Flavors of Modal Verbs

Modals have different applications and even different grammar rules depending on which meaning they embody in a given situation. The various meanings can be categorized into 3 'flavors': Modals of Speculation (epistemic), Modals of Regulation (deontic), and Modals of Function (dynamic).

What to Expect

Many grammar resources will put modal verbs into groups such as Modals of Ability, Advice, Deduction, Habit, Necessity, Obligation, Permission, Possibility, Probability, Prohibition, Suggestion, and so on.  That may seem like a lot, but really they are different variants of just 3 categories – or ‘flavors’ – of modal verbs:

  • Epistemic: Modals of Possibility, Probability, Deduction, & Expectation
  • Deontic: Modals of Permission, Obligation, Advice, Prohibition, etc.
  • Dynamic: Modals of Ability and Habit

Knowing which flavor a modal is used for helps us understand its relationship to other modal verbs, how to substitute the modal with a similar phrase, and which grammar rules to apply (including how negatives work, or what past forms look like).

This topic is centered on identifying modal flavors.  Applying grammar rules (such as the form of the verb following the modal) – which not featured in this video – should be taught in conjunction.

Prerequisites

Learners should already be familiar with the following:

This page best applies once you’ve reached the topic of Modals of DeductionModals of Obligation, or some other grouping, which means students should be familiar with modal verbs.  At minimum, they should know can, could, may, might, must, and should.

You can adjust the lesson based on whether students also know (or need to know) semi-modals or pseudo-modals like ought to or need to.

Students should know that modals do not change their form.  For instance, they do not end in ‘s’ after 3rd-person subjects (we wouldn’t say “She cans jump high”).

Students should also know that the verb following a modal should be in its base form.  If the modal is followed by ‘have’, the next verb should then be in the Perfect Participle form.

While not necessary, it may help to know phrases like ‘be able to’, ‘be allowed to’, ‘be expected to’, ‘be forbidden to’, ‘be supposed to’, etc.

This topic explores some higher-level concepts that can be applied to what students learn at almost any proficiency level.  If teaching at a lower level (such as A2), you may need to reword some idea and leave out information that would be superfluous to them.

Proficiency Level

Students begin learning modals at the A1 level , starting with ‘can’ and ‘could’.  They’ll learn more modals and variations of modals with each level.  Students are expected to know all 3 flavors at the B1 level – starting at a Pre-Intermediate or Intermediate level (3rd or 4th out of 6)*- and should continue through advanced levels.

*actual starting level varies from one course-book series to the next

Speculation

Epistemic modals convey what the speaker believes to be possible or supposes may be true.

They include Modals of Possibility (potential) and Modals of Probability / Likelihood (compelling).

Regulation

Deontic modals express ideals such as rules, ethics, personal preferences, and social standards.

They include Modals of Permission (potential) and Modals of Obligation / Necessity (compelling).

Function

Dynamic modals relate the subject’s intrinsic characteristics through what they are capable of or inclined to do.

They include Modals of Ability (potential) and Modals of Habit (compelling).

Bonus Notes


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Conditionals

Conditionals are a great avenue for the application of all three flavors of modal verbs.
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Verb Patterns

Suppletive Phrases can be substituted for modal verbs. Suppletives are a subset of Verb Patterns
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