Learn English Without Studying Modal Verbs

I want to briefly cover modal verbs because very often I get asked the following:


How can I get better, more accurate in my use of modal verbs?


I get other very specific questions related to aspects of English or other languages. Well, my advice is you can look up explanations on modal verbs and they may or may not make sense to you because it’s not obvious. A modal verb, for those of you who don’t know, are those verbs like “would”, “could”, “might”, “ought to”, “should”, “need”, “have to”, etc. Anything that implies a need or an obligation, those are considered modal verbs – “would, should, could”, as someone once said.


The distinction between when you use one as opposed to another is not always one hundred percent. Very often, you can use one or other of them. There are, obviously, lots of explanations. But unless you have had enough exposure to the language, listened enough, read enough, you will never develop a natural ability to use the correct one. If every time you want to express this “would”, “should”, “might”, “ought to”, if you start thinking through those rules, it will inhibit your speaking.

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My advice on modal verbs – which are very complicated and it isn’t obvious very often which one is correct – it’s a subtle thing that you have to develop a natural feel for. Reading the explanation can help if you have enough experience with the language to start with, but mostly it’s a matter of getting used to the language.


That is true for many other of these very practical issues. People will say, “well, you always talk about motivation. I want some practical advice on how to learn English.” The practical advice won’t help you, the little bits and pieces. On the other hand, there is an abundance of explanation out there in grammar books and online on all kinds of aspects of using English. That’s not the issue. The issue is getting more of it in you so that your brain gradually starts to form these patterns so that you start to naturally use the language accurately.


So, that’s my advice when it comes to modal verbs. You can look them up and you’ll get a bunch of explanations. But if you want to use them correctly, you have to get the habits into your brain and that means lots of listening and reading, speaking, getting it wrong, thinking you got it wrong when you got it right and gradually it all just becomes clearer to you. Having an attitude where you accept uncertainty, not fully understanding, possibly making a mistake and not letting that bother you, that’s more important than reading any explanation on modal verbs.