What is a modal verb?

The words "modal verbs" at the top. Then below are the following words set in white circles against a pink background: may, should, will, must, can, would, might.

These are examples of modal verbs.

Modal verbs are verbs used to express ability, obligation, permission, or possibility. Common modal verbs include can, might, may, must, will, would, and should. They are a type of auxiliary verb (otherwise known as a “helping verb”), which means they have to be paired with a main verb to work. For example, in the sentence “I can park the car here,” park is the main verb and can is the modal verb paired with it. Here are some examples of modal verbs in action:

  • Can can mean either to express ability or to ask permission.
    • I can go to the store later.
    • Can I use the car today?
  • May can mean either to express possibility or to ask permission.
    • I may talk to him tomorrow.
    • May I go to the bathroom?
  • Must can mean either to express obligation or to express strong belief.
    • She must tell the truth.
    • He must be almost finished with the project by now.
  • Should means to give advice.
    • He should buy the red sweater.
  • Would means to request or offer, and it can also be used in if sentences.
    • Would you mind getting the door for me?
    • If I were her, I would.

Modal verbs don’t change their form, and they have no infinitive (the verb with the word “to” in front of it, as in to sleep or to walk) or participle (a form of a verb similar to an adjective or adverb that functions as an adjective, as in swimming or sitting).

Maud Grauer is an editor and content creator for Dot and Dash, LLC.  

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May vs. Might

wish I may

In casual usage, people interchange may and might. However, there is a slight difference that is useful to know.

May means something is more likely to happen.
Might means something is less likely to happen.

Examples:
There may be food at the party.
There might be someone dressed in a killer whale costume at the party.

What’s a party without food? It’s very likely there would at least be hors d’oeuvres there; that’s why we use may. But, I know I have never been to a party where someone was dressed as a killer whale. It’s safe to say you’d be less likely to encounter that (unless you were going to a killer whale costume party), which is why we use might.

Think of degrees of likelihood. The closer the situation is to “will happen,” use may. The closer it is to “won’t happen,” use might.

Note that this does not apply to past tense. The past tense of may is might. Why? Because English loves to be confusing! So, if you are writing or speaking in the past tense, always use might.

Quiz:

Choose may or might for each sentence.

1) I’m feeling lucky today. I _____ win the big jackpot.
2) I _____ eat a cookie today, just as I do every day.
3) There _____ be a huge asteroid careening toward Earth that will land on my front lawn.
4) Eight hundred higher-qualified candidates applied for the job, but Clyde _____ get the position.
5) Clyde is the only person who applied for the job. He _____ just get it!

Answers:
1) might 2) may 3) might 4) might 5) may

Erin Servais is a book editor who can make your manuscript look polished and professional. To learn more about how she can help you, visit www.dotanddashllc.com.