English modal verbs can be one of the more difficult aspects of learning a language because they’re not normal verbs, and every language uses modal verbs slightly differently- sometimes.

Modal verbs are a type of auxiliary (or helping) verb that are used to talk about ability, possibility, permission, and obligation.

This week we will introduce can/could/(be able to) and may/might. Next week we will talk about shall/should, will/would, and must/have to/need to.

If you want to practice your English modal verbs, look no further than the following explanations! You may find you are able to improve quite quickly.

Can, Could, Be Able To (kən / kəd / ˈbiː ˈeɪbəl ˈtuː)

Can is the first of our English modal verbs, but be able to is not. However, they mean very similar things so we are going to include it on our list.

Can and be able to means having the ability or lacking the ability to do something (having the skill, power, or means to do something)

In the present tense, using these modals looks like this:

  • Subject + can (not) + infinitive verb
  • Subject + am/is/are (not) + able to + infinitive verb

Here are some examples in sentences:

  • You can / are able to sing very well.
  • She can’t / is not able to swim.
  • He cannot / is not able to carry the chair by himself.

In all of those examples can / be able to mean the same thing.

If you want to talk about an ability you had in the past but you no longer have, you need to use could or was/were able to. This is what the form looks like:

  • Subject + could (not) + infinitive verb
  • Subject + was / were (not) able to + infinitive verb

For example:

  • You could play the piano when you were in school.
  • When I was little, I could swim 60 laps in the swimming pool.
  • She was able to run faster than anyone else in her class.
  • I was never able to touch my toes before I started going to yoga.

To talk about ability in the future, you must use to be able. Can does not work in the future.

The form looks like this:

  • Subject + will be able to + verb

For example:

  • I will be able to help you tomorrow, no problem!
  • We’ll be able to study together in Tübingen over the weekend.
  • He will be able to drive himself once he gets his driver’s license.

However… if you want to talk about future decisions or plans, you can use either can or will be able to.

For example:

  • I can take the train at 6pm tomorrow.
  • I will be able to meet you after I’m finished at the gym.
  • We can throw her a surprise party next weekend.
  • Since she is home, she will be able to open the door for us.

Here’s the link to a great blog post from Transparent Language if you need more practice using ability!

May/Might (ˈmeɪ / ˈmaɪt)

May and might are the English model verbs usually used when asking for formal permission and polite requests. You form formal permission/prohibition sentences in the following way:

  • Subject + may (not) + infinitive verb

For example:

  • You may begin the test now.
  • You may not wear shorts to the office in the summer.

To form a polite request, use may in the following way:

  • may + subject + infinitive verb

You’ll often hear the phrase, “May I help you?,” as this is the most common use of this polite request!

More examples:

  • May I use the bathroom?
  • May I please close the window?
  • May I?

Technically, might is the past tense of may! Most native speakers, however, use the two words interchangeably, though in the Bespeaking blog, we only use may for present tense, and might for past tense.

May and might can also be used to express possibility or negative possibility, and is formed like this:

  • may (not)/might (not) + infinitive verb

For example:

  • We may go to the park tomorrow. Would you like to come?
  • We may not go. We are not sure yet.
  • I might not have bought that apartment if I had known how noisy the neighbors are!
  • He might have left already. Try calling him on his cell phone.

English modal verbs might seem difficult to use at first, but they’re quite simple to form and extremely useful when learning English! Why not try forming some sentences of your own in the comments for extra practice?

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Looking for more grammar? Try Tricky Adjectives and Adverbs, when to use Which and That, Order of Adjectives, Its vs It’s, and Present Continuous tense!

Erin Duffin lives in Hamburg, is an English teacher, blogger, yoga instructor, and may personally prefer to use “might” instead of “may“!

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