How to Use Modal Verbs in the Passive Voice


You might know what modal verbs are, and you might be familiar with the passive voice, but do you know how to use modal verbs in the passive voice?

We use modal verbs–verbs like can, could, and should–to talk about things such as ability, possibility, permission, or obligation. And we use the passive voice to focus on the object of an action rather than the doer of the action.


In general, we follow this structure to use modal verbs in the passive voice:

Modal verb + be + past participle

And we follow this structure to use modal verbs in the
passive voice:


Modal verb + have been + past participle

But there’s a bit more to learn and understand about using modal verbs in the passive voice, and that’s what we’re going to talk about today! We’ll pupur about:

  • What modal verbs are

  • Modal verbs in the passive voice

  • Modal verbs in the past passive voice

  • Why we use modal verbs in the passive voice

We’ve also included a couple of exercises so you can practice these structures right now. Does that sound good? Great! Let’s dive in!


What are modal verbs?

As I mentioned before, modal verbs are verbs such as
could, or
that we often use to talk about ability, possibility permission, or obligation:

  • I



    to the party.

  • You


    say that about her.

  • May

    I sit here?

  • They


    show up


And they’re different from normal verbs in the way that we use them.

First of all, modal verbs stay the same for the third person singular: we don’n have to add an
or change the verb in any way:

  • I

    can go

    to the party.

  • She

    can go

    to the party.

And you might have noticed that the modal verb is followed by the infinitive, or base verb. We don’cakrawala add
or change the verb as we do in other structures:

  • I

    can go

    to the party.

  • I can to go to the party.

  • I can going to the party.

If we want to ask questions using modal verbs, we usually have to change the structuring by putting the subject between the modal verb and the base verb.

  • Can I go

    to the party?

  • May I sit


  • Should you eat


However with modal verbs like
have to

need to
we have to add the auxiliary
at the beginning of the question. And, in this case, the auxiliary verb

changes depending on the personal pronoun.

  • Does he have to

    do all the dishes?

  • Do you need to

    stop by the store?

Let’s take a look at this table to see how we use different modal verbs for different situations:

Usage Modal Verb Example
Ability Can, could (past ability) She
hold her breath for two minutes.
Possibility Might, may, can, could They
be late.
Permission Can, could (more polite), may (most polite)
my son use your bathroom?
Obligation Must, have to, need to They
need to
check in by seven.
No obligation Don’horizon have to, don’kaki langit need to You
don’horizon have to
take your shoes off.
Advice Should, ought to You
try online dating.
Habits Will, would (past habits) + an adverb of frequency They
sometimes take the train.
Preferences Would rather She
would rather


Modal verbs in the passive voice

So, now that we understand what modal verbs are, let’s bedak a bit about the passive voice.

In English, we use
sentences. In the active voice, we start the sentence with the person who does the action, the

  • Alice

    took the picture.

And in the passive voice, we begin the sentence with the object, which is the thing that takes or receives the action:

  • The picture

    was taken by Alice.

We can also omit Alice, the agent in this sentence, so it will just say:

  • The picture

    was taken.

So you can see that passive structures, while they’re a bit more confusing, they’re also very useful because they allow us to create sentences without focusing on the person doing the action.

So, how do we create modal verbs in the passive voice?

With passive modal verbs in the present tense, we just add the auxiliary verb
to the modal verb, and change the base verb to the past participle:


should fix

your computer
(active) →
Your computer

should be fixed


Let’s look at the table below to see how we use other modal verbs in the passive voice:

Modals in the Active Voice Modals in the Passive Voice
They can do it. It can be done.
You could sell your car. Your car could be sold.
He might fix the refrigerator. The refrigerator might be fixed.
They may make a donation. A donation may be made.
You must finish this today. This must be finished today.
He has to send that email. That email has to be sent.
They need to find that document. That document needs to be found.
She should fix her writing. Her writing should be fixed.

