There are many different kinds of modals to study but in this ‘English Corner’ blog post, we’re going to start out with an introduction dealing with the modals of ability. Modals of ability are the most common and the most important to master firstly. Modals are verbs usually and the ones that I am going to be focused on in this article are can, could, be able to, may, might.
Modal verbs act as auxiliary verbs in your average sentence and can express different ideas. These ideas include expressing one’s ability, one’s possibility, and sometimes necessity. Modal verbs often have more than one meaning and can be significant in a variety of ways. A simple form of a verb always follows a modal verb in a regular sentence as well.
- Ben can do his homework.
The modal verb ‘can’ is followed by the simple form of the verb ‘to do’ followed by the object part, which refers to his homework.
An Introduction to Modals can be broken down into three separate parts: modals for ability, modals for possibility, and modals for permission. Each type of modals is unique in their own way but they each help to express oneself in some form or another.
For ‘Modals of Ability’, you can express your own ability or that of someone else by using the words ‘can, be able to, could’ in order to highlight your ability to do something.
Present Ability: I can speak three languages.
Negative Form: I cannot read this book.
Past Ability: Jack could play on the swings when he was a child but not anymore.
Negative Past Ability: Jane couldn’t go to the dance last night because she was sick.
In any regular sentence, the verb after the modal ‘can, could, be able to’ is always in the simple form and always follows the auxiliary (modal) verb. It’s important to note that the simple verb after the modal verb never changes either.
-Ben can doing his homework. X
-Ben can to do his homework. X
-Ben can did his homework. X
All of these examples listed above give us the understanding we need to see that the simple form of the verb such as ‘to do’ never changes from its’ original intention. ‘Ben can do his homework’ is the only correct answer in this case.
In order to turn the ability modal into a question, it’s also quite easy to do. The form of the sentence should look like ‘modal verb + subject + main verb + object…? For any of the ability modals whether it’s can, could, etc., you can use them in the form of a question.
- Can she play the flute?
- Could you go to the store to pick up some fruit?
- Are you able to do your homework tonight?
‘Able to’ is an exception in that as a modal of ability verb, the structure of the question form looks like: ‘to be’ + subject + able to + main verb + object…?’
For Modals of Possibility, it’s important to understand how to express ‘possibility’ in a sentence through showing what’s possible and what’s not possible for someone or something. The modals of possibility include ‘may, might, and could’ now and in the future. All of these three modals have the same meaning and can be used interchangeably regardless of the type of sentence.
- I might be late to the business meeting tomorrow.
- You may want to re-take the exam next year.
- You could get into college if you study harder.
Possibility cannot be expressed for the past but only for the present and the future when it comes to grammar.
For ‘Modals of Permission’, you can express ways to ask for or to give permission in a regular sentence. In order to create this modal sentence, we need to use the modals of ‘may, could, and can’, which are also apart of permission and ability modals. Permission modals are very polite and formal so it’s important to know how to write and verbally use them correctly in a sentence.
- May I go to the bathroom please?
- Could I borrow your lawnmower today?
- Can he have the last piece of chocolate cake?
For the main verb that comes after the subject and before the modal verb, it’s always going to be in its’ regular, simple form which never changes. When it comes to modals of permission, it’s important to remember that using ‘may’ especially at the beginning of the sentence is the most formal of the three options. Also, if someone were to answer you to grant that permission so you can go to the bathroom or to use your lawnmower, you can answer with:
-Yes, you may or No, you may not.
There’s also the possible positive or negative response to the modal question with ‘Yes, you can’ or ‘No, you can’t.’
While not the most popular grammar topic, there are many kinds of modals and knowing some of them especially those modals concerning permission, ability, and possibility is key to improving your English proficiency. This article is simply an introduction to modals and in the coming weeks and months; I hope to highlight other types of modals that are likely to come up in your grammar studies. “You can do it!”