Modal verbs are everywhere! They are a big part of speech in the English language. Frankly, in English we use them so much that after a while they become invisible to us native speakers. Which is why we need to make them visible again. That’s what today's English podcast is all about. Start learning English grammar the easy way, through listening.
If you are learning to speak English, you know
modal verbs are an essential component of the structure of a language, because they enable us to carry out actions or show our attitude towards something. Something we will all want to do at some point in a conversation. But it can be quite difficult to understand when you come from another language.
So the modal verb “could”, if used in conjunction with another verb, will change the meaning of the sentence. For example, in the sentence “Billy could eat like a horse,” the modal verb “could” is used alongside the verb “eat” to change its meaning by implying that Billy has the capability to eat a lot.
As always, the best way to learn this type of verb modification is to hear them being used. So today we have lots and lots of practice sentences which walk you through how modal verbs can and should be used to bring your English conversations alive.
Eliminate Visible Conjunction Alongside Massively Interchangeable Surmising Influence Expectations
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Today’s English podcast is a grammar lesson on modal verbs. Modal verbs are in the top half a percent of the most frequently used English words, so you’re going to need to know how to use them correctly. This podcast will help you learn to use modal verbs in the right places, in the right context, which will help your fluency in English immensely!
Hello, I’m Hilary, and you’re listening to Adept English. We will help you to speak English fluently. All you have to do is listen. So start listening now and find out how it works.
Remember a little while ago, I did a really useful podcast on ‘rules for using modal verbs’ - and how not to make mistakes, grammatical mistakes I mean? It was called ‘3 Simple Rules for Using MODALS Correctly’ and this is podcast episode number 502 from January this year, 2022.
I gave you three simple rules to help you eliminate the most frequently made mistakes with modal verbs. And in that podcast, I gave you a good exercise, a quiz so that you could practice being the teacher, correcting all the common errors that people make with modal verbs.
So a quick bit of revision on that - these 3 rules were 1) modal verbs don’t change their word form - there’s no S on the end of ‘he can’, ‘she should’ or ‘it must’. So no S on the end of modal verbs for 3rd person singular present tense. Just as there’s no D on the end of modal verbs for the Simple Past Tense. So you don’t say ‘he cans’ and you don’t say ‘he coulded’.
There is a bit of change for the Present Perfect tense. You would say ‘he could have’, instead of ‘he could’, but if you just want to do Simple Past, that’s also ‘could’, COULD - it doesn’t change. For example ‘When he got to the river, he could see the bridge’. Simple past tense ‘could’. So modal verbs are easy in this respect, because their word form doesn’t change, they don’t change as much as normal verbs.
Rule number 2) was that most modal verbs don’t use ‘to’ with the infinitive. You don’t say ‘she should to go there’. You say ‘She should go there’. The two exceptions to this are ‘ought to’ and ‘have to’. ‘I ought to go and make some lunch now’ and ‘I have to think about my health’. But every other modal verb - there’s no ‘to’ for the infinitive.
You can use ‘got to’ as a modal verb as well - and this is the same meaning as ‘ought to’ and ‘have to’. But I was always taught in school to minimise use of the verb ‘to get’, especially in your writing. There are so many more descriptive and varied words to be used instead. Trying to use ‘to get’ less enriches your vocabulary!
And rule number 3) from that podcast, was to make modal verbs negative, you just add ‘not’ after it. There’s no worrying about using ‘don’t’, ‘do not’, ‘hasn’t’. There’s no ‘isn’t’, ‘aren’t’, ‘wasn’t’, ‘won’t’ with most modal verbs! Just put ‘not’ after the modal. It’s just ‘I should not eat so much chocolate’ or ‘I must not talk about this’ or ‘I can not do this’. That last one gets joined ‘cannot’, CANNOT making one word. It’s the only modal verb that does this.
The other exception to this rule number 3) ‘just add not’ for the negative is with the modal verb ‘have to’. So you’d say ‘He doesn’t have to do the washing up tonight’. ‘You don’t have to eat the cake’. And in the past tense ‘He hasn’t had to do the washing up tonight’ or ‘He didn’t have to do the washing up tonight’ is another way of saying that. Or ‘You haven’t had to eat the cake!’, ‘You didn’t have to eat the cake!’. But every other modal verb - just a ‘not’ after it makes it negative. And although ‘can’ joins with ‘not’ to make a word - ‘cannot’, most modal verbs can use contraction.
So an example of this would be ‘should not’ can be said as ‘shouldn’t’, ‘would not’ can become ‘wouldn’t’ - and even ‘cannot’ can be said as ‘can’t’. The only modal verb that doesn’t contract to have an N’T for the ‘not’ on the end is ‘may’, MAY. We don’t usually say ‘mayn’t’, MAYN’T - though I notice my spell checker seems to think this is a word. I think ‘mayn’t’ is just difficult to say and ‘may not’ is easier. So anyway these three are really good rules for using modal verbs and avoiding most of the errors that people make with them.
So let’s go a little further today - and look more at the meaning of these modal verbs. There are such a lot of them - It’s confusing. ‘Can’, ‘could’, ‘may’, ‘might’, ‘should’, ‘ought to’, ‘must’, ‘have to’, ‘will’, ‘would’. Uugh! So how do you know how and when to use these modal verbs correctly? What do they actually mean and where would you use them? Actually if you understand the meanings and you can use these modal verbs correctly, this will help your English fluency massively.
