diciembre 2018
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Mind your modals!

Auxiliary, or helping verbs, are used before infinitives to add a different meaning. The following auxiliaries are called ⇒Modal Auxiliaries or Modals

Modal Auxiliaries Meanings / Functions
can ability, permission, request, possibility
could ability, formal request, possibility
shall futurity, willingness, intention, suggestion, insistence
should obligation, necessity, expectation, advisability
will willingness, intention, prediction, insistence
would willingness, habitual action in the past, probability, wish, desire
may permission, possibility, wish, purpose, concession
might permission, possibility, concession, reproach
must necessity, prohibition, compulsion, obligation, deduction, certainty, probability
Quasis / Semi Modals Meanings / Functions
ought to moral obligation, probability, certainty, advice, necessity, duty, fitness
used to discontinued habit
need necessity, obligation (used in negative and questions)
dare defiance, challenge, boldness (used in negatives and interrogatives)
Φ   Modal verbs – Click on →multiple choice ⇐

⊕  Practice for Spanish speakers. Translate← into English, using modal verbs  [Intermediate]

⊕  If you’re only learning one way of saying things, you’re not learning the right way.  Click on . . .

⇒INTERACTING WITH OTHER PEOPLE← (practice with modal verbs & functional language)

⊕→Kenneth Beare´s guide to modal verbs’ grammar & construction⇐[Intermediate]

⊕   Quizzes …  ⇒ [01] ⇔ [02] ⇔ [03] [04] ⇔ [05] ⇔ [06] 

⊕→ Modality & modal verbs←  Epistemic & deontic modality  [Advanced]

⇒ “would rather” vs “had better”

•→You’d better do the quizzes which follow⇐


∇  English Modal Verbs:  ↓ ‘CAN’ – ‘COULD’ – ‘MAY’ – ‘MIGHT’

may & might [quiz]

•→Modal verbs of ability ⇐[quiz]

∇   ‘Will’ – ‘Shall’ – ‘Would’   ⇓

•→‘will’ – [uses & quiz]

∇   ‘Should’ – ‘Must’ – ‘Have to’   ↓

‘must’ & ‘have to’ ⇐[quizzes]

Modal verbs of obligation ⇐[quiz]

“Must” is most commonly used to express certainty. It can also be used to express necessity or strong recommendation, although native speakers prefer the more flexible form “have to.”

“Must not” can be used to prohibit actions, but this sounds very severe; speakers prefer to use softer modal verbs such as “should not” or “ought not” to dissuade rather than prohibit.


  • This must be the right address!    (certainty)
  • Students must pass an entrance examination to study at this school.   (necessity)
  • You must take some medicine for that cough.   (strong recommendation)
  • Jenny, you must not play in the street!     (prohibition)

∞   Modal verbs of probability … ⇒[quiz 01] ⇔ [quiz 02]⇐

∇  Possibility or certainty ↓

We use modal verbs (must, may, could, might, can’t) to show how certain we are about something.

We use ‘must’ when we are almost certain about something – ‘must + infinitive without to’:
‘That must be Jack. He always rings at this time.’

The past of ‘must’ is ‘must have + past participle’:
‘He must have finished work by now. He must be on his way home.’

‘May‘ is used to say that something is a possibility – ‘may + infinitive without to’:
‘I’m going to fill the bath. Jack may want a bath when he arrives. He sometimes does.’

The past of ‘may’ is ‘may have + past participle‘:
‘He may have had a shower before he left work.’

‘Could’ is like ‘may’:
‘I suppose he could have spent the day in the office, so he may not want a bath.’

‘Might’ is used to say something is possible but we think it’s unlikely – ‘might + infinitive without to’:
‘Of course, he might stop at the pub for a drink on his way home. He sometimes does, but he didn’t say so on the phone.’

The past of ‘might’ is ‘might have done / been’:
‘He’s very late. He might have had an accident, although he’s a very careful driver.’

We use ‘can’t’ to say we think something is impossible and we have evidence for thinking this. ‘Can’t’ is the negative of ‘must’ – ‘can’t + infinitive without to’:
‘He can’t be at the cinema. He never goes to the cinema without taking me.’

The past of ‘can’t’ is ‘can’t have + past participle’:
‘He can’t have gone with someone else. He wouldn’t dare!’


