MODAL CHART

 

Meaning

Modal(s)

Present/Future Example(s)

Past tense example

Ability

Can, could

 

I can take you to the airport.

 

John couldnít run in the marathon because he sprained his ankle.††

Be able to

 

Mary is usually able to answer your questions about registering for classes.

I was able to find a parking space.

We will be able to fix your car when the parts come in. (future)

Permission

 

Can

Can I use your calculator?

No past form††

Could (more polite)

 

Could I use your phone?

 

No past form

May (I/we only)

(more polite)

May I borrow your car?

 

No past form

Requests

Will

Will you (please) turn down the radio?

No past form

 

Can (informal)

Can I get you a sandwich?

No past form

Could (more polite)

 

Could you (please) move your car?

No past form

Would (more polite)

Would you (please) feed the dog?

No past form

Might(rare, formal, I/we only) (more polite)

Might I call you back?

No past form

Advice

 

Should

Mary should eat more vegetables.

I should have called my friend last night, but I didnít.

Ought to

 

I ought to go to bed earlier.

 

I ought to have gone to bed earlier, but I didnít. (uncommon)

Had better (This is stronger.)

You had better clean your room before your father gets home, or you will be in big trouble.

Tom had better have done his homework, or heís not going to the concert on Saturday. (uncommon)

Suggestions

Could

We could go hiking today.

We could have gone hiking yesterday.

Preferences

Would prefer

 

I would prefer to pay by check.

 

Jane would have preferred to pay by credit card, but she had left it at home.

Would rather

Tom would rather go skiing.

Paul would rather have gone skiing, but he couldnít because he had a terrible cold.

Prohibition

Can not

You cannot park here.

No past form

Must not (mustnít)

Tommy, you mustnít run out into traffic!

No past form

 

Meaning

Modal(s)

Present/Future Example(s)

Past tense example

Non-necessity

Donít have to

Tom doesnít have to write a letter to his sister because he called her today.

Tom didnít have to write a letter to his sister because he called her yesterday.

Necessity

Must (affirmative only)

I must pay my phone bill.

No past form

Have to (affirmative only)

I have to pay my phone bill.

I had to pay my phone bill.

Got to (affirmative only, spoken English)

I have got to pay my phone bill (or my service will be cut off).

No past form

Future possibility

 

 

 

May

I may go to the beach tomorrow.

No past form

Might

Tom might visit us on Saturday.

 

No past form

Could

It could rain tomorrow.††††††††††††

No past form††

Certainty

 

(Situation: Present: Why isnít Mary answering her phone?

 

Past: Why wasnít Mary answering her phone?)

May (50%)

She may be in the basement.

She may have been in the basement.

Might (50%)

She might be taking a shower.

She might have been taking a shower.

Could (50%, affirmative only)

She could be in the backyard.

She could have been in the backyard.

 

Must (95%)

She must be online.

She must have been online.

Have to/Have got to (95%)

She has to be online.

 

She had to have been online.

She has got to be online.

Couldnít (99% certainty, negative only)

She couldnít be on vacation!

She couldnít have been on vacation!

Canít (99% certainty, negative only)

She canít be ignoring the phone.

She canít have been ignoring the phone.

 

Will (100%) [future only]

She will be available later.

No past form

Expectation

Be supposed to

We are supposed to be on time every day.

John was supposed to be here at 10:00.Where is he?

(Past is unfulfilled expectation.)

Should (future only)

(90% certainty)

Elizabeth should be here by 9:00.

No past form

Ought to (future only)

(90% certainty)

Elizabeth ought to be here by 9:00.

No past form.

 

Repeated action in the past

Used to

 

No present or future form

I used to go surfing every day when I lived in Hawaii.

Would

No present or future form

I would go surfing every day when I lived in Hawaii.

Past situation that no longer exists

Used to

No present or future form

When I was a child, I used to be afraid of dogs.However, Iím not afraid anymore.

Meaning

Modal(s)

Present/Future Example(s)

Past tense example

Willingness

Will

I need to get some vegetables from the store.

Iíll get them.

No past form

 

 

Unreal conditions

Would

 

Mary would go to the Caribbean, but she doesnít have enough money.

Mary would have gone to the Caribbean, but she didnít have enough money.

Mary would go to the Caribbean if she had enough money.

Mary would have gone to the Caribbean if she had had enough money.

Could

If Mary could go, she would.

 

If Mary could have gone, she would have.

If Mary had enough money, she could go to the Caribbean.

If Mary had had enough money, she could have gone to the Caribbean.

 

Written by the tutors and staff of the English Language Resource Center at Bergen Community College, NJ