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Lesson 1.4g Modals

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Modals are a set of verbs that are distinct (in ways we’ll discover) from both main and auxiliary (have or be) verbs. Here are all the modals:


            can, could, may, might, must, will, would, shall, should


Modals are one way that our language has of expressing what is called modality: belief, attitude, or obligation.


Modal            Meaning            Example

can               ability                  I can speak Spanish.

can               permission          Can I open a window?

may              possibility            I may be home late.

may              permission          May I come in?

must             obligation            I must get to school on time.

must             belief                   She must be police officer.

should          advice                   You should stop biting your nails.

would            request or offer   Would you like some juice?

would            hypothetical         If I were you, I would apologize.


Modals are different from all of the other verbs because they never change their form to express tense or to agree with a subject.


      modal can

            I can eat a doughnut.                           I can eat a doughnut today.

            He can eat a doughnut.                        I can eat a doughnut tomorrow.

            They can eat a doughnut.           


Auxiliary verbs (and regular, main verbs) change their forms to express tense and to match up with their subjects.


            auxiliary verb be                                                        main verb eat

            I am/was eating a doughnut.                                    I eat a doughnut everyday.

            He is/was eating a doughnut.                                   He eats a doughnut everyday.

            They are/were eating a doughnut.                           They ate a doughnut yesterday.


So you see here that the present tense and past tense forms of auxiliary be and main verb eat are different from each other, and they change to agree in person and number with the subject. But the modal can doesn’t change at all, no matter what the subject is. Neither do any of the other modals.


So modals are a different part of speech category – a subset of verbs – that is distinct from other verbs. Discovering how these parts of speech work can reveal what you know about your language, if you are a native speaker of English (and can also reveal these patterns, if you are not a native speaker of English.)


Come up with some sentences that contain modal verbs. Describe to each other the meaning that each modal conveys.


key words: verbs, modals, tense, aspect


CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.3.1e Form and use the simple (e.g., I walked; I walk; I will walk) verb tenses. 

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.3.1f  Ensure subject-verb and pronoun-antecedent agreement. 

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.4.1c Use modal auxiliaries (e.g., can, may, must) to convey various conditions. 

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.5.1c Use verb tense to convey various times, sequences, states, and conditions. 


Here is this lesson as a pdf.


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