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TOEFL Tip #212: Avoiding Absolute Modifiers: Modal Verbs

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on July 21, 2013

In last week’s post, we talked about the importance of avoiding absolute answers on the TOEFL exam. TOEFL wants to avoid making its answers too easy with choices such as ALWAYS or NEVER. Instead, TOEFL wants test-takers to have to think carefully about the question and evaluate which answer is the best choice.


In addition to adverbs like “always” and “never,” English grammar also uses modal verbs to indicate a suggested or required action. A “modal verb,” sometimes called a “helper verb,” is a word that adds further meaning to the primary verb in a sentence. The main group of modal verbs is can, could, may, might, must, ought, shall, should, will, would.


So how can you use modal verbs to avoid choosing absolute answers, and increase your chances of picking the correct answer?  Think about the modal verbs on a sliding scale, with suggestions at one end, and requirements at the other end.


On this scale, “can” and “could” are at the suggestion end of the scale, indicating that it is possible to take the action of the verb, but not indicating whether the subject will do it. Think of these as a 20% requirement. 

Other modal verbs on the sliding scale increase the necessity for the sentence’s subject to do what the verb says. “Might” indicates that subject has a choice about whether to do the verb’s action, perhaps a 40% requirement. “Should” and “ought” are very strong suggestions, with a sense of obligation to do what the verb says – 80% requirement. “Must” indicates a required action, one that the subject has no choice about; it’s a 100% requirement.


Here is a series of example, using illnesses: 

If you feel dizzy, you CAN lie down for a few minutes.

If you have a sinus infection, you MIGHT want to see a doctor.

If you have the flu, you SHOULD go to the doctor.

If you have cancer, you MUST go to the doctor.

 Since the TOEFL exam avoids answers that indicate 100%, definitely avoid answers that use “must.” Because “should” and “ought” are strong suggestions, you probably want to think carefully about choices with those words. “Should” and “ought” could be the correct answers if the issue in the question is serious enough. Use your judgment, but in general, “might” and “could” will be safe bets.



Categories: Listening,Reading,Speaking,TOEFL for Pharmacy,TOEFL for University,TOEFL Preparation,Writing

5 comments so far. Leave a comment.

  1. Pablo

    wrote on November 6, 2013 at 6:27 am

    Really useful article about Modal Verbs.

  2. StrictlyEnglish | Blog » TOEFL Tip #213: Inference Is King!

    wrote on November 29, 2013 at 3:47 pm

    [...] very useful when preparing for the TOEFL. Our recent posts about absolute modifiers in general and modal verbs in particular demonstrate how critical thinking can help you to choose the correct answers. [...]

  3. Halil

    wrote on November 13, 2014 at 2:55 pm

    This is a good article, thank you…

  4. Yousuf

    wrote on July 2, 2015 at 5:21 am

    This is a good one,
    Before I just memorized the 100 % wrong answers and used to see them in the answer.
    Now I understand the logic behind all the 100 % wrong answer.
    I also learn about the modal verb and the way they are classified according to the suggestion

  5. Luu, Kim

    wrote on July 27, 2015 at 8:04 pm

    This is a good suggestion. This really helps in the reading. From this article, now we have more tips to do better Toefl. From the reading task, we can answer the questions faster. Thanks Strictlyenglish.

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