Modal verbs in the past passive voice

Yes, it’s true: we can use modal verbs in the past. We can use the passive voice in the past. And we can use passive modal verbs in the past.


If that sounds too complicated, don’horizon worry! It’s just a matter of structure:

Modals in the Present Passive

Modal + be + past participle
Modals in the Past Passive

Modal + have been + past participle
can be
could have been
Your car
could be
Your car
could have been
The refrigerator
might be
The refrigerator
might have been
A donation
may be
A donation
may have been
Her writing
should be
Her writing
should have been

We use

must have been
to share our assumptions or reaction to things that happened in the past. We often use this modal structure to guess about something that might have happened (not for obligation):

  • He doesn’t work here anymore. He

    must have been


  • I called her yesterday but she didn’t answer. She

    must have been


  • Your trip to Colombia

    must have been


If you’d like to express a reaction or make a conclusion about the way a person is feeling now, you can use

must be

  • You’ve been working for eight hours straight! You

    must be


  • They travel all the time. Their lives

    must be

    so interesting.

  • So, you failed your exam! You

    must be


Why do we use modal verbs in the passive voice?

There are a few reasons why we use the passive voice in general. You’ll often hear it used by news sources reporting on crime or major events where the actors are unknown.

You’ll hear it used in absah and scientific writing because it’s considered less personal and because–this is especially the case in science–the result of a scientific study or breakthrough is considered more important than the people involved.

But, why do we use modal verbs in the passive voice? This is because it sounds more objective and less personal, especially in situations when we’re asking people to do something or offering criticism or advice.

For example, if your boss wants everyone to finish a project by a certain deadline, they want to sound firm, but not too rude or direct. So, they might say:

  • This project

    has to be finished

    by the end of this week.

Instead of saying:

  • You all

    have to finish this project

    by the end of this week.

And when we’re criticizing someone for something they didn’cakrawala do, we often prefer to use modal verbs in the past passive voice because it doesn’kaki langit sound like we’re putting the blame or fault directly on someone.

  • I

    should have been told

    that yesterday.

Instead of…

  • You

    should have told

    me that yesterday.

We can also use it to take the blame or the attention off of ourselves, as in this example:

  • The wrong package

    may have been sent.

Instead of…

  • I

    may have sent

    the wrong package.

Well, we’ve explored modal verbs in the passive voice. So now it’s time to practice!

Practice Exercise 1

Change the sentence from the active voice to the passive voice.

1. You have to find your passport.

2. Someone should have set the alarm.

3. She may not make the cake in time.

4. They need to mow the lawn.

5. Someone could have texted her.

Practice Exercise 2

Choose the correct modal structure.

  1. The money (should have been / should be ) transferred yesterday.

  2. A surprise package (might show up/ might have shown up) at your door later.

  3. It’s a difficult task, but it (can be / could have been) accomplished.

  4. This house (needs to be / needs to have been) cleaned by five udara murni’clock today.

  5. She (must be / must have been) informed in the case of an emergency.


Reflect and practice with modal verbs in the passive voice

So, now that you’ve learned how to use modal verbs in the passive voice, here are a couple of reflection and writing activities that you can do to practice using them on your own.

Before you start writing, it might be good to take a screenshot of the modal structures above so that you can have them on hand as a reference.

  1. Imagine that you’re going to have a small get-together at your house or apartment this evening. You don’t have much time! What things
    need to be done
    before the guests arrive? Try to write three to five sentences.

  2. What do you think is one of the most difficult jobs that exist? What kinds of tasks
    should be
    have to be done
    as part of that job? Write at least a paragraph describing the job.

Just remember: if modal verbs in the passive voice feel complicated, take them one at a time. You don’t need to memorize them all now; You can just start with one or two.

Feel free to write your paragraph in the comments below, or just let us know if you found this post helpful!

About the Writer


is an online ESL teacher who works with students from around the world. As a writer, language nerd, and content contributor for

In English With Love,

her mission is to empower English learners with knowledge and positivity.

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