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Can and could

Modal auxiliaries are helping verbs that connect with normal/ordinary verbs to express a meaning, ask a question or negate. Modal auxiliaries are never used with the main auxiliaries; be, have and do, and do not make sense on their own, therefore, they must be connected with a normal verb in order to make sense. e sense. Here, we are going to elaborate on two very similar modal auxiliaries, can and could.

Do modal auxiliaries change form?

Modal verbs never change form (they cannot be conjugated). (Note that modal auxiliaries are never followed by ‘to’ before the infinitive, except with, need to. ought to, and dare to).

We use can and could to talk about ability, be it in general or present ability 

  • I can ride a ride a bike.
  • When I was five I could ride a bike. (‘could’ functions as the past of ‘can’ as well as having its own meaning).
  • She can do what she wants, it’s none of my business.

We use could to talk about the past when referring to something that happened on only one occasion

  • When she was young she could drink what she liked.
  • James could smell the fish.

The form be able to is used to express ability or capability in the future 

  • By next week I’ll be able to drive on my own with an adult.
  • She’ll be able to come to the meeting next week.

English Verbs – The Complete Guide

We use can and could to express probability and possibility

  • Can you let me know what you’re thinking about doing?
  • I could go to the concert tonight, but I’m really not sure.

We use can and could for interpersonal uses, such as in requesting, asking questions, permission etc.

  • Could you please let me know where I need to go to get to Madrid?
  • Can I offer you something, sir?
  • You cannot cross the road! it’s a red light.

We use can and could to express ability or perception with verbs such as see, taste, feel, hear, smell etc.

  • Yesterday, at the conference I couldn’t hear the speaker.
  • I can see and feel just fine doctor.
  • Can you please taste my meal and tell me what you think.

English Verbs – The Complete Guide

Lesson #6: Can

Explanation

  • Can as well as could is used talk about ability. We can use can and could to talk about ability either in the present or past.
  • We use can as well as could to express probability and possibility.
  • Can and could are both used for interpersonal uses. For instance, we use can and could for requesting, asking questions, asking for permission etc.
  • The form be able to is used to express either ability or capability. I.e., I’m able to climb. She was able to find the keys.

Context

  • Hi Mary, are you learning a new language1?
  • Hey, yes, I am. I’m learning Spanish2.
  • Spanish? I’ve heard the verbs in Spanish are really difficult. Apparently, the conjugation is quite complicated.
  • Yes, I know. I’m not sure I’ll be able3 to memorise all the rules. It’s difficult4.
  • I bet5 it is. Do you think you could6 teach me a little?
  • I need to pass the first semester first, but if you like after I’ve finished my exam I can7 help you out8 with the basics.
  • That would be lovely!
  • No problem.
  • Can you speak9 any other languages apart from English?
  • Well, when I was younger I could10 speak a little French because we lived in Paris with my family, but now I don’t think I can11 speak any French. I’ve lost most of it.
  • Perhaps you could12 remember some of your French if you found a way to practice.
  • You’re right. I really could13 do with some practice.
  • Anyhow, we’ll catch up after the exams.
  • See you later.

