IELTS grammar study guide: modal verbs

If you’ve been following our IELTS grammar study guide series, then you already know how important it is to use a wide range of grammatical structures on your IELTS. If you haven’t read our previous posts from this series yet, let me suggest taking a few minutes to read them and explore some useful grammatical structures:

IELTS grammar study guide: relative clauses

IELTS grammar study guide: the passive voice

In this post, we’ll look at modal verbs and will analyze examples to help you build your confidence in using them for your test day.

A look at modal verbs

Modal verbs are a small group of verbs that express the speaker’s attitude towards or opinion about what is being said. Modal verbs include the following:

can, could, may, might, will, would, shall, should, ought to, must

Modals are different from normal verbs like play or study in that they never change form and are always followed by an infinitive without ‘to’ (e.g. can do, would work, should go, etc.). We use them to show how certain we are about what we’re saying, or to talk about ability, obligation, give advice, ask permission, and make requests and offers. For example, the modal verb must can express a speaker’s sense of obligation (e.g. We must help protect the environment.), and how probable a speaker thinks something is (e.g. Working 12-hour shifts must be exhausting.)

Because modal verbs have various uses and irregular negative and past forms (e.g. He can’t complete the project on his own. (present) vs. He couldn’t/wasn’t able to complete the project on his own. (past)) they can be tricky to master. However, exploring examples of modal verbs in use can help you to better understand this complex area of English grammar.

Examples of modal verbs 

Here’s a list of modal verbs with examples that you may find particularly useful on your IELTS:

Modal verb

Meaning

Example

can

ability

permission

possibility

I can read very fast.

What I love the most about my new job is that I can work from home.

Bad eating habits can lead to obesity and other health-related problems.

could

ability in the past

polite request

possibility

When I was younger, I could get by on very little sleep.

Could you repeat that, please?

Elephants could go extinct if we don’t do anything to stop the ivory trade.

may

permission

possibility

May I begin now?

Rules and regulations may change from country to country.

might

possibility

If I manage to save enough money, I might go on holiday to Mexico next summer.

will

future possibility

I will probably change homes in the near future.

would

unreal situations

If I didn’t have to work, I would travel the world.

should

advice

He shouldn’t have dropped out of school.

must

obligation

probability/certainty

We must teach our children to respect others.

It must be so hard to not be able to afford your most basic needs.

Modal verbs in hedging

Hedges are an important part of polite conversation and academic writing, and you may find hedging to be very useful on your IELTS. You can use hedges to soften what you say or write, as they help to make your statements a little less direct. You can also use hedging to express that you’re not completely certain of what you’re saying. One of the most common forms of hedging involves using modal verbs:

  • The answer could be that…
  • It may be that…
  • Such a measure might be…

Don’t forget to keep checking our blog for our next grammar post on conditionals!

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