Lesson 9
Modal Verbs

Modal verbs

Mastering means having full command; that’s much more than just knowing.

In this lesson, we’ll take a look at the modal verbs.

As with the verb tenses we have studied in the previous lessons, you might think that modal verbs are a subject that should already be known by upper intermediate students (if it’s your case). However, this is not always true. Many students have trouble dealing with modal verbs. That’s why it’s important for you to go over this subject. If you think you already know everything there is to know about modal verbs, please concentrate on pronunciation.


The Modal verbs

What are modal verbs?

Modal verbs are a type of auxiliary verbs that change “the mode” (that’s the origin of the word “modal”) of other verbs.

For example, if I say:

- I play football every Saturday.


I can change the “mode” of the verb “to play” by placing a modal verb right before it.

- I must play football every Saturday.

By adding, “must” to the verb “play”, I get a different meaning. In this case, I am indicating that “playing football every Saturday” is an obligation.

How many modal verbs are there?

There are about 10 modal verbs, but grammarians usually add other verbs to the list below because they’re studied alongside with them. We’ll talk about these later.

  1. Can- poder- Example: I can do it. Lo puedo hacer.

  2. Could- pude, podría Example. I could do it.  Lo pude/podría hacer. Note: exact meaning will be given by the context.

  3. Might- puede que, quizás, a lo mejor. Example: He might come. Puede que él venga.

  4. May- puede que. It may rain.

  5. Will- to form the future tenses. Endings –rá- ré in Spanish. Example: I will see it. Lo veré.  Note: The negative form of will is “will not”, but it’s usually expressed as “won’t”

  6. Would- to form the conditional. Endings –ría in Spanish. Example: I would do it.  Yo lo haría.

  7. Must debo. Example: I must work. Yo debo trabajar.

  8. Should- debería- Example: You should come. Tú deberías venir.

  9. Shall- suggestion, invitation and future.  Examples (suggestion): Shall we have a break? ¿Nos tomamos un descanso? – (Future). They shall come. Ellos vendrán.

  10. Ought to- debería. Example: They ought to clean the room.


What do these verbs have in common?

  1. They cannot be conjugated. In other words, you don’t add –s or –es for the third person, and they don’t have a future or past version except insofar as some of them come in present form. For example, “can” is in present while “could” is used in the past.
  2. They can’t be used as infinitives, participles, imperatives or, in some cases, subjunctives.
  3. They function as auxiliary verbs as they modify the meaning of the verbs placed next to them.
  4. It’s not possible to put two modals verbs together. Example: You can’t say: I will can.  INCORRECT.

Semimodals and other verbs

There are other verbs that are not considered, strictly speaking, “modal verbs” but are studied together with modal verbs because they share some characteristics with them (semimodals) or because they are used to replace modal verbs.


  1. Had better: Más vale que
  2. Dare: atreverse
  3. Need: necesitar
  4. Used to: solía, o antes hacía algo que ya no hago.

  • Other verbs that are usually studied together with modal verbs

    Had- Past tense of “have”. It’s studied together with “must” because it is used as its past tense

    • He must study today. Él debe estudiar hoy.
    • He had to study yesterday. Él debió/tuvo que estudiar ayer. Note: I can’t say “He musted studied yesterday”. INCORRECT.

    To be able to- it is studied together with can and could, because we can’t use “can” in future or past tenses.


    • I won’t be able to see you tomorrow.
    • It not possible to say: I won’t can see you tomorrow. INCORRECT.

    In the case of “could”, usually the use of “be able to” in the past is optional although there is a slight difference in meaning. “Be able” means ability, or special skill to do something, like in Spanish “ser capaz”. “Can” or “could” instead don’t have this connotation).

    Example of the use of “be able” and “could” for past tense:

  • I would have been able to work if he had let me. CORRECT – Habría sido capaz de trabajar si él me hubiese dejado.
  • I could have been able to work if he had let me. CORRECT. Podría haber trabajado si él me hubiese dejado.

  • Structure:

    • Affirmative: Subject + modal verb+ main verb + object. Example: We can work harder.
    • Negative: Subject + modal verb+ not + main verb + object. Example: She wouldn’t do something like that.
    • Question: Modal verb+ subject + main verb + object? Example: Could they go home?
    • Negative question: Modal verb + not + subject + main verb + object?  Example: Won’t he come?
    • Answers: Yes, + subject + modal verb- No, +modal verb +not. Example: Yes, I can- No, I can’t.

