Thursday, August 15, 2013

Tips on using MODALS the right way

These guys are picking up bicycles from New York City's new bike-sharing program. They
MUST BE saving money on transportation costs, & they MUST BE getting a lot of exercise.
Biking to work CAN BE sweaty, so riders SHOULD probably BRING a change of clothes.

Did you notice the modal verbs in the caption above? How good are you at using modals? (Will, might, could, should, would, must, can, et al.) Can you use them easily when you're having a conversation or when you're writing?

Modal verbs can be tricky for a couple of reasons. First, they don't follow tense rules like other verbs, so students can have a bit of trouble using them, especially to talk about the past. Also, some of them have more than one meaning, which makes it sometimes tough to decide which one to use correctly.

To help you make sense of modal verbs and help you master them, here are some tips to keep in mind.

1. To talk about the present or the future, use this structure: [MODAL + base form of the verb].

  • We MIGHT GO to the beach this weekend.
  • You SHOULD COME to the party.
  • She MUST LIKE ice cream. She ate the whole tub.

2. To talk about the past, use a perfect modal: [MODAL + HAVE + past participle]. 
Remember that modals are always followed by the base form of the verb, so never use 'had' right after a modal when talking about the past; always use HAVE +  the past participle.

  • I didn't see them at the party; they MIGHT HAVE GONE home before I got there.
  • You SHOULD HAVE COME to the party. It was so much fun!
  • She looked happy when she saw your present. She MUST HAVE LIKED it a lot.

3. Know what each modal is used for. Remember, some are used in different situations. Here are a few modals and their uses.

  • Everyone MUST HAVE an I.D. to enter the building. (must = obligation)
  • You MUST BE tired. You just worked 16 hours straight. (must = certainty; logical conclusion)
  • WOULD you HELP me? (would = please, kindly)
  • When we were kids, we WOULD go to the beach every summer and play in the surf all day. (would = actions in the past that we don't do anymore; often used with "used to")
  • If she were the mayor, she WOULD CLEAN UP the subway tracks. (would = likely to happen if the situation were true; used with the second conditional)

4. Practice each modal in the specific situation that it's used to get accustomed to using it correctly and easily. This is often the goal of classroom activities. However, you can also do this on your own.

For example, if you are sitting in class feeling tired, think about the reasons why you are tired and what you SHOULD HAVE DONE in the past for a different result in the present.

  • I SHOULD HAVE GONE to bed early.
  • I SHOULDN'T HAVE STAYED UP playing video games.
  • I SHOULD HAVE TOLD my friend I couldn't hang out with him last night.
  • I SHOULDN'T HAVE STARTED watching the movie at 11pm. I COULD HAVE WAITED until this weekend.

Another example: If you see a guy driving a red Ferrari, you can make assumptions using MUST (certainty) or COULD (possibility)

  • He MUST BE rich.
  • He MUST LIKE the color red.
  • He MUST ENJOY driving fast. 
  • He MUST BE a doctor or a lawyer or a successful businessman, or...
  • He COULD BE someone's driver, or ...
  • The Ferarri COULD BE his friend's.

5. Be ready to use them. Modals are used quite often, and many sentences can be said without modals but are much better expressed using modals.

For example, instead of saying, "Maybe, he went to the park," you can say, 

  • "He MAY HAVE GONE to the park."

Instead of saying, "It is better if you take the train," you can say, 

  • "You SHOULD TAKE the train."

Instead of saying, "I feel bad because I didn't do my homework," you can say, 

  • "I SHOULD HAVE DONE my homework."

There you have it, folks! Keep these tips in mind, practice, and soon you will be useful modal verbs like a natural! :-) Any questions? As us here below, at NYLC's Facebook page, or on Twitter @NYLangCenter. Use #ilovenylc.

-- Joe Yu, ESL instructor

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