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Modal Auxiliaries

The modal auxiliaries (or modals) include the following:

can, could, may, might, must, should, will, would, . . .

Modals are always followed by the base form of a verb or auxiliary verb.

Modals are always the same form no matter what the subject is.

In standard American English, a predicate verb phrase cannot contain more than one modal.

correct

He will be able to go.

not correct

* He will can go.

Below are example sentences containing the modal may and the verb go. Notice that the form of the modal does not change. Also notice that the base form of a verb or auxiliary verb always follows the modal.

I may go.

You may go.

He may go.

It may go.

We may go.

They may go.

He may have gone.

They may have gone.

He may be going.

They may be going.

He may have been going.

They may have been going.


Modals and related verb phrases add meanings to verbs. Below are some of those meanings:

Ability/Availability

future: will be able to

present: can, am/is/are able to

past: could, was/were able to

Requests

present/future: can, could, will, would

Permission

future: will be allowed to

present/future: may, can, could, am/is/are allowed to

past: could, was/were allowed to

Possibility

present/future: may, might, could

past: may have, might have, could have

Impossibility

present/future: couldnít, canít

past: couldnít have

Advisability

present/future: should, ought to, had better

past: should have, ought to have, had better have

Expectation

present/future: should, ought to

past: should have, ought to have

Necessity

future: will have to

present/future: must, have to, has to

past: had to

Lack of Necessity

future: wonít have to

present/future: donít have to, doesnít have to

past: didnít have to

Prohibition

present/future: must not, may not, cannot

past: could not

Logical Deduction (=Probability)

present: must, have to, has to

past: must have, have to have, has to have


SOCIAL MODALS
The choice of modal depends partly on the social situation.

We often use formal language with strangers (people we donít know) and superiors (people with some power over us such as our employers, doctors, and teachers).

We often use informal language with our equals (our friends and family) and subordinates (people we have some power over such as our employees or children).

General requests (present and/or future):

Will you help me? (Informal Are you willing?)
Would you help me (Formal Are you willing?)
Can you help me? (Informal Are you able?)
Could you help me (Formal Are you able?)

Requests for permission (present and/or future):

May I leave the room? (Formal)
Might I leave the room? (Formal rarely used)
Could I leave the room? (Less formal
Can I leave the room? (Informal)

Expressing suggestions, advice, warnings, necessity (present and/or future):
The choice of modal depends partly on the urgency of the message or the authority of the speaker/writer or both.

Suggestions:
You could see the doctor.
You might see the doctor.

Advice:
You should see the doctor.
You ought to see the doctor.

Warning/strong advice:
You had better see the doctor.

Strong advice/necessity:
You have to see the doctor.
You have got to see the doctor.
You must see the doctor.

No choice:
You will see the doctor.


MODALS OF BELIEF (beliefs about present time)
The choice of modal depends partly on what the speaker or writer believes.

Someone is knocking at the door.

That could be Fred.
That might be Fred.
= Itís possible. Iím less than 50% sure.

That may be Fred.
= Itís possible. Iím less than 60% sure.

That should be Fred.
That ought to be Fred.
= Iím expecting Fred and I think heís here.

That must be Fred.
That has to be Fred.
That has got to be Fred.
= Itís probably Fred. I have a good reason to believe it is Fred.

That will be Fred.
= I believe it is Fred. Iím about 99% sure.

That canít be Mary.
That couldnít be Mary.
= Itís impossible. Iím about 99% sure.

That is Fred.
= I know itís Fred. Iím 100% sure.


MODALS OF BELIEF (beliefs about past time)
The choice of modal depends partly on what the speaker or writer believes.

Someone was knocking at the door.

That could have been Fred.
That might have been Fred.
= Itís possible. Iím less than 50% sure.

That may have been Fred.
= Itís possible. Iím less than 60% sure.

That must have been Fred.
That has to have been Fred.
That has got to have been Fred.
= It was probably Fred. I have a good reason to believe it was Fred.

That couldnít have been Mary.
= Itís impossible. Iím about 99% sure.

That was Fred.
= I know it was Fred. Iím 100% sure.


MODALS OF BELIEF (beliefs about future time) The choice of modal depends partly on what the speaker or writer believes.

What will the weather be like tomorrow?

It could rain tomorrow.
It might rain tomorrow.
= Itís possible. Iím less than 50% sure.

It may rain tomorrow.
= Itís possible. Iím less than 60% sure.

It should rain tomorrow.
It ought to rain tomorrow.
= I expect it will rain.

It will rain tomorrow.
= I believe it is going to rain. Iím about 99% sure.

It couldnít snow tomorrow.
= Itís impossible. Iím about 99% sure.

 Updated Tuesday, May 15, 2007 at 10:14:44 AM by John Fleming - flemingjohn@fhda.edu
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