3 Common Modal Auxiliary Verbs

We use modal auxiliary verbs all the time in English. They’re simple ways to change the “mood” of a sentence and to show how we feel about a situation. For a review of their uses and the grammar, see the page here.

But in this post I want to highlight three common modal auxiliaries that you’ll hear a lot in everyday, spoken English – but which are often “under-rated” in English text books.

Check out the explanations and pronunciation – and try to use them when you speak. You’ll sound more natural and more like a native speaker!

Shall

This is much more common in British English than American English. We use it in three main situations:

– to make offers
– to make suggestions
– to talk about the future (more formal than “will”)

Making offers
“Shall I help you?”
“Shall I carry your bag for you?”

Making suggestions
“Shall we come over at about 6pm?”
“Shall I give you a call when I know what time I finish work?”

Talking about the future
“We shall need help planning the reception.”
“I shan’t stay long.”

Notes
– For making offers and suggestions, only use “shall” with “I” and “we” – not “you” or “they”.
– The negative of “shall” is “shan’t”.
– Like all modal verbs, “shall” is followed by the infinitive of the verb without “to”.

Now listen to the pronunciation.

Needn’t

“Needn’t” is the negative form of “need” and it means “you don’t need to”.

Examples – No necessity
“You needn’t go if you don’t want to.”
“I walked all the way there, but I needn’t have bothered! None of the shops were open.”

You can also use “need” as a modal form in questions:
“Need I really go?”
But it’s more common to use the full verb “need” in questions. Remember to use the auxiliary “do”:
“Do I really need to go?”

For statements (= not questions or negatives) use the full verb of “need” – not the modal form:
“I need to speak to him urgently.”
“She needs to leave now.”

Now listen to the pronunciation.

Ought

Although “ought” is a modal verb, we follow it with the infinitive with “to”. We use “ought” in two ways:

– to say that something is a good idea (advice and obligation)
– to say that something is probable or expected

Advice / Obligation
“I really ought to go now.”
“You ought to see the doctor about your stomach ache.”
“He ought to have known better than to argue with his boss.”

Probability
“They ought to be there by now.”
“We ought to be in London at 10.30”

The negative form of “ought” is “ought not” or “oughtn’t”, but we usually use “shouldn’t”. The question form of “ought” is usually “should” as well:
“You shouldn’t speak to her like that.”
“Should I make an appointment now, or can it wait til next week?”

Now listen to the pronunciation.


We use modal auxiliary verbs a lot when we speak English, to show what we think about a situation. When you use them, you’ll sound more natural and fluent. Discover why they’re so powerful and get common modal expressions in my new training – free for members of the English Fluency Club:

3 Common Modal Auxiliary Verbs

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