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David Recine

ACT English Review: Common Modals Part 2


Modals are words that sometimes appear before verbs in a sentence. Modals add an extra “sense” to the sentence, giving it additional meaning and connotation. In Modals Part 1 (Reviewing Common Modals for Act English, Part 1), we looked at meaning and use for the modal sets can/could/be able to, may/might, and shall/should/ought to. Next up are two more sets of modals you’re likely to deal with in ACT English.

  • must, have to, need to, need not: used to express necessity, probability, persuasion, or prohibition
    • Express necessity: You must make sure you wash your hands before supper. You need to make sure your hands are clean so that you don’t get sick. You have to do this before I let you sit down to eat. But you need not wash your hands again after supper, unless you decide to eat something else before bed.
    • Express probability: I think he must have already washed his hands; he usually washes his hands before supper. His hands look so clean; he has to have done that already! (Need to and need not aren’t used to express probability.)
    • Persuasion: You simply must see the new action movie that just came out. You have to see it, because all of your friends are going to see it to. You need to know what they’re all talking about. And you need not worry about the cost. Movie tickets are discounted for the whole first week of the showing.
    • Prohibition: But you must not see the movie alone if you want to get the discount—the discounts are for groups of moviegoers, not individual viewers. You have to come to the theater with at least two other people; getting the discount if you come alone or with just one friend isn’t allowed. You need to avoid going alone to take advantage of this offer. (Need not is generally not used to express prohibition.) 

  • will/would: used to make predictions, make requests, politely express desire, offer things, make suggestions, or describe habitual actions
    • Make predictions: It will snow tomorrow afternoon. It would probably be a good idea to wear a very warm coat when you head to work in the morning.
    • Make requests: Will you stop reminding me that it’s going to snow? I’m already sad that winter is here. I’m sorry, that sounded a little rude. Would you please stop reminding me about the snow is what I meant to say. (Note that will is more polite than would.)
    • Politely express desire: You know, I’ll try to have fun this winter and not be so sad. I would like to go sledding with you. (Will is not generally used to express desire.)
    • Offering things: Sure, I’ll go sledding with you. Would you like to borrow one of my sleds? (Will is not used in offers.)
    • Make suggestions: I’d love to borrow one of your sleds—thanks! Would you like to meet at the sledding hill around 5 o’clock? (Will is not used for suggestions.)
    • Describe habitual actions: That sounds good. You know, you will always complain about winter, but then get used to it. Even when we were kids, you would always be sad when winter first began.


    ACT Modal Tip # 2

    Modals often add a subtle distinction to the tone, intent, or purpose of a piece of writing. Being keenly aware of what modals are and how each common modal affects the meaning of a passage can really help you with the ACT English section’s Rhetorical Skills questions about strategies for revising a passage, organization of ideas in a passage, and the nature of a passage’s writing style.


About David Recine

David is a test prep expert at Magoosh. He has a Bachelor of Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and a Masters in Teaching English to Speakers of other Languages from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He has been teaching K-12, University, and adult education classes since 2007 and has worked with students from every continent. Currently, David lives in a small town in the American Upper Midwest. When he’s not teaching or writing, David studies Korean, plays with his son, and takes road trips to Minneapolis to get a taste of city life. Follow David on Google+ and Twitter!

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