening in the past.

Eg. 1)You might have heard about his achievements.

2)Rony might have missed you.

3)He might have reached his home.

4)patient might have undergone an operation.

5)She might have finished her work.

7)Need not have+v3—-

Syntax—Sub.+need not have+v3+obj.+…..

Uses of need not have as past modal—-As a past modal need not have is used in negative and interrogative sentences for expressing that something need not have been done in the past.

Eg. 1)You need not have bought a used car.

2)They need not have invited celebrities.

3)People need not have made excuses.

These are the past modals with formulas for sentence construction, uses in speaking and writing with lot of practical examples.

2)Present modals in English grammar

As mentioned in the beginning, we will know about present modals that express present tense in detail.


Syntax—sub.+should +v1+obj.+….

Use of should+v1 as present modal

-As a present modal, should is used to give advice, suggestions, duties,what should one do or not .

Eg. 1)You should work hard and save money.

2)He should start his business.

3)They should come in time for the work.

4)Students should not play mobile games.

5)Players should show team spirit and sportsmanship.

2)We can show continuity with should+be+v1+ing—

Eg. 1)You should be coming here.

2)We should be looking up a dictionary.

3)People should be donating blood.

3)How to show possession with should+have+noun—-

Eg. 1)I should have good friends.

2)You should have a car.

3)Everybody should have confidence.

4)Learn to show state-of-being with should+ be+ adjective/noun.

Eg. 1)He should be brave.

2)We should not be anxious about the future.

3)They should be ready for the match.

5)Should is also used for seeking suggestions.

Eg. 1)Should we hire a taxi?

2)Should I buy this dress?

3)Should I study here?


Uses—As a present modal, Must is used to show internal compulsion, necessity, and strong obligation.

Eg. 1)I must study hard.

2)We must speak in English hereafter.

3)We must take regular exercise.

How to show continuity with must+be+v1+ing—

Eg. 1)We must be speaking in English.

2)People must be respecting their elders.

3)You must be keeping pace with time.

how to show possession with must+have+adjective+noun—

Eg. 1)I must have a good dictionary in order to learn English.

2)She must have the confidence to give presentations successfully.

3)It must have some good functions.

how to show state-of-being with must+be+adjective/noun—

1)He must be a doctor.

2)She must be watchful.

They must be happy.


Uses of may+v1 as a present modal—As a present modal, May is used to show less certainty, definity, and possibility in the present and future.

Eg.1)I may call you.

2)It may rain today.

3)She may come here today.

How to show continuity with may+be+v1+ing—-

Eg. 1)You may be repeating the same mistakes.

2)She may be cooking food.

3)He may be singing his favorite song.

how to show possession with may+have—

Eg. 1)You may have a car in the next year.

2)Sam may not have his address.

3)He may have two friends.

how to show state-of- being with may+ be—

Eg. 1)He may be a teacher.

2)You may be happy there.

3)He may be absent-minded.

Special uses of may—

1)For blessings—

1)May God bless you!

2)May you live long.

3)May you succeed.

4)May you achieve your goal.

5)May God help and protect you.

6)May God save you.

2)Use of may for request and permission—

Eg. 1)May I help you?

2)May I know your good name, please?

3)May I know who is online?

4)May I have a glass of water?

5)May I know the time, please?

6)May I have your notebook, please?

7)May I have your attention, please?

Note —-For the permission or request with MAY, use only I as the subject. Never use other subjects with may for permission or request.

4) use of Might+v1—-


Uses of might +v1 as a present modal

-As a present modal might +v1 is used to show very less certainity, definity, and possibility (Less than may)

Eg. 1)He might work for you.

2)It might rain today.

3)We might not stay here today.

4)He might not pass this year.

use of Might for very polite and formal requests and permissions—

Eg. 1)Might I use your mobile?

2)Might we ask you a few questions?

3)Might I drive your car?

5)use of Would as a present modal—

We can use would as a present modal for requests and some special constructions. Basically would is mainly used for past habits and future in the past and past imagination but we use it specifically in the present for the above-mentioned purposes.

Use of Would for polite requests and permissions

Eg.1)Would you please hand over this book?

2)Would you please pass it on?

3)Would you pass this message on to my family?

4)Would you do me a favor?

5)would you please have dinner with us?

6)Would you mind having dinner with us?

7)Would you mind if I help you?

How to use Would like to

Would like to has a similar meaning like want and like. But would like to is more polite than want and like.