    Example “Modal verb” audiobook chapter 6: He can’t marry just anyone.

    IMPORTANT: Do not addto” after any of the modal verbs, except in the case of “ought TO”

    Example:  They should to do it. They ought to do it.

    When are modal verbs used?
    We usually use modal verbs when we want to express:

    • Degrees of certainty- I think it may rain- Puede que llueva  
    • Ability- They can do many things.  Ellos pueden hacer muchas cosas
    • Possibility- We might come next week.  A lo mejor venimos la semana que viene.
    • Permission- Can I open the window? It’s hot in here. ¿Puedo abrir la ventana? Hace calor aqui.  Obligation- I must work today. Debo trabajar hoy.



    Past Tense of Modal verbs

    The biggest challenge you’ll have with modal verbs is to know how to use them in the past tense.

    As it is complicated to remember many rules, it is better to learn the equivalence between the Spanish structure and the English structure of modal verbs in the past.

    How to use the modal verbs in the past

    I have included a list of sentences using modal verbs in past tenses and their equivalent in Spanish.

    Note: We’ll go over some of these structures when we study the conditionals.

    Past structures with modal verbs and the equivalent Spanish tenses





    Pudimos hacerlo

    We could do it

    No pudimos hacerlo

    We couldn’t do it.

    Podríamos haberlo hecho

    We could have done it.

    No podríamos haberlo hecho.

    We couldn’t have done it.

    Debimos(tuvimos que) hacerlo

    We had to do it.

    No debimos hacerlo

    We mustn’t have done it. Note: We hadn’t do it is not possible. We didn’t have to do, doesn’t express the same idea.

    Deberíamos haberlo hecho

    • We should have done it
    • We ought to have done it.

    No deberíamos haberlo hecho

    • We shouldn’t have done it.

    • We ought not to have done it.

    Note: Contractions are not common with “ought to”.

    Deberíamos haberlo hecho si hubiéramos tenido tiempo

    We should have done if we had had (some) time.

    No deberíamos haberlo hecho de haber tenido tiempo.

    We shouldn’t have done it if we had had time.

    Puede que lo hayamos hecho

    We may have done it

    Puede que no lo hayamos hecho

    We may not have done it. Note: Contractions are not common with “may”.

    A lo mejor lo hicimos

    We might have done it.

    A lo mejor no lo hicimos

    We might not have done it. Note:  Contractions are not common with “might”.


    • The simple past tense of “must” is “had”.
    • The simple past tense of “can” is “could”.
    • To express a pass action with the rest of the modals we have to resort to the structure “subject + modal verb + have + past participle of the main verb + object.”
    • Whenever we use “haberlo + past participle of the main verb” in Spanish, in English the structure is “have+ past participle of the main verb”. Therefore, “haberlo” = “have”.

    Contraction of the past forms of the modal verbs

    When speaking, native speakers make contractions of the past forms of the modal verbs that are difficult to understand if your ear is not properly trained.

    When listening to English, pay attention to these sounds, and try to repeat them aloud.

    • He could have done it- He could’ve done it- sounds something like this: /hi kudaf donit/
    • He should have done it- He should’ve done it- sounds something like this: /hi shudaf donit/
    • He would have done it- He would’ve done it- sounds something like this: /hi wudaf donit”/
    • He must have done it- He must’ve done it- sounds something like this: /hi
    • mastaf donit/



    Working with the audiobook with modals

    Please, go to chapter 6 of your audiobook and listen to it at least two times then read it.

    As you’ll see, I have highlighted the modal verbs in pink.

    Chapter 6

    Wedding plans

    "I hope that Dorian Gray makes this girl his wife, passionately adores her for six months and then suddenly becomes fascinated by someone else."

    "I imagine you have heard the news, Basil?" Said Lord Henry to Hallward one night in a small private room at the Bristol.

    "No Harry" replied the artist "what is it about?"

    "Dorian Gray is getting married" said Lord Henry.

    "Dorian is getting married!" He exclaimed. "Impossible!"

    "It's absolutely true."

    "Who to?"

    "To an unknown actress."

