can, could, may, might

The most common modal verbs to talk about permission are can, could, may and might.

  • Can I sit here. (informal; asking for permission)
  • You can/can’t sit here.
  • Could I use this chair? (more polite)
  • You may use this chair. (formal; giving permission)
  • Might/May I use this chair. (more formal; asking for permission)
  • Sorry, you can’t use this chair. (informal; refusing permission)
  • Sorry, you may not use this chair. (formal; refusing permission)


was/were allowed to, couldn’t

To talk about the past, we use the forms was/were allowed to or couldn’t.

  • He wasn’t allowed to sit down during the lesson.
  • He couldn’t sit down during the lesson. 
  • He was allowed to receive visits. (NOT could)




must / have to

Must and have to are used to express obligation. When we use must this usually means that the obligations comes from the speaker, it’s like a personal obligation, whereas have to normally means that the obligation is external.

  • I must give up smoking. (I need to, I say so)
  • I have to give up smoking. (I’m obliged. My doctor says so)

In informal English can also use ‘ve got to to express obligation  (⇒ See Have – auxiliary or main verb).

  • I’ve got to be there before ten. 

In the past, we use had to in every instance.

  • I had to give up smoking. (because I needed to, or because my doctor forced me to).


mustn’t / don’t have to

The negative forms mustn’t and don’t have to are completely different. Mustn’t is used to express prohibition (an obligation not to do something), whereas don’t have to is used to express an absence of obligation. (⇒ See Have to, must, should – obligation, prohibition, necessity, advice)

  • You mustn’t reveal where you get the information. (=you have the obligation not to do it)
  • You don’t have to arrive before 7. (=you can do it, but it’s not necessary, there’s no obligation)




need to, have to, don’t need to, don’t have to

We use need to/have to or don’t need to/don’t have to + infinitive to say that something is or is not necessary.

  • We need to/have to confirm our reservations before Friday. 
  • You don’t need to/don’t have to believe in God to be a good person. 


don’t need to / needn’t

We can use both don’t need to or needn’t + infinitive to say that it is unnecessary to do something. However, when we are talking about a general necessity (in general, not on one specific occasion), we normally use don’t need to, and we can use both don’t need to or needn’t + infinitive when we are talking about a specific necessity (on one specific occasion).

  • The doctor said I don’t need to wear glasses. (in general, all the time)
  • Tell him he doesn’t need to/needn’t wash the dishes. I’ll do it later. (on one specific occasion)


didn’t need to / needn’t have

When something was not necessary but we did it, we can use both didn’t need to + infinitive and needn’t have + past participle.

  • Thanks, it’s very beautiful, but you didn’t need to buy/needn’t have bought anything. (=you did it)

However, when something was not necessary and we did not do it, we can only use didn’t need to.

  • I didn’t buy any groceries because Sarah told me I didn’t need to buy anything. (NOT needn’t have bought)


be able to, be allowed to, be permitted to, be supposed/meant to, had better


be able to / be allowed to

We can use person + be able to / be allowed to instead of can to express permission or possibility. (⇒ See Can, could, be able to – ability and possibility)

  • We were allowed to eat all that we wanted. 
  • You won’t be able to finish before the deadline. 

We do NOT use it + be able to/be allowed to.

  • You are not allowed to use your mobile phones. (NOT It isn’t allowed to use …)


it is (not) permitted to

We can use it + be (not) permitted to +infinitive to express permission or prohibition in formal or official situations, to say what the rules or laws are.

  • It is not permitted to take photos of the archive documents. 
  • Picnics are not permitted in the park. 


be supposed to / be meant to

We can also use be supposed/meant to + infinitive to express obligation or permission, to say what we should or shouldn’t do.

  • We are supposed/meant to check in one hour before take-off.  
  • What are you doing? You aren’t supposed/meant to be here.


had better, had better not

We use had better + infinitive (without to) to talk about actions we think someone should or shouldn’t do. There is often a negative result if the action is carried out. We normally use the shortened form ‘d better, and the negative form is never contracted: ‘d better not. 

  • We’d better hurry up/meant to check in or we’ll miss our train.  
  • You’d better not tell her you broke the vase –she’ll get very mad.