Modality: meanings and uses

Modal meaning

We often use modal verbs or other modal expressions when we want to express an opinion or attitude about a possible fact or to control a possible action. All modal expressions are about the speaker’s or writer’s view of the world.

Compare

He’s her brother. She told me.

I know this fact for certain. I am not expressing an opinion about it. I am stating it as a fact.

He must be her brother. They look so much alike.

I am expressing an opinion about a fact because of the evidence that I have.

Jan always goes with us.

I’m not expressing an attitude or opinion about this action.

OK. Jan can go if she’s finished.

I’m controlling a possible action. I’m giving Jan permission.

We can divide most modal words and expressions into two types of meaning:

  • The speaker or writer decides how certain something is, either in the present, future or past. They predict or speculate about a fact. We see this type of meaning when we talk about degrees of certainty, possibility, likelihood, doubt:

Paula can’t be home yet. It’s impossible. She left 10 minutes after us.

[The speaker hears the phone ring and predicts who is ringing.]

There’s the phone. That’ll be Mum.

I may go. I haven’t decided yet.

  • The speaker or writer wants to control or ‘direct’ the action. They give and refuse permission. They talk about obligation and necessity. They talk about how they would like the world to be:

[parent says to child]

You can come if you’re good.

He should take more care.

Tell Jen she needn’t bother about the washing up.

You mustn’t worry so much about her.

You may go now. (formal)

Modal verbs

Often the same modal verb is used to express different meanings.

meaning

which verb?

example

really certain

will

My birthday will be on a Monday this year.

won’t

I won’t have a party.

shall

I shall have plenty to tell you when I see you.

shan’t

I shan’t ask you to come again.

must

The cakes must be ready soon. They’ve been in the oven for an hour.

can’t

You can’t be hungry. You had a huge lunch.

very likely

should

The traffic isn’t heavy. We should be there in an hour.

ought to

The traffic isn’t heavy. We ought to be there in an hour.

possible

may

She may be a friend of Richard’s.

might

She might be a friend of Richard’s.

could

She could be a friend of Richard’s.

strong obligation

must

You must arrive at 6 to pick up the tickets.

have to

I have to go up to the hospital twice a week.

need to

We need to win this game to get into the final.

weak obligation

should

Children should look after their parents in old age.

ought to

Children ought to look after their parents in old age.

no obligation

needn’t

I needn’t do it now. I’ll do it later.

don’t need to

I don’t need to do it now. I’ll do it later.

don’t have to

I don’t have to do it now. I’ll do it later.

permission

can

Can we go out now?

You can go now if you’ve finished.

may

You may go now if you’ve finished.

May I borrow a chair?

could

Could we borrow the car?

might

Might we have a little more time to finish the exam? (very formal)

no permission

can’t

You can’t go in without a ticket.

may not

You may not enter while the exam is in progress. (formal)

must not

You must not leave your bike in front of the fire exit.

offer

will

I’ll get it. You stay there.

shall

Shall I go and make dinner?

request

will

Will you close that door?

would

Would you close that door?

could

Could you help me with this?

promise

will

I’ll come back before 6.

decision

will

I think I’ll eat later. I’m not hungry now.

advice and suggestion

should

You should apply for that job.

ability

can

Can you swim underwater?

could

I could play much better ten years ago.

general truth

can

Too much exercise can be bad for you.

may

A list of verbs may be found at the back of the book.

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