How to Use Modals for Ability and Advice

How to Use Modals for Ability and Advice

by Laura Jones

Updated November 10, 2022

Can you speak English well? Should you spend a little more time studying? Why not do it now, and learn about modals for ability and advice?


Remember at school when you would tell your friends: ‘My dad can lift up three cars on his own’? Or ‘My dad can grow a better moustache than your dad can’? Modals of ability allow us to talk about things we are able to do, whether they are true or not.

We use ‘can’ and ‘be able to’ in the present tense.

Here are some examples which are probably true for you: ‘I can speak English quite well’ I’m able to understand native speakers of English fairly easily’.

What about being more modest?

‘I can’t use the third conditional perfectly’ ‘I’m not able to understand a broad Scottish accent, yet.’ (You might never be able to do that.) modals-advice-handsome-man

To use modals of ability in the past, we say ‘could’ or ‘was/were able to’.

You will often overhear mums in the playground telling each other ‘Rosemary could recite Shakespeare when she was 3’. Or, ‘little Henry was able to outrun Usain Bolt before he turned 6.’ Yeah, right. But at least their grammar is correct.  

Let’s flip these mums on their head.

‘Billy Bob couldn’t spell his own name until he was 23.’ ‘Tommy Lee wasn’t able to read until he was 27’ (not that Tommy Lee… I don’t think). And finally, a confession: ‘I couldn’t even say “thank you” in Polish when I first moved to Poland’ – true story; I know, typical Brit. embarrassed-woman

Modals in the past are a little more complicated than in the present, so listen up.

‘Could’ is used for general ability in the past: ‘I could swim when I was five.’ ‘Be able to’ is used for general and specific ability in the past: ‘I was able to swim when I was five’ or, ‘Yesterday I was able to have a half hour conversation with a native English speaker’. Be proud of yourself, and tell us what you can do in English.


Take my advice… I’m not using it anyway. People love giving out advice, though we rarely take our own. So here’s how to dole it out in English. There are three structures we use to give advice in English: ‘should’, ‘ought to’, and ‘had better’. Let’s have a look at how to advise someone to learn English. ‘You should learn English because English women are the world’s most beautiful.’ (No?) ‘You ought to learn English because you don’t want to unwittingly scream the lyrics to an obscene rap song while travelling on a crowded bus through the British countryside.’ ‘You had better learn English because the Lingoda blog is in English… and it’s great.’ girl-thinking-contractions

Pinch of salt

In English we say that you should always take advice with a pinch of salt. This is especially true with old wives’ tales. Have I lost you? Read on. ‘You ought to eat onions and garlic if you have a cold.’ ‘You should never pull out a grey hair or two will grow in its place.’ ‘You had better not swallow that chewing gum because it takes 7 years to digest.’ These are old wives’ tales, or pieces of advice that have been passed down through the centuries. You should take them with a pinch of salt, i.e. not believe them completely, because they have no basis in scientific fact. Though swallowing gum and pulling out your own hair can’t be good for you anyway.

You can do it

Despite the fact that we ignore a lot of the advice we give or get, we’re always asking for it. So here is some (I think) good advice for life. ‘You ought to take every opportunity you get, because you only regret the things you didn’t do.’ So learn English now – sorry, I had to get that one in. And one for the parents out there: ‘You shouldn’t shout at your children. You ought to lean in close and whisper. It’s much scarier.’ If you want to know more about other ways to use modals, check out another blog here.

Now you’ve got your modals up to scratch, try practising them with a native speaking teacher. Visit our website and sign up for your week-long trial.

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