Learning about English Modal Verbs with Noah & The Whale
Music fans will know that indie folk music is having a huge revival at the moment thanks to great UK bands like Mumford & Sons, Noah & The Whale and singers like Laura Marling. After listening to Noah & The Whale’s song Five Years Time on my MP3 player a million times and then a million more times on numerous television advertisements, I decided it would be a great way to teach you about Modal Verbs.
Modal verbs are particular to Germanic languages. They are auxiliary verbs that give more information about the function of the principal verb following it. However, they do this without participles or infinitives.
They generally appear like this in a sentence:
Subject + modal verb + principal verb + action.
To make things easier, here is a list of modal verbs in their present and (mostly) preterite forms:
shall and should
must and ought to
will and would
may and might
can and could
1. Shall and should
Shall is a version of Will. It is more commonly used in British English, but from time to time you might hear it in the U.S. It is generally only used for I and We forms. It generally suggests obligation. It is generally used in the future tense.
I shall attend university in the fall.
We shall go Maria’s wedding in France.
Should refers to an ideal state in the past.
In the past, it is followed by the verb to have
I should have visited my mother on Sunday.
We should have studied for our exams.
Should also refers to an ideal state in the future.
I really should go visit my mother on Sunday.
We should study for our exams.
2. Must and ought to
Must is another modal verb expressing obligation. It is also used to express expectations and to give orders.
We must visit Dad now that he’s ill.
You must go to the doctor on Friday to check out that headache.
Mostly, ought to is used interchangeably with must:
You ought to visit Dad now that he’s ill.
You ought to go to the doctor on Friday to check out that headache.
3. Will and would
Will can generally be used in the same way as shall, but also when there is no sense of obligation involved.
I will go to Diana’s house on Tuesday.
She will watch television until 3 am if she wants to.
Would is slightly more complicated as it can be used in a number of ways:
-In a past imperfect sense.
I would talk to my mother before bedtime when I lived at home.
– When looking at something in the future from the past
Growing up I knew I would name my daughter Maria.
-To be polite
I would like that dress in blue please.
4. May and might
May is used to express something that could or could not happen and that the speaker/third person is currently thinking about. You will also see that may gives the speaker/third person authority over the action.
I may go into town if it doesn’t rain.
I may let her borrow my dress if she promises not to ruin it.
Might is mostly used interchangeably with may:
I might go into town if it doesn’t rain.
I might let her borrow my dress if she promises not to ruin it.
5. Can and could
Can is one of the most commonly used modal verbs. It suggests that the speaker/third person is able to do something:
I can speak Spanish
We can go to Peter’s party on Friday if we want.
It can reach 30 degrees in summer in Argentina.
As the past version of can could is used as follows:
I could speak Spanish when I lived in Spain.
We could go to Peter’s party every Friday when we wanted to.
It could reach 30 degrees in summer in Argentina before global warming. Now it can reach 40 degrees.
However, could is also used in a conditional sense:
I could go to America if I spoke English.
We could take Jenna to the party if she stays with us on Friday.
Now listen to the song Five Years Time by Noah & The Whale and pick out the modal verbs. We will give you a hint, there are three different uses of modal verbs in the song, though there is one used repeatedly throughout.
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