Speak Better English With Modal Verbs: Ability

You use them all the time when speaking English.  They pair with other verbs, ask questions, modify statements.  They’re “extra” words, “helping” words.  They have a name: MODAL VERBS!

Modal verbs are those auxiliary words that we use to modify verbs used for standard actions and they are the key to speaking better English.  Verbs like “can”, “should”, “will”, and “might” are very important to communicating accurately.  For example, these two sentences are very different.

I swim. -> Maybe they swim every day? Maybe they swim for exercise?  Either way, they probably swim often.

I can swim. -> If this person falls out of a boat, they’ll probably be ok.  They didn’t go swimming today, though.

“Can” is a modal that belongs to the family of modal verbs that express ABILITY, or things that you can or can’t do.  The modals of ability are:

  • Can / Can’t, Cannot
  • Could / Couldn’t, Could not

“Can” means that you have the ability to do something now.  For example, maybe you “can drive” a car, or you “can cook” a delicious dinner.  “Could” is for things that you had the ability to do before, but not now.  For example, maybe you “could visit” your grandma every day when you were younger, but then you moved away, so you can’t anymore; or maybe you “could ride” your bike to school when you were a kid, but now the traffic is really horrible and anyway, you have a car.

The wonderful thing about modals is THEY DON’T CHANGE.  That’s right!  So many verbs in English change when they’re in the “she/he/it” form, and when they’re in a different tense, and when they’re continuous or simple, but modals NEVER change.

You sentence will always be:

“I can run very far, since I run every day for exercise.”

You will never write:

“He cans run very far…”
“He can runs very far…”
“He can run verys far…” (ok, ok, this one is a bit much, I know)

Place your modal before your main verb, delete any changes you would make to that verb, and you’re done!  Let’s try a few examples to practice:

She ___________ very well, she has been studying for years.
a) can writes
b) cans write
c) can write




They love to sing, and they learned music in school, so they _________ beautifully.
a) can sing
b) can sings
c) cans sing




He never learned, so he _________ at home.
a) can cooks
b) can’t cook
c) can cook not




Your answers should be C, A, B.  Isn’t it wonderful?  No more changing verbs!  Now, let’s look at “could” and “couldn’t”, the modal for past ability.

She used to love basketball, but after she broke her knee she ________ anymore.
a) could play
b) couldn’t play
c) couldn’t plays




When I lived in my country, I _________ home to my family’s house every weekend.
a) could go
b) could goes
c) coulds go




Your answers here should be B and A.  Nice work!

Want to become a master of modals?  You CAN always contact LingoLoop to talk to an experienced tutor who CAN help you practice! Discover why our students think LingoLoop is the best online English class. Try our FREE TRIAL CLASS to feel good speaking English today.



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