Verbs: modals of ability

Questions
Overview

We use can and could to express the idea of ability in different contexts.

Can

Can is the modal of ability for present situations. It is followed by the main verb:

  • I can speak many languages.

Could

Could is used to express the idea of ability in the past. It is also followed by the main verb:

  • My grandfather could dance salsa when he was young.

be able to (optional)

Another way to express ability is by using be able to. Although it is not a modal, it can replace both can and could.

  • She is able to ride her bike with her eyes closed. (She can ride her bike with her eyes closed.)
  • He was able to drive well. *(He could drive well.)

be able to (mandatory). In some situations, be able to is the only correct option.

  • After modal verbs (can, could, may, might, will, would, must, should).

    • I think he will be able to finish the work without help. I think he will can finish the work without help.
    • She might be able to come tonight. She might can come tonight.
  • When talking about one specific ocassion in the past:

  • The police were able to identify the criminal.

  • When talking about the future.

    • You are not going to be able to go because you have promised to help.
  • When using the perfect tenses (have + verb, had + verb).

    • I haven’t been able to go to the gym recently.
Further learning
Description Author Language
When to use 'can', 'could' and 'be able to'. Mónica Redondo Arias