This article discusses an aspect of English #grammar and is part of a series of articles about essential #language for the IELTS Exam.
In this article we will look at using modal verbs in the IELTS Exam and how knowing how to use them correctly will help you sound more like a native speaker and get a higher band score.
Modal Verbs: Essential Words to Know
"It might be a street in New York, but I can't be sure."
The English language loves model verbs and native speakers use them all the time. They are in fact among the 200 most common English words and are used to express things like possibility and ability and, by extension, politeness. Sometimes we can even use the same word to express all three of these concepts. For example, look at the sentences below, all using the word could:
- I'm not really sure, but it could be something useful. (possibility)
- At the age of 17 he could already run the 100 metres in under 10 seconds. (ability).
- Could you help me? (polite request)
Although these ideas can be expressed using other words, for example adjectives and adverbs like possible/possibly, English speakers tend to prefer to use modal verbs instead. For example: It might've been good is more likely to be used than It would have possibly been good.
So, these words are extremely important, and from the perspective of someone taking the IELTS exam, using them correctly will boost your band score. If you are someone trying to make the jump from 5.5 to 6, using modal verbs will instantly add to your grammatical range; on the other hand, if you are someone trying to go beyond band 6 or 7, these words will be crucial in making you sound more native-like - which is a key criteria of the higher band levels.
They are useful in all four skills in the exam. However, be careful with Academic Writing Task 1 where you should not use them because the task requires you to report only the facts you see in the graph or diagram and not to speculate or use hypothetical language.
The Grammar of Modal Verbs
So let's take a closer look. There are 8* common modal verbs:
can, could, may, might, must, should, will, and would.
Grammatically, there are three important things about modal verbs. The first is that modal verbs do not change according to the subject of the sentence. The second is that they are always followed by the basic form of a second verb. And the thrid is that the negative is formed by adding not between the two verbs. For example, take a look at the following:
- I/you/she/he/it/we/they might make a change.
- He must go not he must goes.
- I think she wouldn't like it.
When we talk about the past, the same 3 rules apply. However, there is a difference between ability and possibility. For ability we can think of could as the past of can, as in the following example:
- When she was younger she could climb the stairs easily but now she can't (climb them).
However, when talking about possibility we must use a different approach:
- It could be true now, and it could have been true before. We just don't know for sure.
Do not worry, it is not as difficult as it might first appear. As you can see from the example above, the modal verb remains unchanged (could) and the verb following it is still in the basic form (have) and so fits the 3 basic rules. The only difference is that be has become the past form been.
Let's take a look at some more example sentences.
- She can't drive.
- I wasn't very good at maths when I was at school. I couldn't really understand it.
- My daughter could read at an early age.
- The suspect might be one of the men in the lineup.
- The result couldn't've been better. It was just what my mother and father wanted.
- I wasn't sure but she may have done it already.
- My brother would jump at the chance if he were offered a job overseas
- If we could engineer a new approach, we might be able to solve the issue.
- It would've been much better if we'd planned ahead.
- Would you mind closing the door?
- Could I have a pen?
- Can I have the booklet, the paper, and the pencil back please?
- Will you follow me, please?
Using Modal Verbs in the IELTS Exam - Contractions & Pronunciation
Before we finish our brief overview of modal verbs, it is crucially important to consider contractions and pronunciation. This is because modal verbs tend to be contracted or take on weak forms of pronunciation in normal speech. If you want to get the higher band scores in your IELTS Speaking Test it is critical that you pronounce them in the way native speakers would.
First off, let's get written forms out of the way. For the purposes of the IELTS Exam, with the possible exception of the General Training Writing Task 1, it is simple: you should not use contractions. That is because the appropriate style for the writing tasks is neutral/semi-formal or academic. In this type of style you should, for instance, write: It would have been improved… and not It would've been improved…
Also, remember what we said above about the Academic Writing Task 1. Generally speaking, you should not use them because the task requires you to report only the facts you see in the graph or diagram and not to speculate or use hypothetical language.
In the speaking test, however, things are different. The neutral style is to use contractions (and weak forms). In fact, if you don't use contractions it places emphasis on the sentence and might sound to strong: almost as if you were disputing something - which, in the exam, is something you obviously do not want to do.
Using contractions and weak forms in speech is also essential in being able to maintain an appropriate tempo and rhythm in your speech, crucial to getting band 7 and above. Also, being able to recognise these sounds when listening will help you follow complex discussions between natives.
Can = /kən/ not kæn/
Would = /wəd/ not /wʊd/
Should = /ʃəd/ not /ʃʊd/
Must = /məst/ not /mʌst/
She will = She +l /ʃɪːl/
He will have = He + l + av /hɪːləv/
I would = I +d /ɑɪd/
We would have = We + d + av /wɪːdəv/ or /wɪːwədəv/
She may have = She + may + av /ʃɪːmeɪjəv/
They might have = They + might + av /ðeɪmɑɪtəv/
I could have = I + d + av /ɑɪkədəv/
He must have = He + must + av/(h)ɪːməstəv/
They should have = They + should +av /ðeɪʃədəv/
Modal verbs are a very common feature of the English language. They help us talk about general possibilities as well as our abilities, wishes and desires. As far as the IELTS exam is concerned, understanding them is important for all four skills. Moreover, using them in the speaking test will help you increase your range of grammar and make you sound more native-like. Both of these are crucial in moving you beyond band 6.
So, whatever your level the conclusion is simple: using modal verbs in the IELTS Exam will boost your score.
If you would like to test your knowledge of modal verbs, take a look at our quick quiz.
Note: *There are some more modal verbs which are not included here because they are much less common (shall, dare, need). There are also some other verbs and phrases which serve similar functions but are either not modal verbs (be able to, have to, be going to, wish, hope), or use two words (had better, would rather). And then there is ought to, which does not neatly fit into any category.
So how can you practice so that you are prepared for using modal verbs in the IELTS Exam?
Take the following three 'sentence frames' and fill in the details with three situations from your own life. Use your imagination.
It might … if [I/he/she/it/etc] …. [tomorrow/next week/etc]
I could …. [tomorrow/next week/etc]
I might've …. if [I/he/she/it/etc] …. [yesterday/last year/etc]
Practice saying them (with attention to the pronunciation) until they trip off the tongue easily. Once you are confident in your ability to get them right, start to invent your own constructions. One good daily study habit to get into is imagining the future and re-imagining the past. For example, at the end of each day, take 5 minutes to sit down and say to yourself "It could've…" and "It might…"
An alternative for those who prefer to speculate about other people and things is to use this wonderful collection of pictures from The New York Times. Meet up with a partner or even on your own, and practice talking about what you see in the pictures (and what happened before the picture). Remember to use some modal verbs.