Modal Verbs

It’s April and the month has many events taking place: April Fools’ Day, Bogotá’s International Book Fair, Earth Day. For me, there is nothing quite like today: HAPPY LANGUAGE DAY, EVERYONE!  There are several things that you can do, others that you shouldn’t do and yet others that you have to do. But, how can we express our attitude towards these actions? Fortunately we have some SUPER VERBS to do that!

SUPERVERBS: Modal Verbs or Modal Auxiliaries

We have to make a list of these all-mighty words that help us mould our intention in regards to an action. That’s why they are called “Modal”: they tell us the mode of the action. And they are called “Auxiliaries” because they go before the main verb and carry the conjugations. Call them what you want, use the grammar handles if it makes you happy. Here, we’ll call them THE SUPERVERBS!


There are a number of reasons why I call them “The Superverbs”:

  •   They have their own conjugation pattern. With the exception of “Have to”, none of them takes the letter “s” when conjugated in the third person singular (he, she, it). She could call if she needs help| Mambutu may bring his kids to the cannibal feast |
  •  They command the sentence. The verb that follows them is ALWAYS in its base form. You must be new here | It should stop raining soon | We ought to buy the tickets while they’re still cheap. If you need to refer to a different tense (for instance, the past) you add the auxiliary without conjugation after the modal, I mean the Superverb. à You should have called earlier if you wanted me to save you some dinner |
  • THERE IS NEVER A PREPOSITION BETWEEN A MODAL VERB AND THE MAIN VERB, If there is one, it is part of the modal, I mean Superverb, as is the case with “Ought to” and “Have to”. I can swim as well as Basil can | Ought to Know” is my favorite song by Alanis Morissette |
  •  When you need to use them in an interrogative sentence, they don’t take any auxiliary. IN QUESTIONS, THEY ARE THE AUXILIARY, that’s why they are also called “Modal auxiliaries” (they don’t take orders from no one). So don’t mix them with “do”, “did”, or “does”. May I be of service? | Could you tell me where the morgue is? | Shall we go? |

We can also argue that these Superverbs have a philosophical dimension as they have to do with epistemic mode: Her Twitter account has many followers, she must be very popular (this is likely to be true). But they also have a deontic mode: You must be this tall to ride the Steven Seagal Rollercoaster (It is necessary that something occurs).

But this is a matter for another day. For now let’s take a look at the practical usages and rules of our super friends here, the modal verbs. Let’s start by saying that they DO have a past tense like the rest of verbs, so we’re going to analyze them in their group.

Image kindly designed by Diana Lucía Gómez.

Can – Could

The first thing is that these two verbs have two applications: ability and permission. Can” is better used for ability and “Could” to ask a favor. Examples: You can’t go into that room (you don’t have permission) | Justin Bieber can solve a Rubik’s cube puzzle really fast | Could you turn down the volume? I really dislike Justin Bieber’s music |

Also, “Could” can also be used to refer to a distant possibility à I could give you a ride if you can’t get a cab (it’s very important that you make great emphasis in the word “Could” when you pronounce it to mean possibility so as to make your listener understand that chances are very slim).

May – Might

There is a lot of confusion at times about when and how to use these two Superverbs. Well, let’s understand them like this: they express permission and possibility, but not ability. There is an old joke about a student who raises his hand in class and asks “Can I go to the bathroom?” And the teacher answers “Well, I don’t know if you can, but you may”. It’s old and quite incorrect, but it illustrates that “Can” is used for ability, whereas “May” isn’t.

 “Might” is preferred when talking about possibility, underlining that there is a great deal of doubt regarding what you are discussing. For example: Sister Calphurnia may come after dinner (there is a possibility that Calphurnia shows up). | Sister Calphurnia might come after dinner (it is very doubtful that Calphurnia makes an appearance, but you never know).

Image kindly designed by Diana Lucía Gómez.

