Explained: modals of obligation and probability

by Joshua Rhys
March 10, 2021

Modal verbs can be tricky to get the hang of. Careless use of modals can present a bad first impression, and can even come off as rude, bossy or demanding. No one likes rudeness, so it makes sense to use them correctly. So, what are modals anyway?

Introduction to modals in English

Modals are a type of auxiliary (helping) verb – they work with other verbs to express a range of different meanings. The modal is always followed by a verb in the infinitive form.

As we will see, using the right modals in the right situation can help us be more specific with what we want to say. They can easily transform a short order into a polite request, for example.

Let’s look at some of the more common uses for modals – obligation and probability. 

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Obligation and necessity

We can use modals to express obligation. An obligation is a necessity, or something you have to do. You must remember your partner’s birthday. Remember last year when you forgot? Yeah, you really don’t want that to happen again… When you have no choice in the matter, you can use the modals must or have to in order to express this. We can use each of them in a slightly different way.

Modals of obligation, probability and possibility in English

Must

Must shows an obligation we have no choice about, a strong obligation.

must feed the dog before I go out for the evening.

You don’t want your poor pooch to go hungry, do you? Must can also be used when you are confident and sure about something happening in the present.

The party starts at 10? We must leave soon.

We can use must to talk in the past tense by adding have.

Your friends are laughing? One of them must have told a good joke!

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Have

Have to can be used to express a more external obligation.

have to get up at 6 o’ clock to get to work on time.

Really, you would rather not, but you have little choice.

Likelihood and probability

We can also use modals to express probability (how likely something is to happen) and possibility (a chance that something may happen or be true).

Will

How likely is something to happen? If you are certain, use will.

Your English will improve with practise, we have no doubt about that!

Should

What if you are quite sure, but not certain? We can use should to say something is likely to occur. If we leave now, we should make it in time. Like must we can talk about the past tense by using should have.

I was late for the meeting. I really should have set my alarm this morning!

Top tip: Should can also be used to give advice to others.

You really should go and see you doctor!

Possibility

Perhaps you are unsure or uncertain of something happening? Try using the modals could, might, and may. These modals can help us explain that something is possible, but far from guaranteed.

If you do a good job, you could be in line for a promotion.

Look at those rainclouds – it might rain tomorrow.

If you go to the kitchen, there may be a piece of cake left… if you’re lucky!

Ability, permission, requests and assistance

The modal verb can also be used to express your ability to do something, asking permission for something, making requests and offering help. You can see that modal verbs cover a lot of roles in our sentences. What useful, hard working little words!

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