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Definition of modal auxiliary

  1. :  an auxiliary verb (such as can, must, might, may) that is characteristically used with a verb of predication and expresses a modal modification and that in English differs formally from other verbs in lacking -s and -ing forms

What is a modal verb?

A small group of auxiliary verbs, called the modal verbs (or modal auxiliary verbs, modal auxiliaries, or simply modals) are only used in combination with ordinary verbs. A modal verb changes the other verb’s meaning to something different from simple fact. Modals may express permission, ability, prediction, possibility, or necessity.

The principal modal verbs are: can, could, may, might, must, ought, shall, should, will, and would.

The modal verbs are different from ordinary verbs in several ways: 1) they have no inflections at all; that is, they lack an -ing form, an -ed form, and even an -s form for the third-person singular; 2) a modal verb is always followed by the infinitive form of a verb (unless that verb has already been stated) but never follows another verb; 3) modal verbs do not follow to and are not followed by to. (Ought to, like the near-modal verb have to, is a special case.)

In their simple form, modal verbs normally refer to present or future time:

I must be nearly there by now.

I might arrive a bit later than I’d anticipated.

A trip like this can take hours more than one expects.

As if English wasn’t hard enough to learn, modal verbs complicate things even further. There are a lot of irregularities in the English language that can be confusing to students learning it as a second to their native tongue. We don’t have genders like a lot of languages, instead we stick with “a” or “the”; we have 12 tenses most of which are never used; and we have so many similar words that often get mixed up like accept/except, bear/bare, and their/there. English and other Germanic languages, however, utilize modal verbs to help express a function and are vital to gaining command of the English language.

If you’re new to English, check out this grammar rules and tricks course to give you the edge you need to succeed.

What are Modal Verbs?

Modal verbs are used in conjunction with verbs to express their function. Examples are permission, obligation, lack of necessity, possibility, ability, prohibition, advice and probability. You must remember that modal verbs are followed by an infinitive but without the word “to”. Must in the last sentence is an example of a modal verb. Modal verbs are different from other auxiliary verbs as they cannot stand alone in a sentence. They should always be followed by the base verb word (infinitive) like, play, work, run, and eat. Conjugated verbs such as: likes, played, working, ran and eats do not work with modal verbs. For a true beginner student of English this elementary English course will teach you the basic concepts, grammar, numbers and the alphabet.

List of Modal Verbs

Must – to have to, or to be highly likely. Must can be used to express 100% certainty, a logical deduction or prohibition depending on the context.

  • It must be hard to work 60-hours a week. (probable)
  • You must listen to the professor during the lecture. (necessity)
  • She must not be late for her appointment. (necessity)
  • It must not be very hard to do. (probable)

Can – to be able to, to be allowed to, or possible. Can is a very common modal verb in English. It’s used to express ability, permission and possibility.

  • It can be done. (possible)
  • She can sleepover at Sara’s house this weekend. (allowed to)
  • The car can drive cross country. (able to)
  • It cannot be done. (impossible)
  • The doctor said he cannot go to work on Monday. (not allowed to)
  • She cannot focus with the car alarm going off outside. (not able to)

Could –to be able to, to be allowed to, or possible. Could is used when talking about an ability in the past or for a more polite way to ask permission.

  • Mark could show up to work today. (possible)
  • Could I come with you? (allowed to)
  • When I was in college I could stay up all night without consequence. (able to)
  • Mark could not come to work today. (possible/allowed)
  • Last night I could not keep my eyes open. (able to)

May – to be allowed to, it is possible or probable

  • May I sit down here? (allowed to)
  • I may have to cancel my plans for Saturday night. (possible/probable)
  • She may not arrive on time due to traffic. (possible)

Might – to be allowed to, possible or probable. Might is used when discussing something that has a slight possibility of happening, or to ask for permission in a more polite way.

  • Chris might show up to the concert tonight. (possible/probable)
  • Might I borrow your computer? (Many people don’t say this in American English, instead they would say Can I borrow your computer? Or May I borrow your computer?)