Shall – Should

Here is quite a dynamic couple. Let’s say they represent two things: obligation and invitation. “Shall”, in its most classical sense, is an unbreakable obligation. Take as an example the ten commandments of the Catholic tradition. They don’t say “It would be good if you didn’t kill anybody” or “It’s not groovy to bear false witness”. No. These are orders that, allegedly, come from Yahweh himself, so “You shall not steal”, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s significant other”. Nowadays, “Shall” is more commonly used for invitations: “Shall we dance?”, “Shall I call you a cab?” It’s very important to remember that in this sense, “Shall” is only conjugated with “I” or “We”.

“Should” expresses a weak obligation, so it is often used in advice and suggestions. I should do more exercise (you say it in front of a mirror, you know it would be good for you, but somehow you can’t bring yourself to actually start working out) | That cough doesn’t sound too good, you should see a doctor (your friend’s health worries you and you give him sound advice).

 Image kindly designed by Diana Lucía Gómez.

Must – Have to

I know what you all are thinking: “Wait a minute, Mister Man: ‘Have to’ isn’t the past of ‘Must’” and you are right. But the thing is that “Must” doesn’t have a past form whereas “Have to” does (had to). Both of these verbs present a sense of obligation. However, MUST presents an obligation to yourself while HAVE TO presents an obligation to others. How does this work? At school you had to wear a uniform; if you didn’t, you could have a problem with the institution and/or your parents, but you yourself probably felt better in jeans and t-shirt, so your obligation was to other, not to yourself. On the other hand, I recently went to Bogotá’s International Book Fair and saw the collected works of Howard Phillips Lovecraft and I said to myself “I must buy this book”. Nobody is going to scold me if I don’t purchase the book and probably my parents won’t even care, but I will feel awful if I don’t get. Therefore, I have an obligation to myself here, not to others.

“Have to” is the only Superverb that takes an “S” when conjugated with he, she & it.

Will – Would

These two are very popular everywhere. They refer to the future: WILL is used for promises or decisions recently made about the future and WOULD is used for an imaginary future.  For example, you’re hanging out with your friends when the doorbell rings and you announce “I’ll get it!” Here you are letting people know that you just decided to open the door yourself. On the other hand, you are on the phone with a person who wants to buy your secondhand electrical turkey cleaver, when you arrange a meeting at a café, you say “I’ll be there at three p.m.”  In this way you are assuring your client that there is something in the future that you will do.

“Would” is the great auxiliary for unreal conditional phrases. So, every time that someone comes around a near-impossible scenario, the result is expressed with “Would”. For example, if I were a woman, I would only wear high heels (the proposition starts with a highly unlikely state, so the imagined developments after meeting the conditions of the opening phrase are expressed with “Would”).

 Image kindly designed by Diana Lucía Gómez.

Ought to

This Superverb stands alone. In practical terms it is very similar to SHOULD. But beyond a weak obligation, it also implies both requirement and expectation. This means that you can use it to give advice: you ought to see a doctor about that cough. You can also use it to explain that is something is necessary: applicants ought to fill out this form in order to participate in the Free Taxidermy Course contest. Finally, you can also use it to express that you think is bound to happen soon: this rain has gone on for too long, it ought to let up shortly (it can’t keep raining for long after a long downpour, so you expect it will stop soon).

This has been a rather long post, but I hope you will find the information in it useful and you apply it. Remember, the best way to make some new learning stick is to use it while it’s fresh. That kind of connection is a long-lasting one. Please comment with your questions, remarks, clarifications, doubts, mnemonics, wishes, and/or anecdotes.

It needs to be said that all the ilustrations of Basil the Bunny have been kindly designed by Diana Lucía Gómez. To her, many thanks. And to end with one of the most famous lines featuring a Superverb (modal or auxiliary), “May the Force be with you”.


One thought on “Modal Verbs

  1. Forgot to explain that SHOULD could also be used as a CONDITIONAL: Your mission JIm, should you choose to accept it, is….

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