• What are modal verbs?

Modals (also called modal verbs, modal auxiliary verbs, modal auxiliaries) are special verbs which behave irregularly in English. They are different from normal verbs like “work, play, visit…” They give additional information about the function of the main verb that follows it. They have a great variety of communicative functions.

  • What to keep in mind when using modals
Explanation Sample sentences
Do not use modals for things which happen definitely. The sun rises in the east. – A modal can’t be used in this sentence.
They have no -s in the 3rd person singular. He can play football.
Questions are formed without do/does/did. Can he speak Spanish?
It follows a main verb in its infinitive. They must read the book.
There are no past froms (except could and would). He was allowed to watch the film.
When you use the past particple you tell about things which did not happen in the past. You should have told me.
  • Long and contracted forms of modals
Affirmative Negative
Long forms Contracted forms Long forms Contracted forms
can cannot can’t
could could not couldn’t
may may not
might might not
ought to ought not to oughtn’t to
need need not needn’t
shall ‘ll shall not shan’t
should ‘d should not shouldn’t
will ‘ll will not won’t
would ‘d would not wouldn’t
  • Examples of modal verbs

Here is a list of modals with examples:

Modal Verb Expressing Example
must Strong obligation You must stop when the traffic lights turn red.
logical conclusion / Certainty He must be very tired. He’s been working all day long.
must not prohibition You must not smoke in the hospital.
can ability I can swim.
permission Can I use your phone please?
possibility Smoking can cause cancer.
could ability in the past When I was younger I could run fast.
polite permission Excuse me, could I just say something?
possibility It could rain tomorrow!
may permission May I use your phone please?
possibility, probability It may rain tomorrow!
might polite permission Might I suggest an idea?
possibility, probability I might go on holiday to Australia next year.
need not lack of necessity/absence of obligation I need not buy tomatoes. There are plenty of tomatoes in the fridge.
should/ought to 50 % obligation I should / ought to see a doctor. I have a terrible headache.
advice You should / ought to revise your lessons
logical conclusion He should / ought to be very tired. He’s been working all day long.
had better advice You ‘d better revise your lessons

Let’s look at each modal verb separately, and the functions they help to express:

  1. WILL
  • Making personal predictions
    I don’t think the Queen will ever abdicate.
    I doubt if I’ll stay here much longer.
  • Talking about the present with certainty (making deductions)
    I’m sure you will understand that there is nothing the Department can do
    There’s a letter for you. It’ll be from the bank: they said they’d be writing.
  • Talking about the future with certainty
    I won’t be in the office until 11; I’ve got a meeting.
    Don’t bother ringing: they’ll have left for their 10 o’clock lecture.
  • Talking about the past with certainty
    I’m sure you will have noticed that attendance has fallen sharply.
  • Reassuring someone
    Don’t worry! You’ll settle down quickly, I’m sure.
    It’ll be all right! You won’t have to speak by yourself.
  • Making a decision
    For the main course I’ll have grilled tuna.
    I’m very tired. I think I’ll stay at home tonight.
  • Making a semi-formal request
    Will you open the window, please? It’s very hot in here.
    Sign this, will you?
  • Offering to do something
    You stay there! I’ll fetch the drinks.
  • Insistence; habitual behaviour
    I’m not surprised you don’t know what to do! You will keep talking in class.
    Damn! My car won’t start. I’ll have to call the garage.
  • Making a promise or a threat
    You can count on me! I’ll be there at 8 o’clock sharp.
    If you don’t finish your dinner off, you’ll go straight to bed!

    2. SHALL

Shall is a form of will, used mostly in the first person. Its use, however, is decreasing, and in any case in spoken English it would be contracted to “-ll” and be indistinguishable from will.

The only time you do need to use it is in questions, when:

  • Making offers
    Shall I fetch you another glass of wine?
  • Making suggestions
    Shall we go to the cinema tonight?

    3. MAY & MIGHT

May & might sometimes have virtually the same meaning; they are used to talk about possibilities in the past, present or future. (“Could” is also sometimes used).

May is sometimes a little bit “more sure” (50% chance); whereas might expresses more doubt (maybe only a 30% chance).

