List of Modal Verbs and Their Meanings
This page has a list of verbs and the modalities they express.
Note. Be sure not to confuse the verb tense of the modal verb and the actual time frame that it expresses. For example, might is in the past tense, but He might come tomorrow expresses an idea in the future.
Note 1. Had better often puts an emphasis on some negative consequence—for example, You’d better ask permission first (otherwise, you may get in trouble.).
Note 2. In spoken language, the contraction (’d better) is used.
Note 3. In extremely informal, relaxed speech, some speakers drop the had in had better (including the ’d in the contracted form). Avoid dropping it in slightly more formal and formal speech.
Meaning: Strong advisability.
- You’d better get ready or else you’ll be late.
- I’d better leave now to avoid rush hour traffic.
- The president had better fix the economy if he has any hopes of being re-elected next year.
Meaning 1: Abitlity.
- This box is too heavy. I can’t lift it by myself.
- What languages can you speak?
- Only the Senate can pass this type of legislation.
- Galaxies are so far away that they cannot be seen with the naked eye.
Meaning 2: Request.
Note. Typically, could is used with this meaning, which makes the request more polite.
- Can you help me?
- Can we leave now?
- Can you speak a little louder, please?
- Can you open that window for me?
Meaning 3: Asking for or giving permission.
Note.This use of can is common in in informal, spoken language. In formal, written language, use may instead. (see may, meaning 1.)
- Can I come in? (Formal: May I come in?)
- Can I borrow your pen? (Formal: May I borrow your pen?)
- You can use my car if you need.
- Can we leave now? (Formal: May we leave now?)
- You can go now. (Formal: You may go now.)
Meaning 4: Possibility.
- This medication can cause headaches and dizziness.
- Researchers cannot prove or disprove this hypothesis given what we know today.
Could is the past tense of can; however, it can take on meanings other than simply a past tense.
Meaning 1: Ability in the past (past tense of can, meaning 1).
- I was so sick I could not even get out of bed.
- By the time Pedro was 19, he could already speak five languges fluently.
Meaning 2: Request (more polite than can, meaning 2).
- Could you close the door when you leave?
- Could you give me a hand with these exercises?
- Do you think you could arrive a little earlier tomorrow?
Meaning 3: Possibility.
- This couldn’t be the answer! I’d be surprised if it were.
- The candidate could have won the elections if more people had supported him.
- If successful, the study could answer several questions.
- I don’t think he’s coming anymore though he could just be stuck in traffic.
Meaning 3: Probability.
- Bring your umbrella. It could rain later.
- As astronomers develop new techniques, they could find life on an exoplanet any time now.
Meaning 1: Asking for or giving permission.
In informal, spoken language can is sometimes used (see can, meaning 3.)
- May I open the window?
- You may start now.
- You may use your laptop to complete the test, but you may not use your browser to search the internet.
Meaning 2: Probability (with some degree of uncertainty).
Note. Note that both may and might can express probability; however, might expresses a lower degree of likelihood than may.
- It may rain tomorrow.
- Researchers may have proved this hypothesis, but they need to conduct more studies to be certain.
Meaning 3: Formal permission or prohibition.
- You may not enter the exam room after the exam has started.
- Employees may not wear shorts to work.
- You may not pay this bill by credit card. We accept only cash, checks, or bank cards.
- Students may request an extension if they have a valid reason or extenuating circumstance.
Meaning 1: Asking for permission politely.
Notes. This use of might is similar to may, meaning 1, but it comes across as more formal and polite. In each of the examples below, may can substitute might.
- Might I ask you a question?
- Might we come over for a visit this afternoon?
- Might I suggest something?
Meaning 2: Probability (with low degree of certainty).
- It might snow when you’re in Chicago. I’d bring a warm jacket just in case.
- I might be late tomorrow. The rush hour traffic has been particularly bad lately.
- The game isn’t over for another 2 minutes. Our team might still win if they score another goal.
Note. Note that both may and might can express probability; however, might expresses a lower degree of likelihood than may.
Meaning 3: Polite annoyance.
- I might have known he would break his promise.
- You might at least say you’re sorry.
- They might have pretended to be interested out of courtesy.
Note 1. For the meaning of must not), see MUST NOT (MUSTN’T) below this box.
Note 2. For a lack of necessity or obligation, see NEED NOT further below.
Meaning 1: Strong obligation.
- When you drive through a school zone, you must slow down to 20 mph and be very attentive.
- Scientists must follow strict procedures to ensure that their experiments are ethical.
- Students must complete their assignments by the due date; otherwise, they will receive zeros.