Need – necessary

  • Need I say more? (necessary)
  • You need not visit him today. (not necessary)

Should – to ask what is the correct thing to do, to suggest an action or to be probable. Should usually implies advice, a logical deduction or a so-so obligation.

  • Should I come with her to the dentist? (permission)
  • Joe should know better. (advice/ability)
  • It should be a very quick drive to the beach today. (possibility)
  • Margaret should not jump to conclusions. (advice)

Had better – to suggest an action or to show necessity

  • Evan had better clean up the mess he made. (necessity)
  • Megan had better get to work on time tomorrow. (necessity)

Will – to suggest an action or to be able to

  • John will go to his second period class tomorrow. (action)
  • It will happen. (action)
  • She will see the difference. (be able to)
  • Eva will not drive the Volkswagen. (not do an action)
  • Joe will not study tonight because he has to work. (not be able to)

Would – to suggest an action, advice or show possibility in some circumstances

  • That would be nice. (advise/possibility/action)
  • She would go to the show, but she has too much homework. (action)
  • Mike would like to know what you think about his presentation. (action)

Test yourself with this daily grammar practical. Understanding fundamental grammar concepts will help you learn to speak English with grace and ease.

Modal verbs are so common that most English speakers don’t even know what the grammatical name for them is. Note that modal auxiliary verbs are a type of auxiliary verb. Auxiliary verbs encompass tenses, aspects, modality (modal verbs), voice, emphasis and so on. There are many other category of verbs in English like phrasal verbs. In this ESL (English as a Second Language) skills course you can learn natural English phrases. Learn even more about English grammar in this introduction to grammar course.

  1. can
Use Examples
ability to do sth. in the present (substitute form: to be able to) I can speak English.
permission to do sth. in the present (substitute form: to be allowed to) Can I go to the cinema?
request Can you wait a moment, please?
offer I can lend you my car till tomorrow.
suggestion Can we visit Grandma at the weekend?
possibility It can get very hot in Arizona.
  1. could
Use Examples
ability to do sth. in the past (substitute form: to be able to) I could speak English.
permission to do sth. in the past (substitute form: to be allowed to) I could go to the cinema.
polite question * Could I go to the cinema, please?
polite request * Could you wait a moment, please?
polite offer * I could lend you my car till tomorrow.
polite suggestion * Could we visit Grandma at the weekend?
possibility * It could get very hot in Montana.
  1. may
Use Examples
possibility It may rain today.
permission to do sth. in the present (substitute form: to be allowed to) May I go to the cinema?
polite suggestion May I help you?
  1. might
Use Examples
possibility (less possible than may) * It might rain today.
hesitant offer * Might I help you?
  1. must
Use Examples
force, necessity I must go to the supermarket today.
possibility You must be tired.
advice, recommendation You must see the new film with Brad Pitt.
  1. must not/may not
Use Examples
prohibition (must is a little stronger) You mustn’t work on dad’s computer.
You may not work on dad’s computer.
  1. need not
Use Examples
sth. is not necessary I needn’t go to the supermarket, we’re going to the restaurant tonight.
  1. ought to

simliar to shouldought to sounds a little less subjective

Use Examples
advice You ought to drive carefully in bad weather.
obligation You ought to switch off the light when you leave the room.
  1. shall

used instead of will in the 1st person

Use Examples
suggestion Shall I carry your bag?
  1. should
Use Examples
advice You should drive carefully in bad weather.
obligation You should switch off the light when you leave the room.
  1. will
Use Examples
wish, request, demand, order (less polite than would) Will you please shut the door?
prediction, assumption I think it will rain on Friday.
promise I will stop smoking.
spontaneous decision Can somebody drive me to the station? – I will.
habits She’s strange, she’ll sit for hours without talking.
  1. would
Use Examples
wish, request (more polite than will) Would you shut the door, please?
habits in the past Sometimes he would bring me some flowers.