Now that you know how to use the basic helping verbs in English, let’s learn the modal helping verbs. Modal helping verbs modify the main verb by expressing necessity or possibility.
Use CAN / COULD to express ABILITY / POSSIBILITY:
I can swim.
(I have the ability to swim)
We could go to the movies tonight.
(It’s possible for us to go to the movies tonight)
You can’t enter the restricted area.
(It’s not possible for you to enter that area)
He tried to call me, but he couldn’t get through.
(It wasn’t possible for him to speak to me)
Use MAY / MIGHT to express “MAYBE”
We might go camping this weekend, depending on the weather.
(Maybe we will go camping, maybe we won’t)
I may go to the gym later, if I get off from work early.
(Maybe I will go, maybe I won’t)
Use SHOULD to express a RECOMMENDATION / SUGGESTION
If your head hurts, you should go to the doctor.
(I suggest that you go to the doctor)
He should see that movie – he’d like it.
(I recommend that he see the movie)
Use MUST to express NECESSITY (something that is required)
You must arrive on time for the exam, otherwise they won’t let you take it.
(It is necessary to arrive on time)
Advanced tip: In spoken English, it’s much more common to use “need to” and “have to” and “got to” (informal) for requirements instead of MUST.
- You have to arrive on time for the exam.
- You need to arrive on time for the exam.
- You gotta (got to) arrive on time for the exam. – Informal – spoken English only!
Use WILL / WON’T to express CERTAINTY about the future
I‘ll help you write the report.
(I promise to help you write it)
That software won’t work – it’s not compatible with the computer.
(It’s certain that the software will not work)
SHALL is similar to WILL, but it is typically only used in very formal English.
Use WOULD to express a HYPOTHETICAL / IMAGINARY situation
- If I were a millionaire, I would give away a lot of my money to charity.
- Dana would study English if she had more free time.
In spoken English, WOULD is often shortened to ‘d.
Asking Questions with Modal Helping Verbs
When you ask a question, the word order changes and the helping verb comes BEFORE the subject:
I can swim.
Can you swim?
Could we go to a movie tonight?
Yes, we could.
You should see that movie.
Should I see that movie?
I’ll help you.
Will you help me?
I would give away a lot of my money.
What would you do?