Wednesday, March 14

Are You a Modal? (Verb) ;-)

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Examples of MODAL VERBS in English are “Should,” “Can,” “Might” etc. 

They are important in English because they give a special meaning to your sentence. And the meaning changes depending on what kind of Modal you use. 

For instance... 

                                 You go to the gym.
                                       |___Have to

Now, if I arrange all the MODALS (MODAL VERBS) according to the degree of their strength, I come up with a list like this: 

*Note: Take a look at "SHOULD." It's commonly believed that SHOULD is nearly or the same level as MUST and HAVE TO. This is a wrong idea.  

And if I change the MODALS to the Past Tense, here are their forms: 

Because the MODAL VERBS is a topic that’s too wide for me to discuss, today we’re gonna focus on only the top 2 strongest MODALS:


Now, like I said before, HAVE TO and MUST are not exactly the same. In fact, surprisingly for some people, HAVE TO is stronger than MUST.

(For a Review of this topic, please watch “Which is Stronger, MUST or HAVE TO?”)

But sometimes they are also very similar.

So, for our purposes today, we can have it like this:


But, strange to say, if you change them into the Negative, they are perfectly different:


                              DON'T HAVE TOMUSTN’T

This is because their meanings are:

DON’T HAVE TO = You don’t need to do it, but if you want to, that’s Ok.

MUSTN’T = I forbid/ prohibit you from doing it

For example,

You DON’T HAVE TO join the party. (Means: I know you are his friend. But you’re not feeling well today. So it’s Ok if you don’t join)

       -- While –

You MUSTN’T swim over there. (Means: That part is too deep so you might drown. I prohibit you from swimming there.)

It'll be good for you to remember this difference.


Other expressions with exactly the same meaning are:

You DON’T HAVE TO come.

You DON’T NEED TO come.              The same meaning

You NEEDN’T come.
(NEEDN’T + to base)

But again, strangely, if you change them to Past, one would be different:

      Negative “Have To”                           Past

You DON’T HAVE TO come.     You DIDN’T HAVE TO come.

You DON’T NEED TO come.    You DIDN’T NEED TO come.
                                                         different meaning

You NEEDN’T come.                You NEEDN’T HAVE come.


Because of a difference in meaning. Think about the situations in these pictures: 

I didn't have to go to school. / I didn't need to go to school.

-- While --

I needn't have gone to school. 

In summary, 

Hope you didn't get lost! ;-)

If you have any questions, please feel free to ask them. Also, for a longer discussion of the same topic, you can download the audio file

Just go to Itunes > podcasts > search > type: Cool Elf to get your free file. 

But if you don't have iTunes, you can download the same file here: 





  1. A nice list you put together indicating the strongest to weakest modals. Thanks.

  2. You're welcome :-)

    I have to tell you though that it still depends on the situation. For example, "will" can sometimes be stronger than even "have to" or "must."

    Good luck with your study!


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