    "I can't believe it. Dorian is rich and has good social standing. He can't marry just anyone."

    "If you tell him that, he is sure to marry her, Basil."

    "I hope she is a nice girl, Harry."

    "The girl is beautiful" murmured Lord Henry. "Dorian says that she is beautiful and he doesn't tend to be wrong about such matters."

    "Are you serious?"

    "Completely serious, Basil."

    "But do you approve of it, Henry?" Asked the painter. "You can't possibly approve.  It's just a silly infatuation."

    "I never approve, or disapprove, of anything now.  Dorian Gray falls in love with a beautiful young woman who plays Juliet and proposes to her.  I hope that Dorian Gray makes this girl his wife, passionately adores her for six months and then suddenly becomes fascinated by someone else.  He would make a marvellous study.

    "I don't believe a word you say, Harry."

    Lord Henry started to laugh.

    "I believe everything I have said. But here comes Dorian. He can tell you more than me."

    "My dear Basil, my dear Harry, you must congratulate me!" Said the young man. "I have never been so happy."

    He was excited and seemed extraordinarily handsome.

    "I hope you will always be happy, Dorian" said Hallward "but I won't forgive you for not telling me about your engagement."

    "And I won't forgive you for arriving late for dinner" interrupted Lord Henry, putting his hand on the young man's back and smiling as he talked. "Let's sit and you will explain to us how it all happened."

    "Really there's not much to tell" said Dorian, as they sat around the small, round table. "After I left Harry yesterday evening, I dressed, had dinner in a small Italian restaurant and at eight o'clock went down to the theatre. When the performance finished I went to speak to her. While we were sitting next to each other, I saw in her eyes a look I had never seen before. We kissed. Her whole body shook. Later she knelt and kissed my hands. Of course our engagement is a secret. She still hasn't told her mother."

    "At what point did you propose to her? How did she reply?" Asked Lord Henry.

    "I told her that I loved her and she told me that she wasn't worthy of being my wife. That she wasn't worthy! We'll go to the theatre. When you see Sibyl you will understand me."

    He got up and put on his coats.  The painter was silent and worried.  A short while later, they went out.  He led them to the theatre as they had planned.  When the horse and carriage stopped at the door Basil felt he had aged several years.

    Listen and repeat aloud the following sentences.

    Remember: If you know the meaning of these sentences well, this is an excellent opportunity to improve your pronunciation using modal verbs as you needn’t be worried about the structure.


    Spanish English Phonetics Approximate Pronunciation

    Él no se puede casar con cualquiera

    He can't marry just anyone.

    | hi kɑːnt ˈmæri dʒəst ˈeniwʌn |

    Hi kant méri chast éniwuan

    Él haría un maravilloso( tema de) estudio

    He would make a marvellous study

    hi wʊd ˈmeɪk ə ˈmɑːvləs ˈstʌdi |

    Hi wud méik a marvles sstadi

    Él le puede contar más que yo

    He can tell you more than me

    hi kən tel ju mɔː ðən miː |

    Hi kan tel iu mor dan mi

    ¡(Ustedes) Deben felicitarme!

    You must congratulate me!"

    ju məst kənˈɡrætʃʊleɪt miː |

    Iu mast kongráyuleit mi

    pero no le perdonaré por no haberme informado de su compromiso.

    but I won't forgive you  for not telling me about your engagement.

    bət ˈaɪ wəʊnt fəˈɡɪv ju fə nɒt ˈtelɪŋ miː əˈbaʊt jər ɪnˈɡeɪdʒmənt |

    Bat ái wuónt for’giv ii for not télin mi ábaut ior éngueichment

    Y yo no le perdonaré por llegar tarde a cenar

    And I won't forgive you for arriving late for dinner

    ənd ˈaɪ wəʊnt fəˈɡɪv ju fər əˈraɪvɪŋ leɪt fə ˈdɪnə |

    And ái wuónt fo’giv iu for áraiving léit for díner

    Cuando vean a Sibyl, (ustedes) me comprenderán

    When you see Sibyl you will understand me.

    wen ju ˈsiː ˈsɪbl̩ ju wl̩ ˌʌndəˈstænd miː |

    Wuén iu si sibel iu wuil andérstand mi

     As there are not too many examples of modal verbs in chapter 6, I have gone over the previous chapters to check for examples of the use of modal verbs.

