Nine Common Modal Verbs in English: Forms, Positions, and Meanings

Extensive coverage can, could,shall, would etc.


The following article lists and explains nine modal verbs in English and discusses some of the possible definitions and meanings of these modal verbs.

  • Modality

    Modal verbs are common auxiliary verbs in Germanic languages including English that indicate modality. Modality is the grammaticalized expression of the subjective attitudes and opinions of the speaker including possibility, probability, necessity, obligation, permissibility, ability, desire, and contingency.

  • The Modal Verbs in English

    Nine common modal verbs in English are:

    • can
    • could
    • may
    • might
    • must
    • shall
    • should
    • will
    • would

  • Position of Modal Verbs

    Modal verbs always appear in the first position at the beginning of the verb phrase in English. Unlike other verbs, modal verbs do not show tense or number. The eight possible verb phrase combinations that contain modal verbs in English are:

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    • modal verb + base form = will eat
    • modal verb + be + present participle = will be eating
    • modal verb + have + past participle = will have eaten
    • modal verb + be + past participle = will be eaten
    • modal verb + have + been + present participle = will have been eating
    • modal verb + have + been + past participle = will have been eaten
    • modal + be + being + past participle = will be being eaten
    • modal verb + have + been + being + past participle = will have been being eaten

  • Double Modals

    Although most varieties of English only allow for the use of one modal verb per verb phrase, some English dialects such as Southern American English allow for multiple modals. For example, the double modal might could as in He might could build a new machine shed expresses both possibility and ability. However, prescriptive grammars proscribe against the use of double modals.

  • Definitions

    Modal verbs are difficult to define in any language because of the wide range of pragmatic uses of modal verbs by native speakers. Some of the more common definitions (in no particular order) of the modal verbs in English are:

    • can

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