English Past Tense of Modal Verbs

Overview

This unit offers an overview of modal verbs in the past tenses.

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The past tense of modal verbs varies depending on the verb. Here is a short list of modal verbs with their past tense forms:

can = could, was/were able to
must = had to
may = might,was/were allowed to
used to = used to
ought to = ought to
will = would, was/were going to 
shall/should = should, was/were supposed to

Examples:
Laura was able to lift the heavy box.
Jerry had to go to work.
The children were not allowed to run inside the house.
used to run five miles every day.
He was going to ask about the price of a new laptop, but he forgot.
You were supposed todo your homework.

Note that the infinitive form of the main verb is used in each of the above examples, and occurs after the past tense form of each modal verb.

It is important to note some forms that include the modal verbs in the past are actually reported speech, subjunctive mood or conditionals, and should not be confused with the past simple. Take a look at the following sentence:

Bob said that he would be here at 8:00. 

In this example, the use of would is the past simple form of the modal verb will, but it functions as reported speech and leaves open whether Bob actually arrived. The actual sentence uttered by Bob might have been, “I will be there at 8:00.” It could be something that was uttered in the present (potentially before or after 8:00) or the past, but there is too little information to know for sure. 

Some modal verbs do not have stand-alone simple past forms, but instead, they look more like the present perfect, in that they use the auxiliary verb “have” and the past participle of the main verb. These modal verbs are: could, should, and would.

Examples:
We would have finished the project, if we hadn’t run out of time.
They could have been nicer to us.
You should have told him about the delay.

In the first example, the third conditional – an unrealistic or hypothetical situation in the past – is used. The second and third examples are subjunctive – they are hypothetical, but do not fit a specific conditional form. 

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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 sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment). Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters. Can describe in simple terms aspects of his/her background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need.
Specific Capabilities at this Level
Writing:
I can write short, simple notes and messages relating to matters in areas of immediate needs. I can write a very simple personal letter, for example thanking someone for something.
Spoken Production:
I can use a series of phrases and sentences to describe in simple terms my family and other people, living conditions, my educational background and my present or most recent job.
Spoken Interaction:
I can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar topics and activities. I can handle very short social exchanges, even though I can’t usually understand enough to keep the conversation going myself.
Reading:
I can read very short, simple texts. I can find specific, predictable information in simple everyday material such as advertisements, prospectuses, menus and timetables and I can understand short simple personal letters.
Listening:
I can understand phrases and the highest frequency vocabulary related to areas of most immediate personal relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local area, employment). I can catch the main point in short, clear, simple messages and announcements.