Thursday, 30 May 2013

Grammar: Modal Verbs for IELTS

This IELTS lesson is about modal verbs and how they can be used to improve your writing (though of course they are also used in your speaking in the same way).
You are likely to use these a lot in your academic writing for task 2, particularly if you are writing an essay which needs to give solutions to a problem.
They are also important to help in clarifying the certainty with which you are making a point, which is important for your writing.
The examiner will expect you to be competent in using these to award you a higher band score.
What are they?
Modal Verbs are used commonly in English to add further information to the main verb. 
They are auxiliary or 'helping' verbs, which means they cannot be used on their own but must be used with the main verb.
Modal Verbs
Main Verb
(Bare Infinitive)
Sentence Examples


  • She can swim
  • Can she swim?
  • She can not swim
‘Semi’ Modal Verbs
Sentence Examples

to go
  • She has to go
  • Does she have to go?
  • She doesn’t have to go

How are they used?
These verbs are used with a main verb and are followed by the bare infinitive (bare means no “to”). 
The exceptions are ‘ought’,’ need’ and ‘have’ which are followed by the infinitive (with “to”).

Common Use in IELTS Task 2

Three important functions of modal verbs when you are writing or speaking for IELTS are:

  1. discussing degrees of certainty
  2. making suggestions
  3. hypothetical situations


1) Degrees of Certainty

Will, may, might and could are common to make logical deductions about a situation or the future, which you often need to do in task 2:
Children with no father as a role model will become criminals. (100%)

Children with no father as a role model may become criminals. (Possible)

Children with no father as a role model could become criminals. (Possible)
Which of these sentences do you think is incorrect?
Hopefully you worked out that the first one is wrong. This is a common mistake to see in IELTS essays.
The grammar is ok, but it is not possible to conclude that all children with no father as a role model will become criminals!
Be careful when you are making assessments in this way. 
Will’’ is 100% going to happen, so avoid using it to make generalizations about everybody/everything unless you know it is 100% true.  (There are other ways to make it less certain e.g. “will possibly”).
When you are writing IELTS essays, it's unusual that you will have evidence with you or that you can use to show 100% what you are saying is true.
So the second two are better in this situation.


2) Suggestions

Must, should, ought to, have to and could are often used to make suggestions for solving a problem.  It is common in task 2 to get a question asking you to discuss a problem and suggest solutions.
Governments must/have to/need to take action to tackle global warming.  (strong obligation)

Parents should/ought to stop their children watching too much television. (Strong suggestion)

Individuals could recycle more (possibility).

 3) Hypothetical Situations

It is common to use would and could to discuss hypothetical situations.
If something is hypothetical, this means in effect it has not happened. You are discussing an unreal situation in the future or imagining something.
For example:
If the government spent more money on hospitals, people would be healthier.
It is something that has not happened and you don't know if it will.

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