Modal (Auxiliary) verbs in English

Modal (Auxiliary) verbs in EnglishThe meaning and the role of modal verbs in English. Tables with examples of the use of modal verbs in sentences in the past, present and future forms.

English modal verbs is a group of verbs that express the attitude towards an action, but not the action itself. In other words, modal verbs help the speaker to show that he considers a certain action possible or impossible, necessary or unnecessary, etc.

There are purely modal verbs, their equivalents and multifunctional verbs in the role of modal verbs.

What follows is a table with English modal verbs and their meanings.

Table 1. The Meaning of Modal Verbs in English

Present Past Future Meaning Example

Purely modal verbs

can could ——— The physical ability to perform an action. I can play the piano.
may might ——— The means and capability (permission) to perform an action. He may open the window (He is allowed to open the window).
must ———- ——— The necessity to perform an action, an order. She must read it.
ought to ———- ——— The same as the verb “Should” – should be used with the “to” participle. He ought not to smoke at 15.

The equivalents of the verb “must”

to have had (to) shall/will have (to) The same as must and ought to. I have to read.
to be was/were (to) ———– Should do what was has been planned. They are to come at 5 o’clock.


Multifunctional verbs

———– ———– shall The need, the necessity. The auxiliary verb used to form the future tense. Rarely used as the modal verb. They shall regret it if they do it.
should ———– ———– The recommendation. “Softer” that Shall. He should do exercises (He is recommended to do exercises).


———– ———– will The desire, the mood. The auxiliary verb used to form the future tense. I will see you tomorrow
need ———– ———– The need. She needs to eat meat.
dare dared ———– To dare, to dare say. Do they dare to say this?

I dare say she looks perfectly.

Modal verbs in English have certain particular qualities that you need to know.

First, modal verbs are never used without the notional verb. In this way they form a complex verbal predicate. You cannot say, for example, “I can” without specifying what exactly you can do. The notional verb that follows the modal is put in the base form (the infinitive) without the “to” particle. However, the modal verb ought to and the verbs to have, to be used in the modal role (refer to Table 1) require the infinitive with the “to” particle.

Second, modal verbs in the third person singular cannot have the -s (-es) ending.

Third, modal verbs don’t have non-personal forms (the gerund form, the infinitive, the participle).

Fourth, many modal verbs don’t have the future tense form, some don’t have the past tense form, or the present tense form (refer to Table 1).

Fifth, the interrogative form and the negative form of the modal verbs is formed without auxiliary verbs. See more details in the Table 2 and Table 3 below.

Table 2. The interrogative form of the modal verbs

Verb Interrogative form Meaning of the verb
can Саn you float? Doubt in the possibility of an action
may May I open a window? Permission for an action, request
must Must she go to school? Question about the necessity of an action
ought to Ought I to warn him of her illness? Question about the appropriateness of an action
to have Do I have to float? Doubt in the necessity of an action that needs to be performed.
to be Am I to do it? Doubt in the necessity of an action that was planned to performed.
shall Shall we begin? Receiving instructions, an order or an offer.
should How should I know? Bewilderment, impressive amazement
will Will you give him this notebook?

Will you have some more cake?

Polite request; polite offer, invitation
need Need I read it? Doubt in the necessity of a certain action
dare How dare you do it? Having the guts / impudence to do something

Table 3. The negative form of the modal verbs

Verb Negative form Meaning of the verb
can He cannot float. Prohibition, refusal.
may You may not do it. Strict prohibition, flat refusal to perform an action.
must She must not go to school. Strict prohibition, flat refusal to perform an action.
ought to You ought not to go without a hat. Regret that an undesirable action was performed.
to have You don’t have to help them. No need to perform an action, due to certain circumstances.
to be You are not to come. No need to perform the action that has been planned.
shall You shall not run away. An order, precaution, threat, warning toward another person (other persons).
should She shouldn’t have gone there.

You should have told me the truth.

Regret that an undesirable action took place; Regret, reproach, reprimand regarding the performed action.
will He won’t (will not) go to dinner. Refusal, stubborn reluctance to do something.
need You needn’t worry. No necessity to do something
dare For a while he dared not move. Have the courage to do something.

Many modal verbs in English (except equivalents and some multifunctional verbs) have the probable meaning.

Table 4. The probable meaning of the modal verbs

Verb The probable meaning Example
can Doubt, surprise, mistrust – really, that couldn’t be.
Used only in the interrogative and negative sentences.
Can he be still sleeps?

They can’t all be lying.

may The assumption with uncertainty, doubt – maybe.
Used in the affirmative and negative sentences.
He may be at office.
must The assumption with certainty – probably, might be.
Used only in the affirmative sentences.
She must know his E-mail.
ought to The same as the verb “must”. Used much less frequently. He ought to / (should) be at restaurant now.
to have Doesn’t have  
to be Doesn’t have  
shall Doesn’t have  
should The same as the verb “must”.
Used much less frequently.
You should be sleepy by now.
will Expressing the assumption – probably, might be. That would be sister.
need Doesn’t have  
dare Doesn’t have