Modal Verbs and Phone Calls

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24 February 2022

Consider a time that you answered the phone or made a phone call. What kinds of words did you use? What kinds of grammatical structures were important?

In today's report, we will explore a point of grammar connected to phone calls. You will learn about some uses of modal verbs.

Modal verbs

We describe English verbs in terms of three ideas: tense, aspect and modality.

That might sound like a lot to think about, but here is a simple explanation.

Tense has to do with time. For example, tense can show present and past actions.

Time beyond the basic present or past is often expressed by adding helping verbs to the present or past verb forms. This is how we form the simple future and past perfect, for example.

Aspect is another idea related to verbs. It shows if an action is completed or ongoing. This is one of the differences between the simple past and past progressive.

Modality is used to express ideas such as possibility, ability or necessity. We use modal verbs to help change the meaning of other verbs.

Three modal verbs are especially useful when describing or making phone calls: will, can, and could.

Let's explore each.

"Will" to express willingness

Imagine you are sitting with family or friends. You hear the phone ring. You say: "I'll answer the phone."

This is short for, "I will answer the phone."

The main verb is "answer."

In this sentence, the modal verb "will" expresses willingness. When a person says, "I'll answer the phone," they are suggesting that they are able to answer the phone and they want to answer the phone.

"Can" to express ability

Imagine the same situation that we just explored. You are sitting with family or friends. You hear the phone ring...and perhaps everyone looks around to see who is going to answer the phone. You say:

I can answer the phone.

Once again, the main verb is "answer."

In this case, the modal "can" suggests ability. You are able to answer the phone. You may or may not want to answer the phone.

"Could" to express politeness

Another modal is very important when making phone calls: could.

One of its uses is to express a polite request or suggestion. If you would like to make it even more polite, you could also use the word "please."

If you heard the phone ringing and wanted to ask another person to answer it, you could say:

Could you answer the phone?


Could you please answer the phone?

"Could" also is useful when making phone calls.

Imagine you call your doctor's office. A person answers the phone. You might ask:

Could I speak to Dr. Smith?


Could I please speak to Dr. Smith?

If Dr. Smith worked at a large organization that has many offices, you might ask:

Could you transfer me to Dr. Smith's office?


Could you please transfer me to Dr. Smith's office?

The modal "could" is important in all these cases. If you said, "I want to talk to Dr. Smith" or "Can I talk to Dr. Smith?" your message would be understood...but the person listening to you might think you were too direct, familiar, or demanding. In other words, they might think you are being rude.

Some thoughts...

Today's program explored the use of modal verbs in phone calls. The next time you make a call, consider what terms and grammatical structures you use in your native language. Then compare it to the kinds of terms and structures you hear in English. Write down what you learn.

And, as always, be sure to watch American films and listen to radio broadcasts in English. Pay careful attention to the modals and other kinds of vocabulary that you hear.

I'm John Russell.

John Russell wrote this lesson for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

modal verb n. (grammar) a verb such as can, could, should, will, or would that is used with another verb to express ideas such as possibility, necessity, and permission

helping verbn. (grammar) a verb used with another verb to show the time of an action or to form a question or a negative statement

past perfect – n (grammar) a verb form that refers to an action that was completed by a particular time in the past

past progressive n. (grammar) a verb that shows continuing action at some point in the past.

polite – adj. showing or characterized by correct social usage

rude – adj. Showing or characterized by incorrect social usage

vocabulary –n. words that are related to a particular subject