Best Approaches to Teaching and Learning Modal Auxiliaries


An auxiliary verb is synonymous with a helping verb. It is a type of the verb which cannot stand alone unless it depends on lexical verb(s) for meaning.

Explain modal auxiliaries.


A modal auxiliary verb can be assessed as a kind of verb which helps lexical verbs, and also performs certain grammatical functions in the sentences. For example, the modal auxiliary verb ‘must’ indicate compulsion or order.

Give categories of modal auxiliaries.

Present tense Negative forms Past tense Negative forms





Dare (main)

Ought to

Need (main)

Will not

Shall not

May not


Must not

Dare not

Ought not to

Need not





Used to

Would not

Should not

Might not

Could not

Discuss functions of modal auxiliaries with examples.

Modal auxiliaries are used to express or perform certain functions. Consider the functions below.


(i)         Will is used as a future tense, e.g.

I will see you tomorrow. (Present future tense)

(ii)        It is used to indicate willingness and requests, e.g.

If I get home, I will read before I sleep. (Willingness)

Will you assist me to wash those plates? (Request)

(iii)       It is used to form conditional tense, e.g.

If the students fail to read, they will fail their examinations. (Conditional)

(iv)       It is used to express what habitual is, e. g.

A good teacher will prepare very well before going to the class. (Habit)


(i)         Would is used to show the past future tense, e.g.

I would be there. (Past future)

(ii)        Would is used to express direct speech in the past, e.g.

I said, ‘You would pass your examinations’. (Direct speech)

(iii)       It is used in conditional tense, e.g.

The protagonist would have not died if he hadn’t acted. (Conditional)

(iv)       It is used to indicate promise, e.g.

I will attend your wedding ceremony. (Promise)

(v)        It is used to show assurance, e.g.

I would be there next week. (Assurance)


(i)         Shall is used to make an offer, e.g.

Shall we sit down? (Offer)

(ii)        It is used to make suggestions, e.g.

Shall we meet here tomorrow? (Suggestion)

(iii)       It is used to express assurance, e.g.

It shall be well with you. (Assurance)

(iv)       It is used to act as a mark of determination or decision on the part of the speaker(s), e.g.

That criminal shall be murdered. (Decision)


(i)         Should is used to express obligation, e.g.

Every J.S.S. student should come to school tomorrow. (Obligation)

(ii)        At times, it is used in place of ‘would’ in the first person, e.g.

I should like to see you tomorrow. (As would)

(iii)       It is used to indicate advice, e.g.

You should stop visiting him. (Advice)


(i)         May is used to show permission, e.g.

May I come in? (Permission)

(ii)        It is used to indicate probability, e.g.

He may not get there tonight. (Probability)


(i)         Might is used to show permission, e.g.

You might use my bed if you like. (Permission)

(ii)        It is used to express probability, e.g.

I might not see you tomorrow. (Probability)


(i)         Can is used to indicate ability, e.g.

I can speak English eloquently. (Ability)

(ii)        It is used to express lack of opposition or agreement, e.g.

You can use my textbook. (Agreement)

(iii)       It is used to express future action, e.g.

I can see you in two days’ time. (Future)

(iv)       It is used to ask for permission.

Can I go there? (Permission)


(i)         Could is used for past ability, e.g.

Some years ago, I could read without wearing a pair of glasses. (Past ability)

(ii)        Could is used to ask for permission, e.g.

Could I go there? (Ask for permission)

(iii)       Can often becomes could in past direct speech, e.g.

Bolaji told me, ‘She could not marry a tall man.’ (Past direct speech)

(iv)       It is used to express possibility from other engagements, e.g.

I could attend your birthday by 10a.m. next Monday.


(i)         Must is used to indicate compulsion or obligation, e.g.

All students must be here tomorrow. (Compulsion)

(ii)        It is used to express order, e.g.

You must stand up. (Order)

(iii)       It is used to show a strong probability, e.g.

My uncle must be almost 50 years of age.

(iv)       It is used to make an inference, e.g.

He must be having headaches. (Inference)

[Ought to]

(i)         Ought to is used to give advice, e.g.

Children ought to respect the elders. (Advice)

(ii)        Ought to is also used to express criticism or obligation, e.g.

The students ought to listen more attentively in the classroom than they used to. (Criticism)


(i)         Need, as a modal auxiliary, is used to express advice, e.g.

You need not abuse her when weary. (Advice)

(ii)        Needn’t is used to give permission not to do something, e.g.

You needn’t wait for me, go alone. (Permission to…)

(iii)       Need is used as a full verb, e.g.

I need a glass of water.

You need to flush that water closet before you defecate.

When ‘need’ is used as a modal auxiliary, it will not be followed by ‘to-infinitive’ and it will not be inflected either as: dares, needs or needed/dared. For example:

  1. You needn’t follow me. Not

‘You needn’t (to) follow me’

When ‘need’ is used as a negative form, you will not use ‘to-infinitive’ with it.

When ‘need’ is used as a full verb, the ‘to-infinitive’, ‘-s inflection’ and past forms will be used. For example:

(i)         He need a pair of trousers.

(ii)        You need to wash those clothes.


(i)         Dare is used to express a challenge. The modal auxiliary (dare) is mainly restricted to negative and interrogative sentences. For example:

He dare not react that way.

(ii)        It is used as a full verb. For example:

I didn’t dare come here.

[Used to]

(i)         Used to is used to show former condition, e.g.

For the past three years, I used to drink beer. (Former condition)

Discuss written aspects of negative auxiliaries.

 All auxiliaries and negative particle ‘not’ must be written separately unless they are contracted. Consider the examples in the table below.

Modal auxiliaries Primary auxiliaries
Will not

Would not

May not

Might not

Could not

Shall not

Should not

Must not

Dare not

Need not

Is not

Was not

Are not

Were not

To use ‘not’ with ‘ought to’, the negative particle (not) should occur before ‘to’ and not after. ‘Ought not to’ not ‘ought to not’. For example

However, the modal auxiliary ‘can’ is written together with the negative particle ‘not’, as in cannot. So, it is incorrect to write thus:













But, if the word ‘not’ is contracted as (n’t), then it will be written together with auxiliaries. Look at the examples below.

Won’t                          Couldn’t

Shan’t                          Can’t

Wouldn’t                     Mayn’t

Mightn’t                      Shouldn’t

Mustn’t                       Needn’t

Isn’t                             Aren’t

Wasn’t                         Weren’t


  1. How a modal auxiliary verb can be assessed?
  2. Complete the table below.
Present form Negative forms Past forms Negative forms
      Might not
Shall   Should  
  1. Use the following auxiliaries correctly in sentences:

(i)         will                  wouldn’t

(ii)        used to                        ought not to

(iii)       dare                 shall

(iv)       must                might not

(v)        can’t                should not

  1. Correct the auxiliaries used wrongly in the following sentences:

(i)         I use to come to your house.

(ii)        He needn’t to collect that book from her.

(iii)       She can not accept that.

(iv)       You must not come here tomorrow

(v)        You ought to not give it to her.

  1. With relevant examples, state and exemplify the functions of the following auxiliaries:

(i) would         (ii) shall                       (iii) might                    (iv) can

(v) must           (vi) dare

Author: Deola Adelakun

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