May & might are used, then, for:

  • Talking about the present or future with uncertainty
    I may go shopping tonight, I haven’t decided yet.
    England might win the World Cup, you never know.
  • Talking about the past with uncertainty
    I’m surprised he failed. I suppose he might have been ill on the day of the exam.
    They can also sometimes be used for talking about permission, but usually only in formal situations. Instead of saying May I open a window? we would say Is it all right/OK if I open a window? or Can I open a window? for example. You might, however, see:
    Students may not borrow equipment without written permission.

    4. MAY

  • Talking about things that can happen in certain situations
    If the monitors are used in poorly lit places, some users may experience headaches.
    Each nurse may be responsible for up to twenty patients.
  • With a similar meaning to although
    The experiment may have been a success, but there is still a lot of work to be done. (= Although it was a success, there is still …)


Saying that something was possible, but did not actually happen

You saw me standing at the bus stop! You might have stopped and given me a lift


  • As the past of will, for example in indirect speech
    “The next meeting will be in a month’s time” becomes
    He said the next meeting would be in a month’s time.
  • Polite requests and offers (a ‘softer’ form of will)
    Would you like another cup of tea?
    Would you give me a ring after lunch?
    I’d like the roast duck, please.
  • In conditionals, to indicate ‘distance from reality’: imagined, unreal, impossible situations
    If I ruled the world, every day would be the first day of Spring.
    It would have been better if you’d word processed your assignment.
  • After ‘wish’, to show regret or irritation over someone (or something’s) refusal or insistence on doing something (present or future)
    I wish you wouldn’t keep interrupting me.
    I wish it would snow.

    (This is a complicated area! Check in a good grammar book for full details!)
  • Talking about past habits (similar meaning to used to)
    When I was small, we would always visit relatives on Christmas Day.
  • Future in the past
    The assassination would become one of the key events of the century.


  • Talking about ability
    Can you speak Mandarin? (present)
    She could play the piano when she was five. (past)
  • Making requests
    Can you give me a ring at about 10?
    Could you speak up a bit please? (slightly more formal, polite or ‘softer’)
  • Asking permission
    Can I ask you a question?
    Could I ask you a personal question? (more formal, polite or indirect)
  • Reported speech
    Could is used as the past of can.
    He asked me if I could pick him up after work.
  • General possibility
    You can drive when you’re 17. (present)
    Women couldn’t vote until just after the First World War.
  • Choice and opportunities
    If you want some help with your writing, you can come to classes, or you can get some 1:1 help.
    We could go to Stratford tomorrow, but the forecast’s not brilliant. (less definite)
  • Future probability
    Could (NOT can) is sometimes used in the same way as might or may, often indicating something less definite.
    When I leave university I might travel around a bit, I might do an MA or I suppose I could even get a job.
  • Present possibility
    I think you could be right you know. (NOT can)
    That can’t be the right answer, it just doesn’t make sense.
  • Past possibility
    If I’d known the lecture had been cancelled, I could have stayed in bed longer.


Examples here refer to British English; there is some variation in American English.

  • Necessity and obligation

Must is often used to indicate ‘personal’ obligation; what you think you yourself or other people/things must do. If the obligation comes from outside (eg a rule or law), then have to is often (but not always) preferred:

I really must get some exercise.
People must try to be more tolerant of each other.
You mustn’t look – promise?
If you own a car, you have to pay an annual road tax.

  • Strong advice and invitations
    I think you really must make more of an effort.
    You must go and see the film – it’s brilliant.
    You must come and see me next time you’re in town.
  • Saying you think something is certain
    This must be the place – there’s a white car parked outside.
    You must be mad.
    What a suntan! You must have had great weather.

  • The negative is expressed by can’t:
    You’re going to sell your guitar! You can’t be serious!
    She didn’t wave – she can’t have seen me.


  • Giving advice
    I think you should go for the Alfa rather than the Audi.
    You shouldn’t be drinking if you’re on antibiotics.
    You shouldn’t have ordered that chocolate dessert – you’re not going to finish it.

