Lesson 10: Modal verbs and expressions

Welcome to the tenth lesson in our beginner’s course. This lesson will cover part of a group of essential Russian verbs that will help you express concepts like possibility, necessity, obligation.

These words are extremely useful when speaking Russian. Some, like можно, нельзя, and надо of them do not decline at all, which makes them helpful tools for quickly creating more complex sentences. Others, like нужно and должен, decline along with nouns and pronouns.

Можно

Можно means “it is possible, it is allowed, one can, or one may.”

For example:

  • Можно? = Can I / may I?
  • Можно войти? = Can I come in?
  • Можно здесь сесть? = May I sit here?
  • Здесь можно фотографировать? = Can I take photos here?
  • Можно мне ещё? = Can I have some more?
  • Твоему брату можно ходить на дискотеку, но тебе надо делать домашнее задание. = Your brother can go to the disco, but you have to do your homework.
  • Здесь можно курить. = You may smoke here.

Нельзя

Think of нельзя as the complete opposite of можно. Нельзя means “it is not possible, it is not allowed, one cannot, or one may not.”

For example:

  • Здесь нельзя купаться. = It is not allowed to swim here.
  • Нельзя выучить русский за месяц. = It is not possible to learn Russian in a month.
  • Ему нельзя есть мясо после сердечного приступа. = He is not allowed to eat meat after his heart attack.
  • Нельзя приглашать людей на встречу а потом уходить. = You can’t invite these people to meet you, and then just leave.
  • Здесь нельзя так громко разговаривать! = One shouldn’t talk so loud here!

Надо and нужно

Надо and нужно are typically seen as interchangeable. They both mean “it is necessary, one should, one needs, one has to do something.” Arguably, надо is a little bit stricter in meaning than нужно, but it really all relies on context.

Please note, when нужно is followed by nouns or pronouns, it agrees with their gender and number, becoming: нужен, нужна, нужно, нужны.

For example:

  • Мне надо выпить воды. = I need to drink some water.
  • Цветы нужно поливать два раза в неделю. = Flowers need to be watered twice a week.
  • Что тебе надо? = What do you need?
  • Не надо спорить. = There’s no need to argue.
  • Тебе надо быть менее эмоциональным. = You need to be less emotional.
  • Тебе нужно только познакомиться с правильными людьми. = All you need is a chance to meet some of the right people.
  • Тебе нужны новые друзья. = You need new friends.
  • Мне нужен ваш адрес. = I need your address.

Должен

Должен means “have to, must, should, supposed to.” It agrees with nouns and pronouns according to their gender and number, becoming: должен, должна, должно, должны.

For example:

  • С маленьким ребёнком всегда должен быть кто-то из взрослых. = There should always be an adult with a small child.
  • Вы должны извиниться за свои ошибки. = You should apologize for your mistakes.
  • Ты не должна этого делать. = You don’t have to do that.
  • Они должны скоро прийти. = They should arrive soon.

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