Modals Part Four

This week we’re going to conclude our multipart lesson on the ways that modals are commonly used in English. First, we’ll cover expressions of ability, past repeated actions, and preference. We’ll then wrap up our modals lesson by looking at how to combine modals with phrasal modals. As with last week’s post, this part assumes that you are familiar with the basics of expressing modality in English. If you are not, I strongly recommend checking out at least part one of the modals lesson before continuing with this one.


Expressing Ability

Can is used to express physical ability, acquired skills, and possibilities. Expressions of physical ability pertain to physical performance or the five senses:


Mary can run a marathon.

I can hear the sound of thunder in the distance.


When used to express an acquired skill, can is equivalent to saying knows how to:


Julie can play the violin.

Julie knows how to play the violin.


Mark can speak Chinese fluently.

Mark knows how to speak Chinese fluently.


For the purpose of expressing a possibility, can is essentially a shorter way of saying it is possible:


You can take MARTA to Atlantic Station.

It is possible to take MARTA to Atlantic Station.


Taking MARTA, Atlanta’s mass transit system, is one possible way to reach the Atlantic Station shopping district.


Can is also used to give permission in informal situations. For formal writing and speaking, you should use the more grammatically correct may:


I have to work the night of the concert. You can have my ticket if you want. (Informal)

You may leave after you finish the report. (Formal)


Use cannot or can’t for negative expressions of ability:


I can’t hear what the speaker is saying. He keeps turning his head away from the microphone.


When expressing ability in the past, the equivalent form of can is could. Negative past tense expressions of ability use could not/couldn’t:


Ellen could hear what the speaker was saying, but I could not.



Regularly Repeated Past Actions and Past Conditions

Would and used to can be used to express actions that occurred habitually in the past:


When I was in college, I would spend my Sunday afternoons studying in the library.

When I was in college, I used to spend my Sunday afternoons studying in the library.


Studying in the library on Sundays was a regular habit of mine during college. It was part of my routine at the time, but it ended when I graduated.


Used to can also be used to express a situation that existed in the past but no longer exists in the present. Instead of a regularly repeated action, this use of used to expresses some past condition or state of being:


I used to live in Illinois.

I used to attend college.


The difference between these two uses of used to can sometimes be subtle. The important thing to remember is that would cannot be used to express a past situation, but used to can be used to express both a regularly repeated past action and a past situation. If you have any doubt whether what you are expressing would be considered a past action or a past condition, stick with used to.


Expressing Preference

Would rather can be used to express a preference.


I would rather watch Nextflix.

I would rather teach history.


When paired with than, would rather expresses a preference for one action over another action:


I would rather watch Netflix than go to the party.

I’d rather teach history than (teach) math.


The second sentence highlights a couple of shortcuts you can take with a would rather expression in casual conversation. First, you can replace the longer I would with the contraction I’d. Second, you don’t need to include a verb after than when that verb would be the same as the one that follows I would rather/I’d rather.


The negative form of would have is made by simply adding not:


I would rather not go to the party.

I’d rather not teach math.


The past of would rather takes the form of would rather have + past participle:


The concert was okay, but I would rather have gone to the party.


The progressive form of would rather adheres to the same construction as progressive modals in general: would rather + be + -ing:


I would rather be sitting at home with a cup of coffee than driving through the rain right now.


Combining Modals with Phrasal Modals

You cannot immediately follow one modal with another modal. However, you can follow a modal with the phrasal modals be able to and have to.



I will can attend the concert next week.



I will attend the concert next week.

I will be able to attend the concert next week.

I cannot attend the concert next week. You will have to find someone else to go with you.


It is also sometimes possible for one phrasal modal to follow another. In the following sentence, the phrasal modal be going to is followed by the phrasal modal be able to. Note that this is more common in negatives and questions than it is in positives and statements:


Is John going to be able to attend the concert tonight?


John isn’t going to be able to attend the concert tonight. The person who was supposed to cover his shift at work called in sick.