English Basic Modal Verbs


Learn how to form sentences using basic modal verbs.

If I may

Modal verbs and modal auxiliary verbs are verbs that are typically used in combination with another verb in the infinitive.
A modal verb typically follows the same conjugation for all personal pronouns, and do not have the third-person-s.
The most common modal verbs are: can, could, may, might, shall, should, would, ought to, must, will, used to. 

Other modals and modal auxiliaries do have the third-person-s when conjugated. Examples are: need, have to.

May – Might – is used to signify a possibility

maymight 2

I might go skateboarding. He/She might go skateboarding.
We may join you tomorrow. He/She may join you tomorrow.
They might be late. He/She might be late.

Can – Could – is used to signify the ability or the possibility

cancould 1


I can read.
He can speak three languages.
We could go out tomorrow.
She could not find her purse.

Must & Must not  

I must (do something) = I need to do something/I am expected to do something. 
I mustn’t/must not do something =  I am not allowed to/shouldn’t do something, it is the wrong thing to do. 

The modal verb “must” is typically used with another verb in the infinitive, omitting the preposition “to”.

I must (modal verb) call (verb in the infinitive) my friend.
You must (modal verb) be (verb in the infinitive) very tired!
She must call the doctor. He must take the train.

You mustn’t (most not – modal) be (inf.) so hard on yourself! (You should not be so hard on yourself)
You mustn’t (modal) tell (inf)  anyone about this! (def: You are not allowed to tell anyone about this!)

Have to

The modal auxiliary verb “to have to” signifies something similar to “must”, and is commonly used when someone needs to or is expected to do something. Unlike “must“, “have to” can be used in the past, simply by using “had to“. There is no past-form of “must”. When conjugated, “have” changes to “has” in the third person singular.

I have to get up early tomorrow. She has to get up early tomorrow.
I had to get up early for my flight last week.
You have to be very careful. He has to be very careful.
She had to cancel her appointment last Friday.

To use “have to” in the negative, we need to use “to do”.
I don’t have to get up early tomorrow. She doesn’t have to get up early tomorrow.

Need to  

The modal verb “need to” is used to signify that something is important, but not absolutely necessary (for which we would use “must” or “have to”. Just as “have to”, “need to” can be used in the past, using “needed to”. We need to add an “s” for the third person singular.

I need to go to bed soon! (It is not an obligation, but it is strongly needed) She needs to go to bed soon.
We need to buy eggs at the store. He needs to buy eggs at the store.

They needed the answer by noon yesterday.
I needed flour and milk for the recipe.


“Should” is used to signify that is would be appropriate, or suggested to do something, but it is not a necessity or an obligation. The modal verb “should” is used with another verb in the infinitive, but without the preposition “to”. There is no third-person-s.

I should call my parents more often.
He should eat more vegetables.
We should go to the concert next Friday.
They should offer vegetarian options on the menu!

Like “Must”, there is no past tense form of “should”. However, it is possible to use “should” in the past, by using it in combination with the Past Participle.

I should have called my parents more often.
You should have eaten more vegetables.
We should have gone to the concert last Friday.
They should have offered vegetarian options on the menu!

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Common European Framework of Reference for Languages

The CEFR is an international standard used to describe language ability. Here are specific details of the CEFR for this topic.

General Explanation:
Can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type. Can introduce him/herself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people he/she knows and things he/she has. Can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.
Specific Capabilities at this Level
I can write a short, simple postcard, for example sending holiday greetings. I can fill in forms with personal details, for example entering my name, nationality and address on a hotel registration form.
Spoken Production:
I can use simple phrases and sentences to describe where I live and people I know.
Spoken Interaction:
I can interact in a simple way provided the other person is prepared to repeat or rephrase things at a slower rate of speech and help me formulate what I’m trying to say. I can ask and answer simple questions in areas of immediate need or on very familiar topics.
I can understand familiar names, words and very simple sentences, for example on notices and posters or in catalogues.
I can recognize familiar words and very basic phrases concerning myself, my family and immediate concrete surroundings when people speak slowly and clearly.