∇  “May/Might (just) as well”  ⇓

♦  Past Modals  ⇓  Can/could have + -ed’⇐ [quizzes]

•  Modals of speculation . . . ⇒[01][02]⇐ 

∇   “should(n’t) have  -ed”  ↓   [MISTAKES & REGRETS] 


♣  Should,  Might, Could + ‘have -ed’ …

In combination with the Perfect Infinitive, ‘should’ shows that a desirable action was not fulfilled:

“Bob Smith is a snob of the worst kind. He should / might / could have been more friendly and easy-going with his business partners.”  [But he wasn’t]

‘Should not’ shows that an undesirable action was fulfilled. In the meaning of reproach, ‘might’ and ‘could’ can only be used in affirmative sentences.

“You shouldn’t have told them; it was a secret.”  [Unfortunately you did]

‘Needn’t’ + Past Infinitive indicates that an unnecessary action was taken:

“Thank you very much. You needn’t have bothered.”  [But you did!]

•→Modal verbs [an in-depth view]

•→http://unilearning.uow.edu.au/academic writing

  • Classification of modality  ⇓  Epistemic & Deontic 

EPISTEMIC: deduction, possibility, prediction.

DEONTIC: obligation, advice, permission, prohibition.

    • Kinds of modal verbs.
    • CENTRAL: the typical, ‘can’, ‘should’…

    • SEMI-MODALS: sometimes they function as modals and sometimes they don’t: ‘need’, ‘dare’.

    • MODAL IDIOMS: idioms that express modality: ‘had better’, ‘would rather’…

      Central modals: CAN/COULD.

    • Ability: be able to, know how to, be capable of… ‘He can play the guitar very well.’

    • Theoretical Possibility: Can and could express general possibility as in ‘You can ski on the hills’ (= it is possible because there is enough snow) or occasional possibility ( very much used related to people’s behaviour) as in ‘Measles can be dangerous’ (=Sometimes it is possible for them to be dangerous)  ‘My mother can be very shy.’

    • Permission: It is used in much more informal situations than may. Another difference with may as related to permission is given in the following statements:

‘You may park here’ ( I give you permission)

‘You can park here’ ( Could be mine or others’ permission)

Since ‘can’ has no passive form it is expressed by ‘allowed to’: ‘I was allowed to park here.’

Φ  To avoid misinterpretations in the past, we use other forms besides ‘could’:


    • MAY/MIGHT.

    • Factual Possibility: May/ might + present infinitive: It indicates a chance that something is possible: ‘You may/might be right’ (=it is possibly true at the moment of speaking) ‘He may/might tell his wife’ (=a chance that something will happen in the future).

Normally either can be used but, might increases the doubt ( might is not the past of may; it means possible but less likely)

May is not used in the interrogative unless it occurs after a wh- particle, but it is better to use a paraphrase with ‘to be likely to’, ‘do you think’. Compare.

* May he be at home?  – When may we expect you?  = When are you likely to arrive?

May/might + perfect infinitive: It is used when you are not certain about a past action. When the uncertainty no longer exists in the present (i.e. something did not happen but it was possible) then only might + perfect infinitive is possible.

‘You shouldn’t have drunk that wine. It may have been drugged’ (=we are still uncertain if it has been drugged or not)

‘You shouldn’t have drunk that wine. It might have been drugged’ (=he or we know that it wasn’t drugged)

    • Permission: It is used for more formal and less common contexts than can. May emphasises and authoritarian overtone. ( See can)

    • There is a rare use of may as a quasi-subjunctive auxiliary to express wish, normally in positive sentences. ‘May the best man win!’ – ‘May you have a long and happy life!’

    • SHALL.

Shall’ is an auxiliary with restricted use: it is only in the first person of questions that it cannot be replaced by ‘will’. ‘Shall I come now?’ * Will I come now?  Apart from this meaning of intention on the part of the speaker it has also other meanings:

      • Willingness on the part of the speaker in 2nd and 3rd person ( weak volition) ‘He shall get his money.’ –  ‘You shall do exactly as you wish.’

      • Insistence ( strong volition) and legal: ‘You shall do as I say.’ –  ‘He shall be punished.’

Shall can also be used today to:

      • Express suggestions: ‘Shall we go scuba diving?’

      • In emphatic expressions: ‘We shall go and we shall win.’

      • OUGHT TO  &  SHOULD

Both are used to express obligation and logical necessity but they are less categorical than ‘must’ and ‘have to’ . Although they have similar meanings ‘should’ is used in a more subjective way, you give the subjective opinion about something and ‘ought to’ is for a more objective use.

‘You should/ought to go and see Mary some time’.

Followed by the continuous infinitive (ought to/should + continuous infinitive) it refers to someone that is not fulfilling his obligation. ‘He ought to be studying for his exam.’ –  ‘He shouldn’t be spending his time on the beach.’

