Can – Could – Be Able to 

Hi dear English learners! In today’s lesson, we’re going to learn about the modal verb can and its alternative forms could and be able to.


Can is the most commonly used modal verb in English. We normally use it in the present tense only. For other verb forms, you can use could and be able to.

We normally use can to talk about the ability to do something.

  • Nadine can speak two languages like a native.
  • This software can translate texts into several languages.
  • Can you read Greek?
  • Darren can fly a plane.

We also use can to express probability and possibility.

  • You can learn to drive in this driving school.
  • Sometimes, a small argument can turn into a big fight.
  • Here, Simon can help you with your homework.
  • Do you think there can be people living in that old house?

You can use can for permission and prohibition.

  • You can park here, it’s nobody’s parking lot.
  • Tell Miriam that she can’t smoke in here?
  • You can have ice cream after you eat your dinner.
  • Can we go clothes shopping on Saturday?

Use can for requests.

  • Can I use your phone?
  • If you see him, can you tell him that I’ve called?
  • Can you wrap up the parcel in that yellow paper, please?
  • Can you tell me where the post office is?

We can also use can to invite someone or suggest something.

  • If we get bored, we can always watch a movie.
  • We can go on a city break to Paris, what do you think?
  • If there is anything I can do for you, please let me know.

Use can with the verbs of the senses (feel, hear, see, smell, taste).

  • I can hear the neighbours yelling at each other again.
  • Whenever I open the fridge, I can smell something rotten. 
  • As you can see, everything is clean and clear.
  • Animals may not be able to speak, but they can feel.

Use the construction to say that something was impossible to happen in the past for obvious reasons.

  • You can’t have seen the film last month because it was released only last week.
  • I’m sure Lucy can’t have left because I’ve just seen her.
  • They can’t have gone far, they left five minutes ago.


Can – could – be able to

Although it’s not its only use, we most commonly use could as a past form of can.

  • Ryan could swim when he was 6.
  • Julia called and said she couldn’t come.
  • Mary couldn’t hear what they were talking but she could see them.

Use could as a more polite version of can when making requests, offers, suggestions, invitations…

  • Could you help me with this box, please?
  • I was wondering if I could offer you to see the house.
  • We could go for a walk. It’s beautiful weather outside.

Use could to express the possibility that something might happen.

  • They said that it could rain in the afternoon. We’d better stay at home.
  • We could still catch them if we hurry up.
  • I could pick your children up if you want to.

Can – could – be able to


Use the structure to say that something was possible to happen in the past, but it didn’t.

  • I could have visited you if I had known you were ill.
  • Sam could have helped you but he wasn’t there at the time.
  • Simon could have been a doctor but he’s never graduated from college.

You can also use the structure could have + past participle to say that something in the past might be true.

  • They were not at home last night. They could have gone to Rachel’s party.
  • I could have left the car keys in the garage so I’ll check it out first.
  • I wonder where Lorna is. She could have got stuck in the traffic.

Can – could – be able to


Use be able to for verb forms you can not express with can or could.

  • Hopefully, you‘ll be able to speak English very well soon.
  • I‘d like to be able to speak at least three languages fluently.
  • They asked for more money than we were able to pay.
  • Oprah Winfrey has been able to read ever since she was 3.

You can use be able to in the present but with a different meaning than can:

  • Derek can’t ride a horse (it is something he can never do because he’s never learned to ride)
  • Derek isn’t able to ride a horse today because the stable is closed. (he can’t ride a horse now – it’s a temporary situation)

Can – could – be able to

Find more about the difference between able and capable on this link.


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