Number one for English language teachers

Modal verbs 2 – article

Type: Reference material

An article by Kerry Maxwell and Lindsay Clandfield on ways to approach teaching modal verbs.


A quick question: What’s the difference in meaning between the underlined words in these sentences?

The government must do something about crime in the cities.

That’s the doorbell. It must be the postman.

This article is the second of two in which we take a closer look at modal verbs, concentrating on might/may, must/have to and should/ought to. Grammatical syllabuses and descriptions often feature the terms intrinsic and extrinsic in relation to modal verbs, so we begin by explaining what these words mean.

Higher-level descriptions of English modal verbs often distinguish between two main types of meaning, described as intrinsic and extrinsic meanings.

Intrinsic meanings are those which imply some kind of human control over events, so they include meanings which are often described as permission, willingness, and necessity.

Extrinsic meanings are those which involve some kind of human judgment about what is or isn’t likely to happen, so include meanings which are often described as prediction or possibility.

All modal verbs have both intrinsic and extrinsic uses. For instance, an intrinsic use of the modal verb can is in talking about permission, e.g.

You can use my phone if you want.

but an extrinsic use is in discussing possibility, e.g.

Paris can be very hot in summer.

Sometimes, the two types of meaning overlap in one particular example. For instance, the modal verb will in

I will see you tomorrow.

could be said to be combining an intrinsic use to express willingness and an extrinsic use to imply a prediction about the future.

In some grammatical descriptions of modals, intrinsic meanings are described as deontic or root, and extrinsic meanings are described as epistemic.

Modal verbs may and might are often used to say that something is possibly true, e.g.

That may/might be a better thing to do.

I think Charlotte may/might be pregnant.

There may/might be other problems that we don’t know about.

In informal speech, might is more common than may when talking about what someone will possibly do in the future, e.g.

They might buy the house next door.

I might go to the party on Saturday.

May is more common in more formal descriptions, e.g.

This bird’s young may grow to full size in less than four weeks.

Note that may is not usually used in questions which ask about the possibility of something happening or being true, e.g.

Are you likely to win? (not *May you win?)

Might is sometimes used in this type of question, but sounds rather formal. May/might + have + past participle can be used to talk about a possible event in the past, e.g.

Do you think Amy might have arrived by now?

and can sometimes be used to talk about a possible event occurring before a time in the future, e.g.

It might have been sold by the time we get there.

May/might + be + -ing can be used to talk about a possible event in the present, e.g.

I’m not sure if Helen’s at home. She might be taking the children to school.

and can sometimes be used to talk about a possible event in the future, e.g.

I might be taking my exams next Easter.

May/might + have + been + -ing can be used to talk about possible events in the past that happened over a period of time, e.g.

Jack can’t find his gloves. I think he might have been wearing them at the football match yesterday.

May (but not might) is sometimes used to talk about permission in formal contexts, e.g.

Only food purchased on the premises may be consumed in the restaurant.

Calculators may not be used in the examination. You may begin.

It is also sometimes used in formal requests for permission, e.g.

May I be excused?

May we come in?

Must and have to are used to say that it is necessary that something happens or is done, e.g.

The chicken must be cooked thoroughly.

You have to book in advance.

Must is used in stating formal rules and regulations, e.g.

The balance must be paid 28 days before departure.

Visitors must remove all footwear before entering.

Have (got) to is used to describe necessity resulting from a situation and which is not usually the speaker’s decision. Compare:

We have to pay the balance a month before we leave.

You’ve got to take off your shoes before you can go in.

Note that have got to is less formal than have to and is more common in spoken English. However, have to is usually used with the past simple, especially for question and negative structures, e.g. We didn’t have to wait long. Why did you have to leave?, and also when another modal verb occurs, e.g. They’ll have to pay the money back eventually. When have is contracted however, have got to must be used, e.g. He’s got to work an extra two hours.

Note that must has no past, perfect, continuous, infinitive or -ing form, and have to is used instead, e.g. Visitors must remove their shoes. Visitors had to remove their shoes.