Meaning 2: Logical conclusion (expressing high degree of certainty).
- You have been working since early this morning. You must be tired.
- They went swimming in freezing weather. They must be insane!
- I didn’t realize you were in that fire. You must have been terrified.
- Traffic is at a standstill on the highway. There must have been an accident up ahead.
Meaning 3: A strong recommendation or advice (a figurative sense of “must” in informal language).
Note. Avoid this usage in formal writing.
- You must see this movie! It’s great!
- Before we leave San Diego, we must visit the zoo.
- We must leave now; otherwise, we’ll be late!
MUST NOT (MUSTN’T)
The negative contraction, mustn’t, is pronounced /ˈmʌsənt/.
- You must not speak loudly in a library.
- Students must not use their cell phones in Professor Ecks’s class.
- You must not drive after you have drunk any alcohol.
- Students must not enter the classroom after the exam has begun.
Note. Need behaves both as a regular verb (need to do something) and as a modal verb (need to).
- (modal) Need you speak so loudly?
- (non-modal) Do you need to speak so loudly?
- (modal) We need move quickly.
- (non-modal) We need to move quickly.
Note. Need not is used as the negative of must when it expresses obligation or necessity.
Meaning: Lack of necessity or absence of obligation.
- (modal) You need not buy any milk. We still have plenty.
- (non-modal) You do not need to buy any milk. We still have plenty.
- (modal) We need not worry. Evreything will be all right.
- (non-modal) We do not need to worry. Everything will be all right.
In the past, “shall” was used with the first person pronouns (I and we), and “will” was used with the other pronouns. Although this distinction is no longer made, “shall” is still used to express certain modalities.
Meaning 1: Offering.
- Shall I get you something to eat?
- Shall we help you set the table?
- I have some free time. Shall I help you with your project?
Meaning 2: Obligation (formal).
- Employees shall not use their emails for personal business.
- Students shall complete all their work on their own.
- Renters shall give a month’s notice if they decide not to renew their leases.
- All parties involved shall not interfere with the police investigations.
Meaning 3: Suggesting.
- Shall we go out to eat?
- Let’s not talk about this anymore, shall we?
- What shall we have for dinner?
Meaning 4: Promising (very formal).
- I shall never lie to you again.
- We shall perform out duties to the best of our abilities.
- We shall not (shan’t) be very long.
Meaning 5: Future with certainty (very formal).
- The examinations shall be administered as scheduled.
- The graduation cremony shall shall take place in the main auditorium at 2 p.m.
- The prosecutors shall present all evidence next week.
- He said he would never do that again. We shall see.
(This is often said with a sarcastic tone.)
SHOULD / OUGHT TO
Note: The modal verb “should” is the past tense form of “shall;” however, it takes on different meanings.
Meaning 1: Advisability.
- You should always check your grammar and spelling before turning in your work.
- You always ought to check your grammar and spelling before turning in your work.
- You should eat a variety of fruits and vegetables every day.
- You ought to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables every day.
- You should have studied harder for the test. Now it’s too late.
- You ought to have studied harder for the test. Now it’s too late.
Meaning 2: Logical conclusion (expressing some degree of certainty).
- It’s almost 5. He should be home anytime soon.
- You studied hard. You should have no trouble passing the exam.
Meaning 4: Expectation.
- It’s almost 5. Their plane should be landing any minute now.
- Why hasn’t John arrived yet? He should have arrived 10 minutes ago.
- The professor prepared all his students well. They should have no problems passing the examination.
Meaning 5: Disapproval.
- You should (ought to) be ashamed of yourself.
- You ought to be kidding! What makes you think I’d believe in your lie?
- You shouldn’t have been rude to your supervisor. He’s probably going to make your life difficult from now on.
- We should have left an hour ago. We’ll probably be very late.
Meaning: A habitual action in the past that does not happen anymore.
- I used to play soccer every Saturday. (I do not do that anymore.)
- People used to believe that cutting a sick people's bodies open and letting them bleed cured certain illnesses.
- Did your parents use to read to you when you were a child?
The negative contraction, won’t is pronounced /woʊnt/.
Meaning 1: Certainty in the future.
- The exam will start at 9 sharp.
- The new bridge will open for traffic this Saturday. The mayor will make a speech during the opening ceremony.
- We’ll be in Chicago for Christmas this year. Where will you be?
- Professor Ecks will not (won’t) retire until the end of next year.
Meaning 2: Making a prediction.
- Unless he decides to retire, Senator Ecks will likely be in Congress for another 12 years.
