Cambridge Dictionaries online Cambridge Dictionaries online

The most popular online dictionary and thesaurus for learners of English


English definition of “modal”


noun [C]     /ˈməʊ.dəl/ US  /ˈmoʊ.dəl/ (also modal verb) specialized
B1 a verb , such as 'can', 'might', and 'must', that is used with another verb to express an idea such as possibility that is not expressed by the main verb of a sentence : The first verb in the following sentence is a modal: We ought to pay the gas bill .Verb forms, tenses and types of verbs Grammar:Modality: introductionModality is about a speaker’s or a writer’s attitude towards the world. A speaker or writer can express certainty, possibility, willingness, obligation, necessity and ability by using modal words and expressions.Grammar:Modal verbsHere are the main verbs we use to express modal meanings:Grammar:Modal words and expressionsThere are a number of other words and expressions in English, apart from the main modal verbs, which also express modal meanings.Grammar:Modality: formsGrammar:Modal verbsCore modal verbs have only one form. They have no to-infinitive form, -ing form, past form or -ed form. We have to reword what we want to say by using other expressions:Grammar:Dare, need, ought toandused to (semi-modal verbs)Dare, need, ought to and used to are often called semi-modal because in some ways they are formed like modal verbs and in some ways they are like other main verbs.Grammar:Modality: meanings and usesGrammar:Modal meaningWe often use modal verbs or other modal expressions when we want to express an opinion or attitude about a possible fact or to control a possible action. All modal expressions are about the speaker’s or writer’s view of the world.Grammar:Modal verbsOften the same modal verb is used to express different meanings.Grammar:Modality: tenseGrammar:Modal verbs in past, present and future timeModal verbs do not change in form to make different tenses.Grammar:Modality: other verbsApart from the core modal verbs, some other common verbs express modal meaning.Grammar:Verbs expressing possibilityThese verbs express possibility and likelihood:Grammar:Verbs expressing obligationThese verbs express obligation, permission and necessity:Grammar:Modality: other modal words and expressionsGrammar:Other modal wordsApart from modal verbs, there are a lot of words which also express modality. They are words which express degrees of certainty or obligation.Grammar:Other modal expressionsWe often use for certain for sure/for definite with know:Grammar:Modality: expressions with beSome expressions with be have modal meanings:Grammar:Modality: typical errorsGrammar:Verbs: typesGrammar:Main verbsMain verbs have meanings related to actions, events and states. Most verbs in English are main verbs:Grammar:Linking verbsSome main verbs are called linking verbs (or copular verbs). These verbs are not followed by objects. Instead, they are followed by phrases which give extra information about the subject (e.g. noun phrases, adjective phrases, adverb phrases or prepositional phrases). Linking verbs include:Grammar:Auxiliary verbsThere are three auxiliary verbs in English: be, do and have. Auxiliary verbs come before main verbs.Grammar:Modal verbsThe main modal verbs are:Grammar:State and action verbsA verb refers to an action, event or state.
(Definition of modal noun from the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary & Thesaurus © Cambridge University Press)
Focus on the pronunciation of modal

Word of the Day


relating to behaviour between people that is pleasant and friendly, often despite a difficult situation

Word of the Day


Read our blog about how the English language behaves.

Learn More

New Words

Find words and meanings that have just started to be used in English, and let us know what you think of them.

Learn More