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Modals in English

Can and Could

Use Examples
ability to do sth. in the present (substitute form: to be able to) I can speak English.
permission to do sth. in the present (substitute form: to be allowed to) Can I go to the cinema?
request Can you wait a moment, please?
offer I can lend you my car till tomorrow.
suggestion Can we visit Grandma at the weekend?
possibility It can get very hot in Mogadishu.
  • Use Examples
    ability to do sth. in the past (substitute form: to be able to) I could speak English.
    permission to do sth. in the past (substitute form: to be allowed to) I could go to the cinema.
    polite question * Could I go to the cinema, please?
    polite request * Could you wait a moment, please?
    polite offer * I could lend you my car till tomorrow.
    polite suggestion * Could we visit Grandma at the weekend?
    possibility * It could get very hot in Kismayo.


CAN is used to show someone’s ability to do something.

  • Can you dance?
  • Can you sing?
  • Can you swim?

How to use ‘CAN’ in English

  • I can make jewellery.
  • I can’t speak French.
  • Can you open the jar?
  • I can dance Tango (dance form).
  • She can’t sing.
  • Can you speak English?

Can is used to seek permission.

  • Can I go out of the room?
  • Can I use your bathroom?
  • Can I leave now?
  • Can I raise the volume?
  • Can I sit here?
  • Can we leave now?
  • Can I play some music?

‘CAN’ is also used for requesting something.

  • Can I have a napkin?
  • Can I have the bill?
  • You can take the spot if you like.
  • You can do whatever you want.
  • Can we have more coffee?

‘COULD’ is the past tense of ‘CAN’

  • When I was young I could swim.
  • You could see  the boat sinking.
  • They could tell he was nervous.
  • I could run 10 KMS when I was younger.
  • We could see the ocean from our hotel room.
  • I could see that Ahmed was angry.

‘COULD’ is used for polite permissions.

  • Could I take this jacket with me?
  • You could borrow my umbrella.
  • Could I get more water?
  • Could I have more coffee?
  • You could sit here if you like.
  • Could you (please) repeat that again?

‘COULD’ is also used to express possibility.

  • All of them could ride in the van.
  • You could always stay at our house.
  • Could it be true?


She can speak English very well. (ability)

I could ride a bike, but I couldn’t swim when I was seven years old. (ability)

You can have a coffee break after you type these letters. (permission)

Could I have some more salad with the meat? (request)

Can I help you? Can I carry your bag? (offer)

It could rain this afternoon. (possibility)

This can’t be true. (negative possibility)

We could get there in time if you were driving a bit faster. (hypothesis + ability/possibility)


Can and could are also used to express the progressive (continuous) aspect of verbs of perception (see, hear, feel, taste, smell, etc.) and verbs like understand, remember, etc:

Can you see the woman standing over there?

We were so near the sea that I could hear the seagulls.

When she entered the kitchen, she could smell something burning.

I put my keys to a safe place before swimming, but now I can’t remember where.

She couldn’t understand what the foreigner was saying.


As the past form of can, could is used for general ability in the past and in reported speech.

When she was younger, she could work for ten hours without stopping.

He said he could get his wife to come to the football with us.


It is not used when only one occasion is implied, except for negative sentences:

How many goals were you able to score on Sunday?

They managed to get to the station in ten minutes by taking a taxi.

I was able to find all the words in the dictionary, still I couldn’t translate the text.


In requests, orders and suggestions, could is more polite than can:

Can I use your phone?

Could you please do me a favour?

Do you think you could help me for a few minutes?

Do the washing first, then you can clean your room.

When you’ve finished the letter, you could translate this article, if you like.

If you haven’t got anything to do this afternoon, you could clean the car.


When we ask for permission, could is more polite than can. Could is not used to give or refuse permission:

Can/Could I ask you something? – Yes, of course you can.

You can go now if you want to.

Can I stay here for another hour? – No, I’m afraid you can’t.

May and might