Can and Could for intermediate learners

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"Can and Could" in English Grammar

What Are Can and Could?

Two of the most common modal verbs in English grammar are 'can' and 'could'. These two are used to talk about abilities in the future and in the present, asking for or giving permission to someone, or the probability of an incident. Look at the following examples:

She's the kind of girl that can write thought provoking articles.

Can I use your pen for a second?

'Can' and 'could' can also be used in question tags. Look below:

Mary cannot come, can she?

You couldn't talk to her, could you?

Uses

In English, these two modal verbs are used in different contexts and are common among English speakers. Here are some of the important uses of these two modal verbs:

  • Talking About Ability
  • Talking About Possibility
  • Requesting Something
  • Asking for or Giving Permission to Someone

Talking About Ability

We can use these modal verbs to talk about abilities in the present or in the future.

'Can': this modal is used to talk about abilities we have in the present moment.

I can read an English poem.

He can speak Japanese very well.

As you can see, the sentence is about what he can do in the present moment.

'Could': this modal is used to talk about abilities we had in the past but we no longer do.

I could play the guitar when I was 23.

They could swim here last spring.

Here, the sentence is about how things were before.

Warning!

Notice the form of the verbs after both 'could' and 'can' in the examples. The simple form of the verb for all singular or plural forms is used.

He could speak… → Not he could speaks

Talking about Possibility

If we want to make a statement about the probability of an event in the present, or in the future, we can use both 'can' and 'could'. Pay attention to the following examples:

With all these dark clouds, it can rain tonight.

As you can see, the sentence is about the possibility of rain at the moment.

Life can be tough in Iran these days.

She could still be here.

Perhaps we could talk about it some other time.

Tip!

For negative statements add not to the modals or change it to 'can't 'or 'couldn't.'

She can't speak very clearly.

I tried my best but I couldn't concentrate.

Requesting Something

'Can' is sometimes used to make a request, but bear in mind that it is informal and is mainly used in friendly conversations.

Can I help you with something, boy?

Can we talk about it later Martha?

Tip!

Remember to use 'could' when you want to make a request, politely.

Could I have a cup of coffee, please?

Here, the request is being made in the present moment.

Asking for or Giving Permission

'Can' is used to ask for permission from someone or when we want to allow someone to do something. Carefully study the following examples:

Can I sit here?

Can you go to the movies tonight?

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