Meaning and Functions of Modal Verbs

In the previous article, we examined some types of modal verbs in the English language. Let’s now look globally at the topic of modal verbs and learn by examples what roles the same words can play in different contexts.

So, modal verbs in English can express:


In order to talk about physical ability or the general ability to do something, we use can or be able to (in the past tense could or was / were able to).

I am an adult, so I can take my own decisions. (Present)

When he was a child, he could / was able to ride a bicycle. (Repeated actions in the past)

If we are talking about a one-time action, about some kind of applied effort that gave a result, we turn to such constructions as manage to or succeed in (+ ing form).

We finally managed to reach an agreement! (One-time achievement)


Lack of ability

Of course, when talking about skills, we often use negative forms of modal verbs, namely cannot / not able to (in the past tense could not / was not able to) to describe repeated situations or the person’s constant state.

You just can’t dance! (Present)

She is not able to understand all their problems.

When he was younger, he couldn’t ride a bike. (Past time)

When we talk about an unsuccessful attempt to do something, we used the didn’t manage to / didn’t succeed in constructs.

I tried hard but still didn’t manage to come in time.



You can learn more about this function of modal verbs here. Now let’s just remember the general rules. The need for something can be expressed in different ways, depending on how strong this need is and to whom it is addressed.

You must wear a uniform at work. (This may be in the rules of the company, so the strongest modal is used)

I must do it today! (This is my decision. Often must is used when we address ourselves)

You have to fill in the form. (It conveys the same meaning as must, but is less strong)

We ought to / should respect each other. (Less powerful than must are often used as advice rather than obligation)

Do I need to do this? (Is there any necessity?)


Lack of necessity

To indicate a lack of need, we usually refer to the modal verbs don’t have to / don’t need to.

You don’t have to go to the office on Saturday, it’s a holiday. (No need, but you can do it if you wish)

We didn’t need to go shopping; the fridge is full. (There was no need in the past)



To express a prohibition on something, there are two verbs: mustn’t and can’t.

You can’t / mustn’t park here. (Forbidden, against rules or law)



If we are confident in something in the affirmative form, we use the verb must.

He must be at work. It is Monday morning. (We are sure of it)

However, if we are sure that something cannot be so, we use the verb can’t.

They can’t be home now. They’ve gone on vacation. (We are sure that this is not so)



Could / may / mightare the modal verbs of probability. Their peculiarity lies in the fact that they do not have a past form and, if you need to say about the probability of past events or actions, these modal verbs acquire the perfect form.

I could / may / might be late for the meeting. (There is a possibility)

You could / might have been hurt! (But that did not happen)


Asking for permission

In this case, modal verbs differ in the degree of their formality or politeness.

Can I ask you something? (Informal)

Could I ask you something, please? (More polite)

May / might I ask you something, please? (Formal)


Giving/refusing permission

Partially, we have already touched upon such a meaning of modal verbs earlier.

You can smoke here. (Informal permission)

You may smoke here. (Formal option - more often in writing)

You can’t / mustn’t take photos. (Informal)

You may not take photos. (Formal option - more often in writing)


Also, permission to do something can be expressed using be allowed to.

All employees are allowed to use the parking zone.


Making requests

You can express a request in English in several ways, from a more formal and polite to an informal one.

Can / Will you show this to me? (Informal request)

Could / Would you show this to me? (More polite request)

Can I have some tea? (Informal request)

Could / May I have some tea? (Formal request)

Might I have some tea? (Very formal request)


Making an offer

If we offer someone our services or help, we can do it this way:

I will help you with your report. (I express a desire to help)

Shall / Can / Could I help you with your report? (We clarifyy whether a person wants to get help from us)

In the same way, we can express an invitation to action:

Shall we go to the cinema?

We can / could watch a movie tonight.


Advice and criticism

If we want to give someone a piece of advice, modal verbs such as ought to / should come in handy:

You ought to / should eat more vegetables. (Advise)

You must eat more vegetables. (Strongly advise)

It also happens that someone made a mistake in the past, or didn’t do as expected. In this case, you can express your criticism or give some advice “post factum”. In this case, the modal verbs take on the Perfect form:

You ought to / should have listened to me. (But you didn’t)


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