Apart from the uses mentioned above ‘Should’ is also used :

        • As a putative after certain expressions: ‘I am sorry that this should have happened.’

        • Tentative condition in conditional clauses: ‘If you should change your mind, please let us know.’

        • WILL/WOULD.

Both verbs express weak volition (‘He will help you if you ask him’/ ‘Would you excuse me?’) and insistence (strong volition): ‘He will do it whatever you say’ –  ‘It’s your own fault: you would take the baby with you.’

But they have independently other meanings:


          • Intention: In this case it is usually contracted. ‘I’ll write as soon as I can.’

          • Prediction: ‘The game will be finished.’


          • Characteristic activity: ‘Every morning he would go for a long walk.’

          • Hypothetical meaning in main clauses: ‘He would smoke too much if I didn’t stop him.’

          • Probability: ‘That would be his mother.’

        • MUST.

        • Obligation in the present tense (= be obliged to, have to). The past tense is supplied by had to . In this sense mustn’t is not the negative, this form means not allowed to. To convey the idea of no obligation we should use don’t have to, not be obliged to, needn’t.

The difference between ‘must’ and ‘have to’ is seen in the following example:

Mother: ‘You must wipe your feet when you come in.’( the speaker is the authority)

Small boy: ‘I have to wipe my feet every time I come in’ ( the speaker is not the authority)

‘Must’, used in the 1st person singular denotes the idea of urgency: ‘I must phone my mother and tell her the news’ (=you feel that the obligation is something urgent)

        • Deduction: To say that something is logically necessary or that we suppose that it is certain.

‘There is an ambulance at Peter’s door: he must be ill’ ( that is the only possibility since he lives alone)

Must is not used in the negative, the negative is done with can’t; and it is only used in the interrogative when carrying a deduction: ‘It must be Tom.’ – ‘Why must it be Tom? Other people use that flat.’ In other cases Can is preferred for the interrogative.

        • Root necessity: this conveys the idea of something that is essential or necessary.

‘Plants must receive a good supply of sun and moisture.’

        • USED TO

It always takes the to infinitive and occurs only in the past tense; affirmative (‘used to’), interrogative (‘didn’t use to’) or negative (‘didn’t use to’).

It is used to express a state or habit that existed in the past but has ceased: ‘He used to play cards a lot’ ( but he doesn’t do it now).

The difference between this verb and ‘Would’ is that:

          • ‘used to’ is used when there is a contrast between past and present: ‘I used to smoke cigarettes, but now I use a pipe.’

          • ‘Would’ is used to express a past routine and pattern but there is no contrast with the present, it is just a description of someone’s routine during a certain period: ‘Every morning he would go for a walk ‘(= there is no the idea that he does no longer do it)

        • Semi-Auxiliaries:  NEED  &  DARE.

Need and dare are considered semi-auxiliaries because they can be constructed either as modal auxiliaries ( with the bare infinitive and without any inflected -s form) or as lexical verbs ( with the to – infinitive and with the inflected form -s forms). The modal verb construction is restricted to non-assertive contexts (i.e. mainly negative and interrogative sentences) whereas the lexical verb construction can always be used and is in fact the more common.


As an auxiliary verb in negative terms it indicates absence of obligation. It expresses the speaker’s authority or advise and it is used for the present and the future:

‘You neednt type your essay’ ( the speaker is the authority, it could be the teacher for example)

But it can also take do-periphrasis and in this case it expresses absence of obligation as well but in this case the speaker is not the authority: ‘you donneed to type your essay’ ( here it could be a conversation among classmates)

As a lexical verb it means require : ‘I need some money/ your hair needs cutting.’


It is not a common verb in informal style. But in few cases it is still common in spoken style:

          • In BrE the negative darent is frequent: ‘I darent ask her.’

          • Children to challenge each other to do frightening things: ‘I dare you to ride your bike through the gate with no hands.’

          • To discourage people from doing things they shouldn’t: ‘Mummy can I draw a picture on the wall?’  ‘You dare!’ – ‘Dont you dare.’

          • ‘I dare say it will rain soon’ ( it will probably…)

          • ‘How dare you? Take your hands off me immediately.’ ( Indignation)

¤  Other ways of expressing MODALITY   ⇓

Following the very basic English pattern: ADJECTIVE + to_infinitive; just like . . .

be able to…” / “be allowed to…” / “be (un)likely to…” / “be willing to…” /

be determined to…” / “be expected to…” / “be obliged to…” / “be bound to…” 

Φ  ‘be supposed to…’ & ‘be expected to…’   [quiz #1]⇐ / ⇒[quiz #2]

6 comments to Mind your modals!

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