Eg. 1)I would like to call Mr. John on the stage.(This sentence sounds more polite than—I want to call mr. John on the stage.)

2)I would like to call the guest for the inauguration.

3)We would like to request our guest to speak a few words on this occasion.

4)Would you like to suggest something?

5)Would you like to visit the exhibition?

How to use Would love to

It is used in informal situations as equivalent to would like to—-

Eg. 1)I would love to help you.

2)We would love to spend our holidays with you.

3)Would you love to come with me?

4)I would love to watch TV now.

5)Would you love to sing your favorite song?

How to use Would prefer to

It is used to tell that you like something more.—

I would prefer to stay here.

2)They would prefer to have dinner in this hotel.

3)He would prefer to deposit money in this bank.

4)Would you prefer to purchase this flat?

5)Would you prefer to white clothes for summer?

How to use Would rather

It is used to show that you like one particular action more than another action—

Eg. 1)Sam would rather sleep than watch TV.

2)We would rather chat than study.

3)I would rather act than dance.

4)They would rather go for a picnic than stay at the home.

5)He would rather drive than go on foot.

use of Would  for future in the past

Eg. 1)Yesterday I thought it would rain in the evening.

2)I thought he would support me.

3)They believed that they would win the match.

How to use Would that

It is a special construction used to express a deeper wish that was not fulfilled

Eg. 1)Would that you were my friend.(It means I wish you were my friend)

2)Would that! he were a doctor.

3)would that! I had warned you about the consequences.

6)use of Need not as present modal

Syntax—Subject+ need not +v1+object+….

Need not is used to tell that it was not necessary to do.

Eg. 1)You need not go there

2)He need not blame me.

3)She need not make excuses.

7)Dare not as a present modal—

Syntax —Subject+ dare not +v1+object+…

Dare not is used to tell a lack of daring to do something.

1)I dare not answer back my elders.

2)We dare not go there at night.

3)You dare not accept my challenge.

8)us of Will+v1 to show strong certainty, definity, and possibility—

1)I will succeed.

2)We will finish this task.

3)You will fulfill your dreams.

3)Modals of ability

There are certain modals which show ability. They are can, could, will be able to.

Let us see their use with examples—-

1)Can—As a present modal.


1)As a present modal can is used to show present ability.

Eg.1)I can speak English.

2)You can dance at any time.

3)She can’t swim in the sea.

4)He can drive a sports car.

5)John can score a goal with the free kick.

Can=am/is/are+ able to

Can not=am/is/are unable to.

1)I can run fast=I am able to run fast.

2)We can convince her=We are able to convince her.

3)She can sing classical song=She is able to sing a classical song.

4)I can’t do this=I am unable to do this.

2)As a present modal can is used for informal requests—

Eg. 1)Can you help me?

2)Can you do this for me?

3)Can you sit here?

2)Could—As a past modal.


-As a past modal, could is used to show past ability—

1)He could speak in English.

2)She could drive a car.

3)She could solve all the sums.

Could=was/were able to

Could not=was/were unable to

Eg.1)I could ask him=I was able to ask him.

2)I could not ask him=I was unable to ask him.

Also could is used in present for polite requests—

Eg. 1)Could you tell me the story?

2)Could you check my project?

3)Could you do me a favor?

3)Will be able to/shall be able to for future ability

Syntax—subject +will/shall+ be + able to+v1+object……..

Will/shall be able to is used to show future ability—-

Eg. 1)I will be able to fulfill my dreams.

2)She will be able to climb this mountain.

3)You will be able to solve our problems.

4)People will be able to take initiative in social welfare activities.

Here we have almost all the modals with their details.

Exercise for using modals correctly

1)I can do this.(Use modal auxiliary showing necessity.)

Ans. I must do this.

2)They may help you.(Use m.a. showing advice)

Ans. They should help you.

3)She might come.(Use m.a. showing strong certainty)

Ans. She will come.

4)It can work properly.(Use to be able to)

Ans. It is able to work properly.

5)You were able to reach on time.(Use modal)

Ans. You could reach in time.


In this way we have studied all the present modals, past modals and the modals of ability in detail with their specific, regular, exceptional uses with examples.

From it, we can conclude that modals are very useful to express a variety of meanings. The same modal can be used in present, past, and for future possibilities. So we have to learn them properly and use in our daily speaking and writing.

What do you think? Please let me know through your comments and valuable suggestions.

With love+ Respect from team

Dipak D. Jagtap: Always the learner.Having spent 16 years in English language training, its time now to reach the world to learn more and to share my experience and practices....
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