Can, Could and Be able to

Can, Could and Be Able to

We can use can, could and be able to make different type of sentences

The Modal Can

We use the modal can to make general statements about what is possible: 

  • It can be a very painful proceure
  • It can be very cold in winter. 
  • It can be very expensive but it is worth it
  • You can easily lose your job acting like that

We use the negative can’t or cannot to show that something is impossible:

  • that can’t be possible
  • That can’t be true.
  • That can’t happen
  • You can’t be serious

We use can to talk about someone’s skill or general abilities: 

  • She can speak several languages.
  • She can play soccer very well
  • She can sing better than I do
  • He can’t dance really well

We use can to ask for permission to do something: 

  • Can I eat these cookies?
  • Can I ask a question, please?
  • Can I drive your car?
  • Can I have a word with you?

We use can to give permission:

  • You can start working again
  • Students can travel free
  • You can go home now if you like
  • You can play whenever you want

We use can I … to make offers

  • Can I buy a drink or coffee?
  • Can I help you?
  • Can I get you something to eat?

The Modal Could

We use could as the past tense of can:

  • It could be very hot in the summer.
  • You could lose your money if you continue gambling
  • She couldn’t phone you earlier

We use could to show that something is possible in the future, but not certain:

  • If we don’t hurry we could be late
  • If we don’t do the homework, we could fail the course
  • If they catch us, they could hurt us

We use couldn’t/could not to talk about the past:

  • We knew it could not be true.
  • He was obviously joking. He could not be serious.

We use could to talk about past ability to do something:

  • She could speak three languages
  • I tried but I couldn’t open the bottle
  • They couldn’t dance electronic music really well
  • I could speak german really well when I was in my 20’s
  • could swim when I was 5 years old.
  • My grandmother could speak seven languages.

could is more formal and polite than can:

  • Could I ask a question please?
  • Could we go home now?
  • Could I tell you something?

We use could you and as a polite way of telling or asking someone to do something:

  • Could you take a message please?
  • Could I have my bill please?
  • Could you open my door for me ?
  • Could you drive home please?

Be Able to

It Is sometimes used instead of can or could. It can be used with all tenses and it can be used to talk about ability.

Able” is an adjective meaning: having the power, skill or means to do something. If we say “I am able to swim”, it is like saying “I can swim”


  • She is able to speak English well.
  • She was able to read when she was three.
  • was able to get some really good bargains in the sale.
  • we weren’t able to get to the top of the mountain.
  • I will be able to speak English by the time I’m thirty 
  • have been able to swim since I was five
  • I would like to be able to fly an airplane.
  • I’ve never been able to swim
  • I don’t know if I will be able to go to the party
  • She was never able to afford a new car

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