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!

December 30, 2009

Using Modal verbs – part one

Modal verbs in English loom large as an area for study. They can be categorised in terms of function, intensity and meaning. Modals can be confusing as individual verbs can be used in many different ways.

The best way to tackle these verbs is to split them up into batches and learn the different usages of these groups of verbs.

Let’s begin with a definition.

What is a modal verb? –  a modal verb is a type of auxiliary verb, they can be used to express a certain functions such as possibility, necessity, ability etc.. or make an utterance more polite or tactful.

How are sentences with modal verbs constructed? – the modal verb is the first verb in the verb phrase and is followed by the infinitive (without to) of the main verb.

  • People may (modal verb ‘may’) arrive (main verb – infinitive without ‘to’) late because of the snow.

Modal verbs:

can, could, may, might, shall, should, will would, must, dare, be able to, ought to, need to, have to

Try this Gapfillers exercise on mixed modals to see if you can choose the correct one in each sentence.

In this first post on Modal verbs we will look at the following functions and explore which verbs can be used and how they differ.

  • ability
  • prediction
  • permission
  • deduction

Ability – being able to do something

Can is used to describe ability and can’t/cannot the lack of ability.

  • Joe can help us with this problem but Paula can’t.

We can also use  able to

  • Joe is able to help us with this. (there is a sense of surprise or confirmation when using this form).

NB: don’t use able to with the passive

For the future, present perfect, past, gerunds and infinitives  we use be able to –

  • They will be able to fix the pipes.
  • I wasn’t able to visit them over Christmas.
  • I haven’t been able to get out of the house since Tuesday.
  • I like being able to arrange my own timetable.

Unable to – is used for absence of ability in formal situations – We regret that we are unable to agree to your terms.

Could is used for possessing an ability in the past and in questions, and sentences with adverbs such as hardly or only

  • She could speak before she was a year old.
  • Could the doctor see you? 
  • I could only see the nurse.

Other uses of could for ability are:

  • inability – Even though he was a vet he couldn’t cure his dog.
  • missed opportunity – We could have visited them but we didn’t have enough time.
  • disappointment – You could have told me that they had divorced!

Prediction – making statements about what will happen in the future

Will and won’t are used for prediction in the present tense:

  • You should take warm clothes – it will be cold in December.
  • Maisie won’t be home yet she doesn’t finish work until 6.00.

Would is used for the past:

  • We always knew they would marry eventually!

Must, should and have (got) to can also be used for prediction.

  • That must be Stephen’s brother. (deduced from information you have)
  • That has got to be Stephen’s brother! (He looks just like him)
  • We shouldn’t have a problem recognising Stephen. (We have a very good description)

Try this Gapfillers exercise on prediction


Can, can’t, could, may and might are usually used for expressing permission or absence thereof. There are degrees of politeness inherent in the choice of verb.

  • Can I borrow your pen? – Yes, you can/Sorry, I’m afraid  you can’t, I’m using it.
  • Could I borrow your pen? (more polite) (answer with can/may or can’t)
  • May I borrow your pen? (more formal) (answer with may/can’t)
  • Might I borrow your pen? (very formal – perhaps the person is a stranger) (answer as before)

Deduction – drawing a conclusions

Can, could, may, might, must, have (got) to, should

  • Take sandwiches as food can be very expensive on the train.
  •  A temperature could be a sign of something more serious.
  • The trains may be running late with all this snow.
  • That might be Jasper he said he would call.
  • He must be on his way.
  • He has got to be at least fifty years old now.
  • We should all get decent bonuses this year judging by the company results.

Remember this is a quick summary to help you test your knowledge of the rules and how to apply them. It is worth checking for more detailed information in your grammar book.  (see my post on choosing dictionaries and grammar books)

You may like to look at these posts:

Doing a language audit

Making progress as an Advanced learner

Advanced learners – a Pecha Kucha

March 23, 2009

Make or Do – an English language bugbear!

I’m starting my first post with the thorny problem of using the verbs ‘make’ and ‘do’ which can be tricky. It is difficult to know which to use and many students end up plumping for the wrong one!

Make and Do

Two of the most tyrannical words in English – how do you know which to use!!!


Make – to bring into existence/produce i.e. where it hadn’t existed before

    • a request
    • money.
    • a mistake
    • an appointment
    • a trip
    • a choice
    • a decision
    • changes
    • a forecast
    • sure
    • a phone call
    • an offer
    • a complaint
    • progress
    • an excuse


Do – perform an action

    • homework
    • well
    • repairs
    • harm
    • a job
    • a deal
    • wrong
    • something for someone
    • research
    • a favour
    • an exercise
    • some work
    • business
    • an experiment
    • badly

Visualise your choice of make or do and assess it against the guidelines above. It won’t always be foolproof but it should help you with your choice.

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