Rliberni's Blog – Radical language

January 6, 2010

Using Modal Verbs – part two

In part one we looked at a definition and some of the language functions in English where we use a modal verb. I want to continue with more functions here.

If you listen or read English you will see that modal verbs are commonly used in a variety of different ways. It is, therefore, worth spending some time to make sure you know how and when to use them. Correct and appropriate use will enhance your English and help it to develop and grow.

Here are more functions which require a modal verb.

  • probability
  • prohibition
  • obligation
  • advice


May, might, ought to and should are the modal verbs used for probability.

  • I may go abroad to work next year. (I’m thinking about it)
  • I might apply for a job in the USA. (It looks good but I’m a little apprehensive still)
  • You shouldn’t have any problems getting a place on the course with your qualifications. (Id be very surprised if they didn’t accept you)
  • House prices should improve this first quarter. (The conditions indicate this.)

Note that should is used for positive situations. For negative statements we tend to use will.

  • House prices will plummet this year!
  • I’m sure that she won’t be chosen as team leader.


  • Things ought to get better from now on. (The newspapers are saying this.)
  • They ought not to have told her about Jenny and Steve. (probability resulting from an action in the past – she is upset or angry)

Try this exercise  from Gapfillers to test modal verbs for probability.


mustn’t, shouldn’t, oughtn’t to, may not, cannot are used to express prohibition it is also possible to use (be) not allowed to

  • You must not use pencil in this examination. (It is a rule and you will fail if you do.)
  • You shouldn’t tell anybody about the accident. (It might upset people.)
  • You ought not to stay alone in this house. (It isn’t safe but it is your choice.)
  • Visitors may not use the employee rest rooms – facilities are available in the foyer. (A softer/polite way of prohibition)
  • You  can’t smoke in public buildings in the UK. (This is a fact)
  • You are not allowed to ask questions during the presentation. (The speaker has requested this very strongly).

(We will look a little more at degree and politeness in the final posting on modal verbs.)


 must, should, ought to, all express an obligation to do something with varying levels of urgency. Have to and need to can also be used to express this language function. Sentences using these modal verbs are opposite in meaning to prohibition (where their negatives are used).

  • UK drivers must wear a seatbelt in their car. (It is the law.)
  • I had to go and see the Director this morning. (He asked me to go and see him.) We use have to where must isn’t possible, as here in the past tense.
  • You should stay in bed with that bad cold. (This is my opinion as you don’t seem very well.)
  • You ought to speak to Janice first before you ask Sean to help. (If you don’t she may be angry.)

Need (without to) can be used as a modal verb to show absence of obligation

  • You needn’t clear up, the cleaner will do that later.

or in questions.

  • Need you make so much noise? I can’t hear  television.

We use need to and have to interchangeably.

  • I don’t need to/have to attend the meeting on Friday.


ought to, ought not to, should, should not, must, must not, had better, had better not are all used to give advice which is another function of modal verbs. (for advice using conditionals see my post on conditionals)

  • You really ought to re-draft that proposal. (It’s not very well written.)
  • You ought not to go out tonight. (The weather is very bad.)
  • You should get your application in early. (It will show that you are organised.)
  • You shouldn’t let things get you down. (They’re not so important.)
  • You must get a new suit for the interview! (You want to make a good impression.)
  • You mustn’t let him borrow the car. (He’s a terrible driver!)
  • You had better let Dr Jones look at you. (You don’t look well to me.)
  • You had better not go out this evening. (The weather is bad and you are not well.)

Check you understand these usages. Learn them and above all use them as soon as you can!


  1. […] verbs 1 and modal verbs 2 we looked at the  way modal verbs are used for expressing different functions. In this post we […]

    Pingback by Using Modal Verbs – part 3 « Rliberni’s Blog — January 12, 2010 @ 2:27 pm | Reply

  2. Hi,
    These modal series are great. Thanks

    Comment by Eva Büyüksimkeşyan — February 6, 2010 @ 10:33 pm | Reply

    • Thank you Eva, I’m glad you found them useful! Let me know if there are other grammar topics you would like to see explored.

      Comment by rliberni — February 7, 2010 @ 11:29 pm | Reply

      • Hi Berni,

        Just found out that I can’t follow you on twitter because it says you blocked me so I can’t see ur tweets. I think U can follow me as I’m in one of ur lists. I just see u at #edchat because of that ı can’t reply U.
        I’m a fun of your blog.Hope to be able to follow your tweets too.


        Comment by Eva Büyüksimkeşyan — February 10, 2010 @ 7:32 pm

      • Hi Eva,
        how awful!! I certainly didn’t block you but I’ve checked and you’re right. Undone now so we can communicate again!!

        Comment by rliberni — February 10, 2010 @ 7:48 pm

  3. Can I replace “is strictly forbidden” with “can’t”?

    Comment by Chimchar — December 8, 2010 @ 8:16 pm | Reply

    • Hi Chimchar and thank you for your question. Actually strictly forbidden is a very strong rule and requires a strong modal verb such as must. It implies that there is no choice and the obligation is imposed from outside. ‘Must’, ‘not allowed’, or ‘have to’ would convey the sense better than can’t. Can’t is more neutral and doesn’t have the same weight.

      Comment by rliberni — December 14, 2010 @ 11:44 am | Reply

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