  • Obligation: weak form of must
    The university should provide more sports facilities.
    The equipment should be inspected regularly.
  • Deduction
    The letter should get to you tomorrow – I posted it first class.
  • Things which didn’t or may/may not have happened
    I should have renewed my TV licence last month, but I forgot.
    You shouldn’t have spent so much time on that first question.
  • Ought to
    Ought to usually has the same meaning as should, particularly in affirmative statements in the present:
    You should/ought to get your hair cut.
    Should is much more common (and easier to say!), so if you’re not sure, use should.



1. There are plenty of tomatoes in the fridge. You ____ buy any.

a. needn’t              b. may not           c. mustn’t

2. It’s a hospital. You ____ smoke.

a. needn’t          b. don’t have to             c. mustn’t

3. If you want to learn to speak English fluently, you ____ to work hard.

a. needn’t          b. need           c. could

4. ____ I ask a question? Yes, of course.

a. may          b. must          c. should

5. You ____ leave small objects lying around . Such objects ____ be swallowed by children.

a. need & may          b. shouldn’t & may            c. may not & must

6. The teacher said we ____ read this book for our own pleasure as it is optional. But we ____ read it if we don’t want to.

a. must & could             b. needn’t & mustn’t            c. can & can









Conditional Sentences are also known as Conditional Clauses or If Clauses. Conditional sentences play an important role in grammar. They are used to express that the action in the main clause (without if) can only take place if a certain condition (in the clause with if) is fulfilled. They describe a condition and the result that follows. Conditional sentences are made up of two parts: the if-clause (condition) and the main clause (result that follows). Basically, there are three conditionals:

Conditional sentence type Usage If clause verb tense Main clause verb tense
Zero General truths Simple present Simple present
Type 1 A possible condition and its probable result Simple present Simple future
Type 2 A hypothetical condition and its probable result Simple past Present conditional or Present continuous conditional
Type 3 An unreal past condition and its probable result in the past Past perfect Perfect conditional
Mixed type An unreal past condition and its probable result in the present Past perfect Present contditional
  • Zero Conditional

The zero conditional is used for when the time being referred to is now or always and the situation is real and possible. The zero conditional is often used to refer to general truths. The tense in both parts of the sentence is the simple present. In zero conditional sentences, the word “if” can usually be replaced by the word “when” without changing the meaning.

Form: If + Simple Present, + Simple Present

(If + subject + V1 + Obj/Adv, + Subject + V1 + Obj/Adv)


If you touch a fire, you get burned.

Snakes bite if they are scared

  • Conditional Sentence Type 1

Often called the “real” conditional because it is used for real or possible situations. These situations take place if a certain condition is met. It is possible and also very likely that the condition will be fulfilled. There is usually a comma between the two clauses.

Form: If + Simple Present, + Simple Future

(if + subject + V1 + obj/adv, + subject + will + V1 + obj/adv)


If I have enough time, I’ll watch the football match.

If i get the money, i will buy a mobile phone.

Use: Conditional Sentences Type 1 refer to the future. An action in the future will only happen if a certain condition is fulfilled by that time. We don’t know for sure whether the condition actually will be fulfilled or not, but the conditions seems rather realistic – so we think it is likely to happen.

  • Conditional Sentence Type 2

Often called the “unreal” conditional because it is used for unreal impossible or improbable situations. This conditional provides an imaginary result for a given situation. It is very unlikely that the condition will be fulfilled.

Form: if + Simple Past, + would + infinitive

(if + subject + V2 + Obj/Adv, + subject + would + V1 + Obj/Adv)

Were / Was: In conditional type 2, we usually use in the if clause “were” instead of “was” even if the pronoun is I, he, she or it. “were” here is a subjunctive form.


If I were a millionaire, I would buy a castle.

If I became president, I would change the social security system

Use: Conditional Sentences Type 2 refer to an action in the present that could happen if the present situation were different. I don’t really expect the situation to change because it is very unlikely.

  • Conditional Sentence Type 3

It is impossible that the condition will be met because it refers to the past.

Form: if + Past Perfect, + would + have + Past Participle

(if + subject + had + V3 + Obj/Adv, + subject + would + have + V3 + Obj/Adv)


If I had found her address, I would have sent her an invitation.

If he had been careful, he wouldn’t have had an accident.

Use: Conditional Sentences Type 3 refer to situations in the past. They express hypothetical results to past given situations.