Analysis

  1. Are you learning a new language? The present continuous/progressive is being used to talk about a state. Remember, the present continuous is used to talk about an action or experience in the moment as well as states. I.e., I’m living in Washington.
  2. I’m learning Spanish. The present continuous is being used to talk about a state.
  3. I’m not sure I’ll be able to memorise all the rules. The form be able to is used here to express a capability. In this case, they’re not capable of learning all the Spanish verb rules.
  4. It’s difficult. Remember our lesson with the auxiliary verb be. We mainly use be with adjectives to describe people or things. Here, the adjective difficult is describing the experience of learning Spanish verbs. The pronoun it refers to this experience.
  5. I bet it is. It’s is very common for English speakers to use the verb bet, which is used idiomatically in the sense of willing to bet that the thing is either correct or incorrect.
  6. Do you think you could teach me a little? Could, in this question is being used as an interpersonal use. The person is asking for a favour. It’s always important to be polite when asking for something in English by using either could or may. These forms are very polite and respectful.
  7. I can help you out with the basics. Can, in this sense has an interpersonal use and as the person is offering help, they use can.
  8. Help out. This is a phrasal verb and varies slightly from the verb help. We use help out for small issues or problems, not for serious, urgent help, in which case we would need to use the verb help.
  9. Can you speak any other languages apart from English? Here, the modal auxiliary verb can expresses ability. If you have the ability to speak other languages you would say, I can speak other languages.
  10. When I was younger, I could speak a little French. Could is being used to express capability in the past. Remember, can and could are two separate auxiliary verbs, but could is also the past of can. Also, languages such as French, Spanish, English, Chinese, Russian, Arabic etc., are always capitalised in English. You need to write a capital letter.
  11. But now I don’t think I can speak any French. As an ability is being expressed here, can is used.
  12. Perhaps you could remember some of your French if you found a way to practice. Could is used to express an ability.
  13. I really could do with some practice. As a way of expressing possibility, could is used. Can and could are used to express possibility and probability in English. I.e., I’m not sure if I can go out tonight. Your brother could be late, so don’t wait for him.

Lesson #7: Could

Explanation

  • We use could as well as can to talk about ability.
  • Could is used to talk about the past when referring to something that happened on only one occasion.
  • Could as well as can is used to talk about probability and possibility.
  • Could is used for interpersonal uses, such as asking for permission, requesting, and general questions. Note that can is also used for interpersonal uses but could is considered to be a little more polite.
  • Could and can are used to express ability or perception with verbs such as: see, taste, feel, hear, smell etc.

Context

  • Do you think it is hard1 to learn English2, Maria?
  • In my opinion, it’s not too3 Anyone can4 learn a language if they set their mind to it5. When I was younger, I could only speak Spanish6, but now I’m basically fluent in Spanish and English.
  • So, at what age did you start learning English?
  • I think I was about eighteen years old. I can’t remember7 my age exactly.
  • How did you learn then?
  • Well, I started from zero really. I just read lots of books, and watched lots of television in English also, that really helps you with the pronunciation.
  • Well, I’m now twenty-five8 and I really want to start learning English. Do you think you could help me9 a little?
  • Of course! I can10 help you with some speaking practice. What do you reckon?
  • That would be lovely! Thanks a lot.
  • You’re welcome. Don’t mention it11.

Analysis

  1. Do you think it is hard to learn English? Remember, we use the auxiliary verb be with adjectives to describe people or things. I.e., I’m angry. She’s cold. We are happy.
  2. Do you think it is hard to learn English? Remember, all languages are capitalised.
  3. In my opinion, it’s not too difficult. Don’t confuse to with too. To is a preposition that goes before verbs to express your proposal. Too is an adverb meaning ‘in excess of’.
  4. Anyone can learn a language. Can in this sense has the meaning of ‘ability’.
  5. If they set their mind to it. ‘Set your mind to’, is an expression meaning ‘to concentrate and move in a particular direction to focus on something like an objective’.
  6. When I was younger, I could only speak Spanish. Could in this sentence is used to talk about an experience in the past that only happened once.
  7. I can’t remember my age exactly. Can is used to refer to an ability, the inability (in this case), of being able to remember their age.
  8. Well, I’m now twenty-five. When writing numbers in English, all numbers between 21 and 99 need a hyphen or dash (-). Twenty-one, twenty-two, thirty-six, eighty-eight, ninety-nine etc.  
  9. Do you think you could help me a little? When requesting for something very politely it’s best to use could, as we can see in this example.
  10. I can help you with some speaking practice. Can is being used as an interpersonal use, and in this case, it is to offer some help.
  11. Don’t mention it. This is a more colloquial way of saying ‘you’re welcome’.

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