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David Recine

ACT English Review: Common Modals Part 1

Modals are a category of words that appear before verbs in sentences. Modals add extra connotation to a word or sentence. (Connotation is the tone, emotion or sense of a group of words, beyond their literal dictionary definitions). You probably already know and use many modals, but as a reminder here is a list of some common sets of modals in ACT English, along with definitions and example uses.

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  • can/could/be able to: used to express ability to do something, express the possibility that something might happen, or make a request
      • Ability: I can go there by bus. I could buy an airplane ticket if I had a little bit more money. Are you able to lend me a little money so I can fly instead of taking the bus?
      • Possibility: The bus can be late sometimes. In fact, the bus could be as much as 20 minutes late. (Be able to is not used for possibilities.)
      • Request: Could you tell me how much extra money you need for the airplane ticket? And can you tell me the cost of the bus ticket too? Also, if I help you get an airplane ticket, would you be able to take some photos from the airplane window on your phone and share them with me later? I bet those will look cool.


  • may/might: used to ask permission, make requests, suggest things, and talk about possibilities
      • Ask permission/make requests: May I please go to the bathroom, teacher? And might you give me a hall pass for when I go?
      • Suggest things: You may want to make sure you go to the bathroom before class starts in the future, and you might want to come back to class quickly so you don’t miss anything important in the lecture.
      • Talk about possibilities: You think I might miss something important while I’m on my bathroom break? Yes, you may miss my explanation of the reading assignment if you don’t hurry back.


  • shall/should/ought to: used to offer help, make polite suggestions, discuss possibilities, and make predictions
    • Offer help: Shall I give you a hand with those heavy boxes? And should I help you unpack once you get the boxes into your new apartment? (Ought to is not generally used for offering help.)
    • Make polite suggestions: You should carry those big boxes a little more carefully. You ought to be especially cautious as you go up the stairs. (Shall isn’t used for polite suggestions.)
    • Discuss possibilities: Should it start raining, we’ll need to get the boxes into the building as quickly as possible. (Only should is used to discuss possibilities.)
    • Make predictions: It should start raining any minute now, and the weather forecast says it ought to rain pretty hard. (Shall isn’t used to make predictions.)


    ACT Modal Tip # 1:

    Modals can change the word form of the verb that follows. Present participle verbs change to their bare form following modals. This means the verb form that has no special present tense or plural markers. So for example, “she is” would change to the bare form “she should be” when modal should is added, and “he eats” would be changed to “he can eat,” “he might eat,” and so on. ACT English often tests these kinds of minor shifts in verb form. So keep an eye on modals as you look for errors and ways to correct them on the exam.

    In my next post on this subject, we’ll go over two additional important sets of modals in ACT English and I’ll give you one more tip on how to use your modal knowledge to get a top score.


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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