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Grammar

We Use Modal Verbs Daily…Even if We Don’t Know the Term

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You may not have even heard of modal verbs unless you’re really into grammar. But these little auxiliary verbs add a lot to sentences.

Modal verbs add a lot to a sentence and its meaning. We use them constantly and most likely without realizing there’s even a term for those extra words. They’re a form of auxiliary verbs that we pair with regular verbs.

The pairing however, changes the meaning of an action. Instead of simply describing an action when it happens, they describe actions that are expected, required, or may have to be given permission to happen.

Consider Merriam-Webster’s definition:

Modals may express permission, ability, prediction, possibility, or necessity.

The dictionary lists 10 primary modal verbs:

  • Can
  • Could
  • May
  • Might
  • Must
  • Ought
  • Shall
  • Should
  • Will
  • Would

With the exception of ought, you don’t need a to between the modal and the actual verb. (Ought, the dictionary notes, is a special case.) A modal is used with an infinitive form of a verb. Infinitives usually require a to before the verb, but can also stand alone. In this case, (other than the ought exception), you don’t need that pesky little to.

In the sentence “John walked to the store,” we’re stating a fact. He made the journey already because walked is past tense. The simple infinitive version of that verb, however, would be “to walk.” For a modal, we’d drop the to and then add the modal in its place:

  • John could walk to the store. – He has the ability to do so but hasn’t necessarily gone.
  • John may walk to the store. – There is a possibility of John walking to the store, but it’s not definite.
  • John should walk to the store. – He has an obligation to go to the store.
  • John will walk to the store. – It’s decided that he will go but has not yet.

Grammarly lists additional meanings modal verbs provide for sentences.

The term may not be familiar, but if you think about it, you’d struggle to imagine having even one conversation without using modal verbs!

the authorPatrick
Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.

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