Modal Summary


Modal Diagnostic: identify specific points that need review


Quiz 1: beginning – intermediate

Quiz 2: intermediate – advanced

Degrees of Certainty

Will / Might: express varying degrees of certainty

Beg—Intermed ESL

polar bears

Polar bears will perish. (100% certain)

They might not survive in the arctic. (< 50% certainty)

Intent – Future & Past

Will / Would: express attitudes of determination, unwillingness or failure

Beg—Intermed ESL


I will win this singing contest!
I am determined to win this singing contest!

The judges won't let me sing another song. 
The judges were unwilling to let me sing another song. 

I would have done better, but my voice cracked
I hoped that I would do well, but my voice cracked.

Be going / Will:  express immediate vs scheduled future events

Beg—Intermed ESL


I am going to text Brad the news.
I will call Jill tomorrow to see how she is. 

We are going to go to the movies.
We are going to come home.

Future Progressive

Future Progressive: indicate temporary, ongoing, and background activities

Beg–Adv ESL


We will be working in this area.
We are going to be working in this area.
We can be setting up a support here.
We should be getting a revised set of plans soon.

Will you leave now?  request or inquiry?
Will you be leaving now? polite

Do you intend to be staying long?
Are you planing on staying long?

Scheduled Events – Present & Future

Present–Scheduled: express planned activities and events

Beginning ESL


On Thursday, I assist the librarian at the Public Library. (routine)

I am working at the preschool on Wednesday. (near future, personal plan)

I will get there around noon. (scheduled/ estimated)

Future Perfect

Will / Will have: express a future time as the "window" for viewing the completion or progress of a second activity

Beg–Adv ESL, Native Speakers

empty board room

By 9:00, we will have finished our meeting.

By 9:15, everyone will have left.

By the time: view relative progress or completion (future perfect)

Intermed—Adv ESL, Native Speaker


By the time I leave work, the sun will be setting. (ongoing)

By the time I leave work, the sun will have set. (completed)

Preference and Request

Would: express preference, request, habit, or excuse

Beg–Adv ESL


Would you like some coffee?
Would you rather have tea or coffee?

On Sundays, we would visit our relatives

I would have stopped smoking, but it was too difficult.
I would rather have found an easy way out, but I didn't.

Rather than: express comparative preference

Intermed—Adv ESL, Native Speaker

walk to work

We would rather walk to work than drive. (X and not Y)

We walk to work rather than drive. (X and not Y)

We walk to work rather than get caught in traffic.  (choosing X to avoid Y)


Should/ Should have: express expectation, convention or advice  

Beg–Adv ESL, Native Speakers

mail in movies

The movie should be available next week.
The movie will be available next week. (expectation)

Should we wear black pants to work? (convention)
Are we supposed to wear black pants to work?(convention)

You should try ordering your movies online.(suggestion)
She ought not to talk on her cell phone when she's with you. (advice)

We were supposed to receive a replacement.
The movie would have been available last week, but the stores ran out of it.

Options & Advice

Could / Should: offer options and advice

Beg–Adv ESL, Native Speakers

lost wallet

You could look where you saw it last. (option)

You should cancel your credit cards. (advice)

Could / Should have: offer past options and late advice

Intermed—Adv ESL, Native Speakers

Titanic Lifeboats

Passengers could have taken other smaller transatlantic ships.
The captain could have chosen a more southern transatlantic route.

The owners should have supplied enough lifeboats for everyone.

Degrees of Advisability

Should/ Must:  express advisability, necessity, and requirement

Beg–Adv ESL, Native Speakers

Wind turbine

We should protect the environment. It makes good sense.  

We had better protect the environment. It makes good sense.  

We must protect the environment. It's necessary.

We have to do more.

We don't have to drive all the time.

Conclusion & Inference

Might / Must have: express varying degrees of certainty about past events

Beg–Adv ESL, Native Speakers


The car driver might have tried to pass between two buses.

The bus passengers must have heard a crunch. (sound)

The insurance company had to total the car.


Can/ Could: express physical, mental, past or potential ability

Beg–Adv ESL, Native Speakers

Contestants in Jeopardy

"Watson" can access 200 million pages of information in seconds. (physically able)

Ken Jennings can speak on a wide variety of subjects.  (knows how to)

IBM engineers were able to design a computer that uses "natural language". (managed)

One day, IBM could build a computer with cognitive power. (potentially)


May / Can: express permission, request, suggestion, invitation

Beg–Adv ESL, Native Speakers

cigarette butt

May I smoke here?
Can I smoke here?informal

Would you mind if I smoke(d) here?
Is it a problem if I smoke here?

Could you smoke outside please?
Why don't you smoke outside.

Why do they let people smoke inside?  (allow)
sit outside. (Shall we?)


Clause Agreement

Modal Agreement: maintain timing relationships with embedded clauses

Beg—Intermed ESL


Apple said that it would introduce more functionality with the newer software.



Modal Review: compare relative strengths of modal meanings 

Beg—Intermed ESL


You could try to be a little nicer.  (an idea, an option)
You ought to try to be a little nicer.  (mild suggestion)
You should try to be a little nicer.  ( suggestion)
You had better try to be a little nicer. (strong suggestion)
You must try to be a little nicer. (strong suggestion)
Be a little nicer.  (order)

Modal Match: Means the Same!

Beg—Intermed ESL, Native Speakers


He ____ be crazy to do that. 
  may  might   could  can  must

  • possibility
  • expectation
  • advice
  • permission
  • necessity
  • conclusion

Modal Quiz: determine which modals to use in sentences

Intermed–Adv ESL

apartment hunting

Finding an apartment in San Francisco ____ be very difficult.

Related Pages

Would / Used to: report past behavior vs. past habits

Intermed–Adv ESL

Dish washing in the 1950s

We would go to the beach after school.
We used to go to the beach after school. (earlier stage of life)

She used to have a surf board.  (state of possession)
She would have an amazing tan by the time summer ended.   (conditioned outcome)


Omitting if: offer advice on hypothetical situations

Intermed—Adv ESL, Native Speakers


If I were/was you, I wouldn't get involved.

Were I you, I wouldn't get involved.

Had I known, I would have said something.

Should you see him again, call me immediately.