  • Mix Typed Conditional

The mixed type conditional is used to refer to a time that is in the past, and a situation that is ongoing into the present. The facts they are based on are the opposite of what is expressed. The mixed type conditional is used to refer to an unreal past condition and its probable result in the present. In mixed type conditional sentences, the if clause uses the past perfect, and the main clause uses the present conditional.


If + past perfect or simple past + present conditional or perfect conditional



  • If I had won the lottery, I would be rich.
    But I didn’t win the lottery in the past and I am not rich now.
  • If I had taken French in high school, I would have more job opportunities.
    But I didn’t take French in high school and I don’t have many job opportunities.
  • If she had been born in the United States, she wouldn’t need a visa to work here.
    But she wasn’t born in the United States and she does need a visa now to work here.


  • If she had signed up for the ski trip last week, she would be joining us tomorrow.
    But she didn’t sign up for the ski trip last week and she isn’t going to join us tomorrow.
  • If Mark had gotten the job instead of Joe, he would be moving to Shanghai.
    But Mark didn’t get the job and Mark is not going to move to Shanghai.
  • If Darren hadn’t wasted his Christmas bonus gambling in Las Vegas, he would go to Mexico with us next month.
    But Darren wasted his Christmas bonus gambling in Las Vegas and he won’t go to Mexico with us next month.


  • If I were rich, I would have bought that Ferrari we saw yesterday.
    But I am not currently rich and that is why I didn’t buy the Ferrari yesterday.
  • If Sam spoke Russian, he would have translated the letter for you.
    But Sam doesn’t speak Russian and that is why he didn’t translate the letter.
  • If I didn’t have to work so much, I would have gone to the party last night.
    But I have to work a lot and that is why I didn’t go to the party last night.


  • If I didn’t have so much vacation time, I wouldn’t go with you on the cruise to Alaska next week.
    But I do have a lot of vacation time and I will go on the trip next week.
  • If Cindy were more creative, the company would send her to New York to work on the new advertising campaign.
    But Cindy is not creative and the company won’t send her to New York to work on the new campaign.
  • If Dan weren’t so nice, he wouldn’t be tutoring you in math tonight.
    But Dan is nice and he is going to tutor you tonight.


  • If I weren’t going on my business trip next week, I would have accepted that new assignment at work.
    But I am going to go on a business trip next week, and that is why I didn’t accept that new assignment at work.
  • If my parents weren’t coming this weekend, I would have planned a nice trip just for the two of us to Napa Valley.
    But my parents are going to come this weekend, and that is why I didn’t plan a trip for the two of us to Napa Valley.
  • If Donna weren’t making us a big dinner tonight, I would have suggested that we go to that nice Italian restaurant.
    But she is going to make us a big dinner tonight, and that is why I didn’t suggest that we go to that nice Italian restaurant.


  • If I were going to that concert tonight, I would be very excited.
    But I am not going to go to that concert tonight and that is why I am not excited.
  • If Sandy were giving a speech tomorrow, she would be very nervous.
    But Sandy is not going to give a speech tomorrow and that is why she in not nervous.
  • If Seb didn’t come with us to the desert, everyone would be very disappointed.
    But Seb will come with us to the desert and that is why everyone is so happy.

NOTE: In one form of conditional sentence has two subjects and two verbs.


  1. If I study hard, I (pass) ______ this year’s exam.
  2. If the weather is fine, we (go) _____ on a picnic.
  3. If I go to Paris, I (visit) ____ the Eiffel Tower.
  4. If i were rich, i (quit) _____ my job.
  5. I he had more time, he (learn) _____ karate.
  6. She (spend) ____ a year in the USA if it were easier to get a green card.
  7. If you (ask) ____ me, I would have helped you.
  8. If she (take) ____ the bus, she would not have arrived on time.
  9. If we had gone to the cinema, we (see) ____ my friend Jacob.
  10. I would have written you a postcard, if I (have) ____ your address.


  1. Will pass
  2. Will go
  3. Will visit
  4. Would quit
  5. Would learn
  6. Would spend
  7. Had asked
  8. Had taken
  9. Would have seen
  10. Had had

Exercises are taken from: