Modal Verbs Can and Could
'Can' and 'could' are both modal verbs that are mainly used to express ability, possibility, permission, and requests. 'Could' is used to express past ability, possibility, or permission. It can also be used to make polite requests.
Can and Could: Functions
'Can' and 'could' are used to:
Talking about Ability
One of the most common uses of the modals 'can' and 'could' is talking about abilities.
Can is used to talk about abilities that someone has in the present or future, based on their knowledge or talent. For example:
Could is used to talk about general abilities in the past. We use it to talk about what someone was able to do in the past.
Use of 'could' indicates that maybe his uncle can no longer speak five languages, or maybe he is dead.
By the time he was seven, he
Be Able to Vs. Can
While 'can' and 'could' are commonly used to talk about abilities, they may not be appropriate in every situation. Sometimes it is more appropriate to use alternative expressions such as 'be able to'.
'Can' and 'be able to' generally have the same meaning when used to talk about abilities and in most situations, either one can be used. However, 'be able to' is considered more formal than 'can', and may be more appropriate in formal or professional contexts.
Additionally, 'can' and 'could' cannot be used with every verb tense and form. When using perfect tenses or gerunds to talk about abilities, it is more appropriate to use 'be able to.'
Here, we cannot use 'can' or 'could' and still convey the same meaning.
With verbs such as 'like' we need a gerund after them. So we cannot use 'can' or 'could' in this situations.
On the other hand, 'can' and 'could' are used with verbs such as see, hear, understand, notice, etc. while 'be able to' is not typically used with these verbs.
Do not say "I am able to hear a noise."
Do not say "I was able to understand every word he said."
Be able to or Could?
Both 'could' and 'be able to' can be used to talk about abilities in the past. But they are not always interchangeable.
For example, if you want to talk about a specific ability or achievement you must use 'be able to' and using 'could' would be incorrect. Pay attention to the examples:
In this example, we are talking about a specific achievement in the past and we cannot use 'could' in this example.
In this example we are talking about an achievement so we cannot use 'could.'
You can use 'managed to' to talk about specific abilities in the past.
Specific or General Abilities in Affirmatives
You only need to focus on the difference between specific and general abilities in affirmative sentences. There's no need to distinguish between them in negative sentences.
No need to use 'to be able to' in a negative sentence.
Two modal verbs cannot be used in one sentence at the same time, i.e. you cannot use 'can' or 'could' with other modals like 'should' or 'would.' In such cases, 'be able to' is used instead of can/could.
should can choose ...)
would can give you ...)
Could: Hypothetical or Real?
'Could' can have two different meanings:
- Could = was/were able to (abilities in the past)
- Could = would be able to (hypothetical ability in the future)
If you called me, I
Talking about Possibility
'Can' is commonly used to talk about something that is possible in the present or future, while 'could' is commonly used to talk about possibilities in the past.
Here, the sentence means 'Is it possible for you to come back tomorrow.' So, can does not show an 'ability,' but it shows a 'possibility.'
Could: Hypothetical or Real?
'Could' can have two different meaning:
- possibilities in the past
- hypothetical possibilities in the past
Could have is used when you are saying that it was possible for somebody to do something in the past but they did not try.
Making a Request
'Can' is also used to make a request. But keep in mind that this use of 'can' is very informal.
Making a Polite Request
'Could' is not necessarily used in the past tense. It is also used in the present tense to make a polite request.
Here, the request is being made politely at the present time.
Asking for or Giving Permission
'Can' is also frequently used to ask for permission to do something or to give somebody permission to do something.
In this sentence the person is giving permission.
'Could' is used to ask for permission to do something politely.
Can't or Cannot?
The words 'can' and 'not' can be combined into one word, 'cannot', which is more formal and commonly used in written English. In informal English, it is more common to use the contraction 'can't' instead of 'cannot.'
Can is used a lot in daily English and even in formal writings. It has many functions. Now, look at the table.
|To give or ask for permission
|to talk about abilities
|To request something informally
|To talk about possibilities
Take your umbrella with yourself! It
Could is the past tense of 'can,' but it is not always talking about the past. Look at the chart below:
|To talk about past abilities
|To make a polite request
|To talk about possibilities in past
Even now, I cannot believe us. It
|To talk about hypothetical possibilities
When it comes to expressing your ability, you can not always talk in present simple and past simple tenses, So, there must be an alternative for them in other tenses such as present perfect. In this case, you use be able to.