Because if you go to our Most Common Five Hundred Words Course - that’ the one on our website that’s really helpful for consolidating your basic English vocabulary, simply through listening? Well, yes that one - if you search the 500 Most Common Words list, which you’ll find at the end of the course, then the only modal verb that doesn’t appear in that most common 500 words list is….’ought’, OUGHT. And the only reason that the modal verb ‘ought’ doesn’t appear in there….is perhaps that there are three other modal verbs which mean exactly the same as ‘ought’.
Can you name them, do you know what they are? [PAUSE] Well, they are ‘must’, ‘should’ and ‘have to’. They all mean the same as ‘ought’. ‘Ought’ may be just a little less popular because it’s harder to spell maybe? But we still use that a lot. Bear in mind - there are now estimated to be at least one million words in the English language, so when we’re talking about the ‘most common 500 words’, the most frequently used 500, then these really are all essential. That’s why our course is good - it’s unique - there’s no other course like it! You can still find it on our website at adeptenglish.com.
So let’s make modal verbs a bit easier still - by having a look at their meanings. I would say that you can group the modal verbs according to nine main areas of meaning. And within these meanings, the modal verbs that you can use - are quite interchangeable. That means within each group, it doesn’t really matter which modal verb you use. They mean pretty much the same. So let’s have a quick whizz through those main nine uses for modal verbs. Here goes - and I’ll give you lots of examples.
‘Likelihood’, is a good English word - LIKELIHOOD - and this is just a noun for ‘how likely something is’, or ‘how likely something is to happen’, perhaps. So some modal verbs are used to express likelihood - to say that something’s likely. If you’re surmising, you’re conjecturing about a situation that is current, that’s present tense, but something you can’t see and you don’t know for sure - then you use modal verbs ‘must’ and ‘should’. Examples:-
- They must be at the airport by now - or They should be at the airport by now. You’re there looking at the time, estimating how long it is to travel - and surmising they must have arrived by now.
- He should be able to see the house from the top of the hill. Again, you don’t know for sure, but you are surmising that it’s likely, in this current situation that ‘he can see the house from the top of the hill’.
So this is different from likelihood. Possibility is about the future - what’s possible. It’s not happened yet. So examples of modal verbs for possibility:-
- Judging by the weather forecast, it might snow this weekend. I hope not - it’s May, but here we are using ‘might’, MIGHT to talk about what may happen this coming weekend.
- She may become the first in her family to go to university. Again future possibility - so we can use also the verb ‘may’. It’s not * certain, but it’s possible. So ‘may’ and ‘might’ for possibility.
So here we’re using modal verbs like ‘would’, ‘could’, ‘may’ and ‘might’ to talk about ‘what happens if’. Examples here would be:-
- If it does snow this weekend, we could go tobogganing. (I doubt it, but anyway….)
- If we go to the cinema, I may fall asleep watching the film.
- He might say he’s not coming, if we tell him his sister’s here.
So they’re all ‘if statements’ and take ‘would’, ‘could’, ‘may’ and ‘might’.
If you want to talk about someone’s ability - how able they are to do something or be something - then modals ‘can’ and * ‘could’ are used. Examples?
- She can speak English really well.
- You can ride a bike without stabilizers now you’re six. And remember here, ‘could’ is past tense for modal verb ‘can’. So that * last example in the past tense would be…..
- You could ride a bike without stabilizers when you were six.
So the usual modals for asking permission are ‘may’ and ‘can’, ‘could’. There’s quite a polite feel with this usage.
- May I reach across you to get the potatoes?
- Could I please see inside your bag?
- Can I drive your car this evening?
And similar but slightly different…..
So again, there’s quite a lot of politeness going on here. Modal verbs soften things - and we like that, particularly in British English. So ‘would’ and ‘could’ are used when we’re making polite request of other people.
- Please would you help me with my bag?
- Could you possibly move your car?
- Please would you answer my text message?
A photograph of a woman drinking coffee. Modal verbs are essential for clear, concise and colorful writing. Listen to our podcast and get ready to impress the world with your powerful vocabulary.
If you want to influence someone, make a polite suggestion, you can use the modal verb ‘should’. This is a different use from the next category where ‘should’ is used for obligation, where you must do something. So polite suggestions using ‘should’ are perhaps slightly more common in US English than UK English, but understood by both.
- You should see my garden in the summer!
- You should try the coffee at his restaurant.
- He should apply for a job at the university.
So this is when there is more of an imperative, more of an obligation. And here we use ‘must’, ‘should’, ‘ought to’, ‘have to’. Some of these are about ‘meeting other people’s expectations’. Some of these are about more about a moral obligation - but within this category of meaning for modal verbs, you can use any of these, really - they do mean roughly the same thing.
- You must shower before coming to work.
- He has to be at the restaurant by 8 o’clock.
- I should go and visit my auntie in hospital.
- You ought to buy him dinner.
- She ought to change her socks.
So for habits are happening now, we use simple present. ‘I swim on Wednesdays’ or ‘I eat spinach sandwiches’. But when we’re talking about habits that used to happen in the past, we use ‘would’. It’s the same meaning as ‘used to’. So if we use ‘would’, for habits in the past, it sounds something like this.
- When I worked abroad, I would go out for dinner every night.
- When she was young, she would play netball every Tuesday.
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OK, so I’ve given you quite a lot of input there - and this podcast is one where you would benefit from listening to it more than once. And if modal verbs are a muddle for you, this podcast will help you sort out the meanings, with repeat listening and help you become more fluent in English.
Enough for now. Have a lovely day. Speak to you again soon. Goodbye.
Thank you so much for listening. Please help me tell others about this podcast by reviewing or rating it. And, please share it on social media. You can find more listening lessons and a free English course at adeptenglish.com