Conjugation & verb forms of modal verbs in the present simple

(Present simple of English modal verbs – ‘can, must, will, would, should, may, might, ought to’)

Table of contents – present simple of modal verbs

On this page you will find the following:

  1. Conjugation forms of modal verbs in the present simple
  2. Special negative forms
  3. Verb forms
  4. Further explanations and exercises

Conjugation of modal verbs in the present simple (may, can, will, must, would, …)

Modal verbs belong to the group of auxiliary verbs. In the English language, there are the following: ‘can, could, may, must, will, would, should, might, ought to’ and ‘shall’. They cannot change their form and so stay the same when used in all three persons (whether singular or plural). The verb that follows a modal verb always appears in its infinitive form and withoutto’. You also need to consider that although not all modal verbs have present tense forms, most of them can still refer to the present or other tenses. For a more detailed explanation see modal verbs.

Attention: Even in the 3rd person singular modal verbs do not add an ‘s’ to the end of the word and their infinitive form is not used with ‘to’ (not: to can).

Modal verbs with forms in the present tense

  • The following modal verbs do have forms in the present simple:
    • can’ (ability):
      • Can you see the elephant over there?”
    • may’ (permission):
      • May I have a seat?”
    • must’ (strong belief):
      • “The key must be on the kitchen table.”
    • shall’ (suggestion):
      • Shall we go to the new Italian restaurant?”
    • will’ (strong assumption):
      • “Somebody’s knocked on the door. – Yes, that’ll be my neighbor.”

Modal verbs without forms in the present tense

  • The following modal verbs do not possess any forms in the present tense. In parts, they are past forms of the ones mentioned above (see modal verbs in the past tense), but they may still refer to the present depending on their usage:
    • could’ (request):
      • Could you open the door, please?”
        • referring to the present in order to express politeness
      • “When I was younger, I could easily swim 3,000 metres.”
        • relating to the past to demonstrate an ability
    • might’ (possibility):
      • “The phone is ringing. It might be Sally.”
    • would’ (offer):
      • Would you like some coffee?”
    • should’ (advice):
      • “You shouldn’t stay up late; you have to get up early tomorrow morning.”
    • ought to’ (advice):
      • “Marc, you ought to eat more vegetables.”

Special forms of modal verbs in the present simple

Some of the English modal verbs (particularly ‘may, shall, can, will’ and ‘must’) have special forms when they are used in negative sentence structures. In detail:

  • cancannot
    • ‘cannot’ is written as one word – without space; the regular short form is ‘can’t’.
  • willwon’t
    • ‘won’t’ as the short version – but ‘will not’ is used as its regular form.
  • maymay not
    • No short form is possible.
  • shallshan’t
    • ‘shan’t’ as the short version – but ‘shall not’ is its regular form.
  • mustmust not or mustn’t
    • The positive form stands for obligation, but the negative one means ‘not allowed to’. Its negation requires the substitute form ‘do not have to’.

Verb forms of the modal verbs ‘can, must, may, will, would, should, might, ought to’ in the present simple

Example verbs: ‘to speak’ and ‘to work’

Positive/affirmative sentences

Example pronoun Positive Short form Interrogative form
I can work. Can I work?
You could speak. Could you speak?
He may work. May he work?
She might speak. Might she speak?
It shall work. Shall it work?
We should speak. Should we speak?
You must work. Must you work?
They will speak. They’ll speak. Will they speak?
I would work. I’d work. Would I work?

Negative sentences

Example pronoun Negative Short form Short form of question
I cannot speak. I can’t speak. Can’t I speak?
You could not work. You couldn’t work. Couldn’t you work?
He may not speak. May he not speak?
She might not work. She mightn’t work. Mightn’t she work?
It shall not work. It shan’t work. Shan’t it work?
We should not speak. We shouldn’t speak. Shouldn’t we speak?
It (must) → Attention: In relation to its meaning there is no corresponding negative form for ‘must’, and so ‘not have to’ has to be used as a special form. Compare the difference between ‘must’ and ‘must not’.
We will not work. We won’t work. Won’t we work?
They would not speak. They wouldn’t speak. Wouldn’t they speak?

Further explanations relating to the ‘Conjugation of modal verbs in the present simple’

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