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Modal Auxiliaries - Further Explanation

Other helping verbs, called modal auxiliaries or modals, such as can, could, may, might, must, ought to, shall, should, will, and would, do not change form for different subjects. For instance, try substituting any of these modal auxiliaries for can with any of the subjects listed below.
 

I
you (singular)
he
we
you (plural)
they
can write well.

 

Uses of Can and Could
 

The modal auxiliary can is used

  • to express ability (in the sense of being able to do something or knowing how to do something):
    He can speak Spanish but he can't write it very well.
     
  • to expression permission (in the sense of being allowed or permitted to do something):
    Can I talk to my friends in the library waiting room? (Note that can is less formal than may. Also, some writers will object to the use of can in this context.)
     
  • to express theoretical possibility:
    American automobile makers can make better cars if they think there's a profit in it.
  • The modal auxiliary could is used

  • to express an ability in the past:
    I could always beat you at tennis when we were kids.
     
  • to express past or future permission:
    Could I bury my cat in your back yard?
     
  • to express present possibility:
    We could always spend the afternoon just sitting around talking.
     
  • to express possibility or ability in contingent circumstances:
    If he studied harder, he could pass this course.
  • In expressing ability, can and could frequently also imply willingness: Can you help me with my homework?
     


     

    Can versus May

    It is more appropriate to use can for ability or power to do something and may for permission to do it.

    Example:

    I can drive very well.

    May I borrow your car?

     

     

     

    Uses of May and Might
     

    Two of the more troublesome modal auxiliaries are may and might. When used in the context of granting or seeking permission, might is the past tense of may. Might is considerably more tentative than may.

  • May I leave class early?
     
  • If I've finished all my work and I'm really quiet, might I leave early?
  • In the context of expressing possibility, may and might are interchangeable present and future forms and might + have + past participle is the past form:

  • She might be my advisor next semester.
     
  • She may be my advisor next semester.
     
  • She might have advised me not to take biology.
  •  

     

    Uses of Will and Would

    In certain contexts, will and would are virtually interchangeable, but there are differences. Notice that the contracted form 'll is very frequently used for will.

    Will can be used to express willingness:

  • I'll wash the dishes if you dry.
     
  • We're going to the movies. Will you join us?
  • It can also express intention (especially in the first person):

  • I'll do my exercises later on.
  • and prediction:

  • specific: The meeting will be over soon.
     
  • timeless: Humidity will ruin my hairdo.
     
  • habitual: The river will overflow its banks every spring.
  • Would can also be used to express willingness:

  • Would you please take off your hat?
  • :Finally, would can express a sense of probability:

  • I hear a whistle. That would be the five o'clock train.
  •  

     

    Uses of Used to

    The auxiliary verb construction used to is used to express an action that took place in the past, perhaps customarily, but now that action no longer customarily takes place:

  • We used to take long vacation trips with the whole family.
  • Used to can also be used to convey the sense of being accustomed to or familiar with something:

  • The tire factory down the road really stinks, but we're used to it by now.
     
  • I like these old sneakers; I'm used to them.
  • Used to is best reserved for colloquial usage; it has no place in formal or academic text.

     

    Social Modals

     

    The choice of modal depends partly on the social situation.
     

    We often use formal language with strangers (people we don’t know) and superiors (people with some power over us such as our employers, doctors, and teachers).
     

    We often use informal language with our equals (our friends and family) and subordinates (people we have some power over such as our employees or children).
     

    General requests (present and/or future):

     

    Will you help me? (Informal Are you willing?)

    Would you help me (Formal Are you willing?)

    Can you help me? (Informal Are you able?)

    Could you help me (Formal Are you able?)

     

     

    Requests for permission (present and/or future):

     

    May I leave the room? (Formal)

    Might I leave the room? (Formal rarely used)

    Could I leave the room? (Less formal)

    Can I leave the room? (Informal)

     

    Expressing suggestions, advice, warnings, necessity (present and/or future):

    The choice of modal depends partly on the urgency of the message or the authority of the speaker/writer or both.

     

    Suggestions:

     

    You could see the doctor.

    You might see the doctor.

    Advice:

    You should see the doctor.

    You ought to see the doctor.

     

    Warning/strong advice:
     

    You had better see the doctor.
     

     

    Strong advice/necessity:
     

    You have to see the doctor.

    You have got to see the doctor.

    You must see the doctor.

     

    No choice:
     

    You will see the doctor.

     

    MODALS OF BELIEF (beliefs about present time)

    The choice of modal depends partly on what the speaker or writer believes.


    Someone is knocking at the door.
     

    That could be Fred.

    That might be Fred.

     

    = It’s possible. I’m less than 50% sure.
     

    That may be Fred.
     

    = It’s possible. I’m less than 60% sure.
     

    That should be Fred.

    That ought to be Fred.

     

    = I’m expecting Fred and I think he’s here.
     

    That must be Fred.

    That has to be Fred.

    That has got to be Fred.

     

    = It’s probably Fred. I have a good reason to believe it is Fred.
     

    That will be Fred.
     

    = I believe it is Fred. I’m about 99% sure.
     

    That can’t be Mary.

    That couldn’t be Mary.

     

    = It’s impossible. I’m about 99% sure.
     

    That is Fred.
     

    = I know it’s Fred. I’m 100% sure.

    MODALS OF BELIEF (beliefs about past time)


    The choice of modal depends partly on what the speaker or writer believes.
     

    Someone was knocking at the door.
     

    That could have been Fred.

    That might have been Fred.

     

    = It’s possible. I’m less than 50% sure.
     

    That may have been Fred.
     

    = It’s possible. I’m less than 60% sure.
     

    That must have been Fred.

    That has to have been Fred.

    That has got to have been Fred.

     

    = It was probably Fred. I have a good reason to believe it was Fred.
     

    That couldn’t have been Mary.
     

    = It’s impossible. I’m about 99% sure.
     

    That was Fred.
     

    = I know it was Fred. I’m 100% sure.

    MODALS OF BELIEF (beliefs about future time)

     

    The choice of modal depends partly on what the speaker or writer believes.
     

    What will the weather be like tomorrow?
     

    It could rain tomorrow.

    It might rain tomorrow.

     

    = It’s possible. I’m less than 50% sure.
     

    It may rain tomorrow.
     

    = It’s possible. I’m less than 60% sure.
     

    It should rain tomorrow.

    It ought to rain tomorrow.

     

    = I expect it will rain.
     

    It will rain tomorrow.
     

    = I believe it is going to rain. I’m about 99% sure.
     

    It couldn’t snow tomorrow.
     

    = It’s impossible. I’m about 99% sure.







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