Must is often used to talk about things which we think will be necessary or enjoyable in the future, e.g.

I must phone Mum and Dad tomorrow.

You really must try to lose weight.

We must have lunch together some time.

Have (got) to is more common than must when asking questions about whether something will be necessary. Must in questions sounds rather formal and old-fashioned, e.g.

Do we have to wear a uniform? or Have we got to wear a uniform? (not usually Must we wear a uniform?)

Don’t have to and haven’t got to can be used to say that something is not necessary, e.g.

She doesn’t have to wear a uniform.

You haven’t got to answer all the questions.

Note however that the negative form mustn’t has a different meaning to don’t have to or haven’t got to. Mustn’t is used to say that someone should definitely not do something. Compare, e.g.

You must/have to wear shoes. (= It is necessary that you wear shoes.)

You don’t have to wear shoes. (= It is not necessary that you wear shoes.)

You mustn’t wear shoes. (= It is necessary that you do not wear shoes.)

Must is sometimes used to draw conclusions about past, present and future events. Must + have + past participle is used to draw a conclusion about something that happened in the past, e.g.

I heard that your dog died. It must have been very upsetting.

Must + be + -ing is used to draw a conclusion about something happening at the time of speaking, e.g.

Helen isn’t in. She must be taking the children to school.

Must + be is used to draw a conclusion about a present situation, e.g.

You didn’t get any sleep? You must be absolutely exhausted.

Must + be going to or must + be + -ing are sometimes used to draw a conclusion about something that is likely to happen in the future, e.g.

There’s a ‘For Sale’ sign outside. They must be going to move.

They’ve sold all their furniture. They must be leaving soon.

Have (got) to is sometimes used when someone feels certain that something is true or will happen, e.g.

There has to be a better way of doing this.

House prices have got to drop at some point.

Should and ought to are often used to talk about obligation, saying what is the right thing to do, e.g.

You should/ought to finish your sandwich before you eat a piece of cake.

The children shouldn’t/oughtn’t to drop litter on the floor.

They are also often used to give recommendations, saying what is the best or a good thing to do, e.g.

He should/ought to cycle to work, the exercise would be good for him.

Their cottage is lovely. You should/ought to visit sometime.

Note that should is more usual in questions, e.g. Who should I ask? Should I bring sandwiches? Ought to can be used, but sounds rather formal and old-fashioned, e.g. Who ought I to ask? Ought I to bring sandwiches?

Should is also usually used when talking about the recommendations of some outside authority, e.g. The computer should be restarted after loading the software.

Should/ought to + have + past participle is often used to talk about something that didn’t happen and the speaker feels sorry that it didn’t happen, e.g.

We should/ought to have stood in the other queue, it went down quicker.

And shouldn’t/oughtn’t to + have + past participle is often used to talk about an event or action that happened but which the speaker regrets, e.g.

He shouldn’t /oughtn’t to have bought that car, it’s always breaking down.

Should and ought to are sometimes used to say that something is probable, indicating that someone expects something to be true or to happen, e.g.

We should/ought to be home by 5 o’clock.

The letter should/ought to arrive by Friday.

He should/ought to be feeling better soon.

Should/Ought to + have + past participle can be used to talk about something that was expected to happen in the past, e.g.

He should/ought to have arrived earlier this morning.

or that is expected to happen in the future, e.g.

The builders should/ought to have finished the work by the end of this month.

Note that when used in this sense, should and ought to almost always occur with verbs and expressions which express a positive meaning and they are not usually used to indicate that we expect something to go wrong, e.g.

Her team should/ought to win. vs. * Her team should/ought to lose.

Rate this resource (4.86 average user rating)

  • 1 star out of 5
  • 2 stars out of 5
  • 3 stars out of 5
  • 4 stars out of 5
  • 5 stars out of 5

You must be signed in to rate.

  • Share

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

sign in register

Macmillan Dictionary Online

Say goodbye to print and hello to our smart dictionary.

Powered by Webstructure.NET

Access denied popup