- This study will show whether there is a difference between these processes.
- We expect that the company will hire over a thousand people this year.
- He won’t be happy with you if he finds out what you did.
Meaning 3: Promising, showing willingness.
- Don’t worry. I’ll be there if you need help.
- You’ve had a long day. I’ll cook dinner tonight.
Meaning 4: Offering.
- — “I’’d love to go swimming with you, but I don’t have a bathing suit.”
— “No problem. I’ll lend you one.”
- Here. I’ll give you a hand with that.
Meaning 5: Request.
Note. With this meaning, “would” can also be used and comes across as less direct—thus, more polite. (See “would,” meaning 4)
- Will you come in please.
- Will you please shut the door when you leave.
- Help me with these boxes, will you.
Meaning 6: Decision.
- — “Are you ready to order?”
— “Yes. I’ll have the spaghetti with meat balls, please.”
- I've thought a lot about. I’ll do it!
- Stop asking me! I won’t change my mind.
- I’ll end the lecture here so you have time to ask questions.
Meaning 7: Habitual or repetitive action.
- I won’t invite you again. You’ll always say you’ll be there, but then you won’t show up.
- This stupid printer will always get a paper jam when you’re in a hurry.
- My dog will always hide under the couch when there’s a thunder storm.
- Professor Ecks will always end his class a few minutes late.
Meaning 8: Ability.
- This printer won’t work.
- Will this printer print in color?
- This paper won’t address all your questions, but it’s a good starting point.
Meaning 9: Emphasis.
- — “Would you like anything else?”
— “No, thank you. That’ll be all.”
- — “Is this what you needed?”
— “Not exactly, but that’ll work.”
- I know I’m right about this. You’ll see!
Note 1. The modal verb would is the past tense of will, but it can take on different meanings.
Note 2. Particularly in informal, spoken language, would is contracted to ’d.
Meaning 1: Past for of “will.”
- The company’s CEO told the employees yesterday that the deadline would be extended.
(The company’s CEO said yesterday, “The deadline will be extended.”)
- Our supervisor said we would have the weekend off.
(Our supervisor said, “You will have the weekend off.”)
Meaning 2: Result or effect of a condition; hypothetical or imagined situations.
- If won the lottery, I would still work; otherwise, I’d be bored.
- If the raise had not gone into effect, workers would have gone on strike.
- If Jack had been chosen for the job, he would have finished by now.
- He would seem to have accepted the situation, but I may be wrong.
- Senator Ecks would have to be serious about fixing this issue, before he voted in favor of this piece of legislation.
(This statement has critical, sarcastic tone. The idea is that Senator Ecks is not serious about it, which explains why he will not vote in favor of the legislation.)
Meaning 3: Habitual or repetitive action or state in the past.
- When I lived in Germany, I’d take short train trips every Saturday. When I liked the place I was visiting, I’d stay overnight and explore the town.
- I have fond memories of my grandparents. When I was little, they would stay with us for a week every summer. They would spoil my brother and me every day. My grandmother would teach us how to bake cookies, and my grandfather would play with us outside. Sometimes we would stay up late playing board games.
Meaning 4: Polite request.
Note. This is less direct than “will,” meaning 5.
- Would you come in please.
- Would you please shut the door when you leave.
- Help me with these boxes, would you.
Meaning 5: Disapproval.
- You would do that to a friend, wouldn’t you?
- How would you even think about it?
- Of course the governor would look the other way! He benefits personally from ignoring the problem.
Meaning 6: Advice.
Note 1. This informal usage depends highly on the context.
Note 2. With this meaning, “if I were you” is often implied in the statement.
- I wouldn’t say anything. It’ll only upset everyone. (If I were you, I wouldn’t say anything...)
- Id stop playing computer games at work before I got caught. (If I were you, I’d storp playing computer games...)
- It would seem wise to do what your supervisor wants.
Note 1. In informal, spoken language, would rather is generally contracted to ’d rather
Note 2. In extremely informal, relaxed speech, some speakers drop the ’d in ’d rather. Avoid dropping it in slightly more formal and formal speech.
- Some people would rather stay home than travel during the holidays.
- Would you rather go out to eat or eat in?
- I’d rather you didn’t drop in unannounced.
- According to the survey results, the majority of Americans living in flood zones would rather rebuild than move someplace safer.
Note 2. When the subject of the two clauses is different, the simple past is used to talk about the present or future whereas the past perfect tense is used to talk about the past.
- Most people would rather send a text message than telephone someone.
- I’d rather you hadn’t called me so late at night.