    Here you have sentences in the modal verbs that can be found in chapter 3.

    Listen and repeat the following sentences aloud.

    Spanish English Phonetics Approximate

    Si él se parece a su madre debería ser muy guapo.

    If he looks like his mother he should be very handsome.

    ɪf hi lʊks ˈlaɪk ɪz ˈmʌðə hi ʃəd bi ˈveri ˈhænsəm |

    If hi luks láik his máder hi shud bi véri hansom

    Él (la) habrá heredado.

    He will have inherited it.

    hi wl̩ həv ɪnˈherɪtɪd ɪt |

    Hi wuil hav inhéritidit

    Ella podría haber elegido a cualquier hombre

    She could have chosen any man

    ʃi kəd həv ˈtʃəʊzən ˈeni mæn |

    Shi kud hav choussen éni man

    Deberíamos interesarnos por los colores, por la belleza, por la alegría de vivir.

    We should be interested in colour, in beauty and in the joy of living

    wi ʃəd bi ˈɪntrəstɪd ɪn ˈkʌlə | ɪn ˈbjuːti ənd ɪn ðə dʒɔɪ əv ˈlɪvɪŋ |

    Wui shud bi interested in bíuti and in de choi of líving

    Ahora puedo mirarla usted a la cara sin sonrojarme.

    Now I can look at you in the face without blushing.  

    naʊ ˈaɪ kən lʊk ət ju ɪn ðə feɪs wɪðˈaʊt ˈblʌʃɪŋ |

    Nau ái kan lik at iu in de féis wuizáut bláshing

    Me gustaría saber cómo volver a ser joven

    I would like to know how to become young again

    ˈaɪ wʊd ˈlaɪk tə nəʊ ˈhaʊ tə bɪˈkʌm jʌŋ əˈɡen |

    Ái wud láik tu nóu háu tú bi’kam iang aguen

    ¡Lo haré!

    I will do it!

    ˈaɪ wl̩ də ɪt |

    Ai wuil duit

    ¿Promete que hablará todo el tiempo?

    Do you promise you will talk the whole time?  

    də ju ˈprɒmɪs ju wl̩ ˈtɔːk ðə həʊl ˈtaɪm |

    Du iu prómis iu wuil tok de hol táim?

    To sum up:

    Modal verbs are a type of auxiliary verbs that change “the mode” of other verbs. Example: I play football on Saturdays. I CAN play football on Saturdays. With “can” I have changed the mode of the verb “play”.

    The most common modal verbs are: can, could, might, may, will, would, shall, must, should and ought to.

    Modal verbs are used to express:

    -Degrees of certainty- I think it may rain.
    -Ability- They can do many things.
    -Possibility- We might come next week.
    -Permission- Can I open the window?
    -Obligation- I must work today.

    Past tense of the modal verbs

    -Could is the past tense of Can
    -Had is the past tense of Must

    For the rest of the modal verbs we need the structure:  Subject + modal verb +have + past participle of the main verb + object. Example: I should have done it. Lo debería haber hecho.

    If you think you already know everything about modals, please practice pronunciation, especially of the past forms.


    Translate the following sentences into English.  Please, check the answers below.

    Once you have corrected your mistakes, repeat the sentences aloud in English using www.fromtexttospeech.com o similar aplicación gratuita.

    1. Puede que ellos hayan ido al cine.
    2. Ellos debieron ir, pero nosotros no estamos seguros
    3. No podré estar allí el domingo
    4. Deberías haberla visto (una cosa)
    5. Ella habría pintado la casa si hubiera tenido tiempo
    6. Deberías haberla llamado.
    7. Debí explicárselo a ella.
    8. Yo podría haber hecho otra cosa
    9. Él debe haber heredado mucho dinero
    10. No pude salir de la oficina antes.


    1. They may/might have gone to the cinema.
    2. They must have gone, but we are not sure.
    3. I won’t be able to be there on Sunday
    4. You should have seen it
    5. She would have painted the house if she had had time
    6. You should have called her.
    7. I must have explained it to her/ I had to explain it to her.
    8. I could have done something else
    9. He must have inherited a lot of money
    10. I wasn’t able to go out of the office earlier/before. I couldn’t go out of the office earlier/before




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