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 are 'can' and 'could'. These verbs are used to talk about a variety of topics, including abilities, permission, and probability. 'Could' is used to express past ability or possibility.


Both 'can' and 'could' are widely used modal verbs in English, and they are used in different contexts. English speakers commonly use these modal verbs to express a range of meanings. Here are some of the most important uses of these two modal verbs:

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

Talking About Ability

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

'Can' is used to talk about the abilities 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' is commonly used to talk about abilities or actions that were possible in the past but may not be possible in the present.

I could play the guitar when I was 23.

They could swim here last spring.

Here, the sentence is about how things were before.


When using 'can' or 'could', it's important to note that the verb that follows them is always in the simple form, regardless of whether the subject is singular or plural.

He could speak… → Not he could speaks

Talking about Possibility

Both 'can' and 'could' can be used to make statements about the probability of an event in the present or future. 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.


To form negative statements, add not to the modals or change them to the contracted forms 'can't ' and 'couldn't.'

She can't speak very clearly.

I tried my best but I \could not\ concentrate.

Requesting Something

'Can' is sometimes used to make a request in informal situations, such as friendly conversations. However, it's important to note that using 'can' in this way is considered informal and may not be appropriate in more formal settings.

Can I help you with something, boy?

Can we talk about it later Martha?


Remember to use 'could' to make a request in more formal settings.

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 commonly used to ask for or give permission in English. Carefully study the following examples:

Can I sit here?

Asking for permission

You can go to the movies tonight

Giving permission


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Will and Would

These two modals are often confusing for learners, because they are used in quite similar situations. But they're different.

Shall and Should

'Shall' and 'Should' are like relatives, because 'Should' is the past tense of 'Shall', but they have different functions despite their similarities.

Must and Have to

'Have to' and 'must' have the same meaning and are used to express obligations. However, they are used in different situations and are not interchangeable.


Semi-modals are the subcategory of modal verbs. So it is good to learn the difference between modal verbs and semi-modal verbs to use them properly.
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