What are the nine English modal verbs?
This is the first of four lessons about Modal Verbs. To complete this course, read each lesson carefully and then unlock and complete our materials to check your understanding.
– Introduce the concept of English modal verbs
– Explore the purpose and functionality of modal verbs
– Provide examples of the different types of modal verb
This short four-lesson course describes and explores modal verbs, which are one of the most important and variable aspects of the verb phrase in the English language. Language tutors understand that modal verbs often pose challenges for learners of English due to their many functions, meanings and grammatical rules. This first lesson therefore discusses the basics of modal verbs, with our second, third and fourth lessons on this topic exploring the importance and challenges of this word type, offering relevant instruction on grammar, types and uses. Once you’ve completed this short course, you may wish to then unlock our beginner, intermediate and advanced worksheets to check your ability and understanding.
What are modal verbs?
While some grammarians believe that modal verbs are unique enough in their form and function to be considered a primary word class such as adjectives or nouns, it’s generally accepted that modals are a special type of verb. As an auxiliary (or assisting) verb, modal verbs are almost always used in combination with other verbs to express modality within a clause or sentence.
Modality is a linguistic feature that communicates a speaker’s attitudes about the world around them, either through judgements, assessments or interpretations as to the believability, reality, obligation or desirability of a proposition. While modality is itself a rather complex linguistic topic, the important aspect to remember here with regards to modal verbs is that there are a limited number of possible verbs for students to learn and a finite number of functions that these verbs express. While such functions are thoroughly explored in detail in Lesson 4 of this course, let’s start by simply observing the three functions provided below
What you probably noticed in the previous examples is that the modal verb ‘can’ in its present and past forms may be used to express more than one type of modal function. Such variability is one aspect of modal verbs that students find difficult.
How can modal verbs be categorised?
Two clear categories of modal verb exist in the English language. The first category of nine modal verbs as shown in the table below are known as pure modal verbs. As will be further explored in Lesson 3 of this course, these nine modals are categorised together because they share the same formal characteristics, such as rules of grammar and syntax. Because of this purity, some traditional grammarians therefore list the following verbs as being the only modal verbs in existence:
However, it’s worth mentioning that there are additional verbs and verb phrases in the English language that may express modality but do not necessarily share the same characteristics as the nine pure modals. The six verbs and verb phrases included in the table below are therefore commonly known instead as semi-modals:
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