What are the nine English modal verbs?

This is the first of four chapter about Modal Verbs. To complete this reader, read each chapter 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

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Chapter 1

This short four-chapter reader 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 chapter therefore discusses the basics of modal verbs, with our second, third and fourth chapters 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 reader, 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 Chapter 4 of this reader, let’s start by simply observing the three functions provided below

Modal Verbs 1.1 Ability
Modal Verbs 1.2 Possibility
Modal Verbs 1.3 Suggesting

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 Chapter 3 of this reader, 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:

Modal Verbs 1.4 Nine Pural Modal Verbs

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:

Modal Verbs 1.5 Six Semi-Modal Verbs

Having now introduced the fifteen pure and semi-modal verbs, Chapter 2 aims to explore the importance of using these words – particularly within an EAP context. 

1 of 4 Chapters Completed


Once you’ve completed all four chapters about modal verbs, you might also wish to download our beginner, intermediate and advanced worksheets to test your progress or print for your students. These professional PDF worksheets can be easily accessed for only a few Academic Marks.

Our modal verbs academic reader (including all four chapters about this topic) can be accessed here at the click of a button.

Gain unlimited access to our modal verbs beginner worksheet, with activities and answer keys designed to check a basic understanding of this reader’s chapters.

To check a confident understanding of this reader’s chapters, click on the button below to download our modal verbs intermediate worksheet with activities and answer keys.

Our modal verbs advanced worksheet with activities and answer keys has been created to check a sophisticated understanding of this reader’s chapters. 

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Spring 2022