Modal Verbs

Verbes modaux

There’s no such thing as modal verbs in French, so translating them from English requires a bit of creative thinking. Usually you need a normal (conjugable) French verb in a particular tense or mood, but as you’ll see for 3 and 4, you can sometimes use just an adverb.

 So what is a modal verb? Also known as a "modal auxiliary" or simply a "modal," it’s a verb that has no conjugation—it’s the same for all grammatical persons—and expresses the mood of the verb that follows it. Nine of the ten English modal verbs are followed directly by the second verb, with no "to" in between.

1) Can

Can meaning "to be capable of" is equivalent to pouvoir in the present tense.
      I can do it. Je peux le faire.
  Can you help us? Pouvez-vous nous aider ?
Can meaning "to know how to" equals savoir.
  Can he drive? Sait-il conduire ?
  I can’t swim. Je ne sais pas nager.

2) Could

Could with a present or future meaning equals pouvoir in the conditional mood.
  He could be right. Il pourrait avoir raison.
  I could drive tomorrow. Je pourrais conduire demain.
Could in the past equals pouvoir in the imperfect.
  When I was 15, I could sleep until noon. Quand j’avais 15 ans, je pouvais dormir jusqu’à midi.
  He could eat a whole cake. Il pouvait manger un gâteau entier.

3) May  4) Might

May and might meaning "it’s possible" = peut-être, pouvoir (present or conditional), or il se peut + subjunctive
  I may / might leave early. Je pars tôt, peut-être. Je peux/pourrais partir tôt.
Il se peut que je parte tôt.
  He may / might be right. Il a peut-être raison. Il peut/pourrait avoir raison.
Il se peut qu’il ait raison.
May in a request is either pouvoir in the present or vous permettez que plus the subjunctive.
  May I help you? Puis-je vous aider ? Est-ce que je peux vous aider ?
  May I sit here? Vous permettez que je m’assoie ici ?

5) Must

Must can be translated by the present tense of devoir or falloir.
  You must finish. Tu dois finir.
  I must be going. Il faut que je m’en aille.

6) Shall  7) Will

Shall and will plus a verb are both equivalent to the French future tense.
  We shall overcome! Nous vaincrons !
  I’ll finish around 2pm. Je finirai vers 14h.

8) Should  9) Ought to

Should and ought to are both equivalent to devoir in the conditional.
  You should study more. Tu devrais étudier plus.
  We ought to try once more. Nous devrions essayer encore une fois.

10) Would

Would with a present or future meaning equals the French conditional mood.
  I would like to see it. Je voudrais le voir.
  You would get sick if you ate all that. Tu tomberais malade si tu mangeais tout ça.
Would in the past equals the imperfect.
  When I was hungry, I would drink water. Quand j’avais faim, je buvais de l’eau.
  She would call when she was scared. Elle téléphonait quand elle avait peur.

Part 2: Compound modal verbs

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Modal verbs in French
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