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can vs could

How to use the modal verbs “can” and “could” in English

 

You might think that “could” is just the past tense form of “can”, but English isn’t that simple! Modal verbs are tricky, but with a little practice, you’ll be an expert in no time.

Read carefully through the tables below to see the different ways “can” and “could” are used, then comment below to see if you can correct the mistakes!

Permission
Modal verb Usage Example
Can To ask to be allowed to do something Can I use the toilet?
Could To ask to be allowed to do something (more polite) Could I leave early today?
Can To give somebody permission to do something You can take as many cookies as you like.
Cannot/can’t To deny somebody permission to do something You can’t play video games until you’ve finished your homework!

 

Possibility
Modal verb Usage Example
Can Describe what is possible in general It can rain a lot in England
Cannot/can’t Describe what is not possible in general People can’t fly.
Could Describe what is possible in general in the past It could be difficult to travel abroad before the airplane was invented.
Could not/couldn’t Describe what is not possible in general in the past Human’s couldn’t watch TV thousands of years ago.
Could

 

 

 

Describe what is possible in the future Australia could win the World Cup next year.

 

Ability
Modal verb Usage Example
Can Describe somebody’s ability or skill I can speak five languages.
Cannot/can’t Describe somebody’s ability or skill (negatively) He cannot dance very well.
Could Describe somebody’s ability or skill in the past My father could run 100m in 11 seconds when he was my age.
Could not/couldn’t Describe somebody’s ability or skill in the past (negatively) I couldn’t speak confidently in public when I was younger.

 

Requests and offers
Modal verb Usage Example
Can To ask somebody to do something Can you pass me the mayonnaise?
Could To ask somebody to do something (more polite) Could you repeat that please?
Can To offer something I can give you a lift home later
Could To offer something (less strong) I could meet you after work.
Can To offer something with a question Can I help you with anything today sir?

 

Here are five sentences in English. Two of them are incorrect!

Comment below with which sentences are wrong and try to correct them yourself.

 

1) I couldn’t speak English until I was 10 years old.

2) I can go to Japan if I had enough money.

3) It could rain next weekend.

4) Cannot they join us later?

5) I can lend you five euros until next time we meet.

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2 thoughts on “How to use the modal verbs “can” and “could” in English

  1. KimNo Gravatar

    2 & 4? 

    • Darren HainNo Gravatar

      Indeed Kim, but what should the sentences be then?

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