A modal is a special type of auxiliary verb that is used to express a speaker’s attitudes and the strength of those attitudes. This includes situations where a speaker feels that something is necessary, advisable, permissible, possible, or probable. Modals are conceptually simple but have a wide variety of uses in modern English. In this part, we’re going to explain the basic rules governing modal auxiliaries and the functionally similar phrasal modals. We’ll also show how you can use modals to make polite requests.
The Modal Auxiliaries
English contains the following modal auxiliaries: can, could, had better, may, might, must, ought, shall, should, will, and would. Modals do not take a final –s, even when the subject of the sentence is singular. With the exception of ought, modals are immediately followed by the simple form of a verb.
She might attend the concert.
They should attend the concert.
She mights attend the concert.
They should to attend the concert.
Ought follows a different construction than the other English modals. Instead of being followed by a verb, it is followed by an infinitive (to + simple verb form):
She ought to attend the concert.
He ought to do his homework.
These common expressions have similar meanings to some of the modal auxiliaries. Like the auxiliary modal ought, these phrasal modals are always used with an infinitive. For example, the phrasal be able to is roughly equivalent to the auxiliary can. Be going to has essentially the same meaning as will.
Phrasal examples: Auxiliary equivalents:
They are able to attend the concert. They can attend the concert.
She is going to attend the concert. She will attend the concert.
Other common phrasal modals include be supposed to, have to, and have got to.
Using Modals to make polite requests
One of the most common uses of modals in English is to make polite requests. Which modals you can use varies depending on whether the subject of the request is “I” or “you.”
With “I” as the subject:
Use may I, could I, or can I to request permission for some action that you wish to perform. May I and could I are both equally polite, with the former sounding a bit more formal. (Their meanings are slightly different in traditional grammar. May I literally means “am I allowed to do this?” Could I is equivalent to “is it possible for me to do this?”) Can I is usually considered less polite than either may I or could I:
May I attend the concert? (polite formal request)
Could I attend the concert? (polite request)
Can I attend the concert? (informal request)
You can add “please” to may I and could I requests for an extra level of politeness:
May I attend the concert please?
Could I please attend the concert?
With “you” as the subject:
When asking someone else to perform an action, use would you, will you, could you, or can you. Would you and will you have the same meaning. While the former is considered more polite, the tone of the speaker’s voice matters more in determining the degree of politeness than the choice between would and will. Could you and would you are equally polite but contain the same subtle difference in literal meaning as could I and may I. Can I is less formal and polite than the other “you” request forms. An optional “please” can be included whenever “you” is the subject of a polite request:
Would you attend the concert (please)? (polite)
Could you attend the concert (please)? (polite)
Will you (please) attend the concert? (slightly less polite)
Can you (please) attend the concert? (informal)
Using “would you mind” to make polite requests
A would you mind request implies that you are asking permission for something or asking someone else to do something only if it won’t cause any discomfort or inconvenience. It is essentially a shorter way of asking a much longer polite request.
Asking for permission:
Would you mind if I turned on the fan?
This request means the same as: “May I turn on the fan? Will that make you cold or cause you any other discomfort?” Note that would you mind is followed by a simple past verb.
Asking someone else to perform an action:
Would you mind turning on the fan?
This request is equivalent to saying: “I don’t want to cause you any inconvenience, but would you please turn on the fan?” Note that in the case of asking someone else to perform an action, would you mind is followed by a gerund (-ing form of a verb).