Can and could
Can and could are modal verbs. They are sometimes called modal auxiliaries because they are generally used with another verb and help us to understand that verb.
Examples of this auxiliary use are:
General characteristics of can and could
They do not add -s in the 3rd person singular:
To make a question you don't have to use an auxiliary verb, just invert the subject and the modal verb:
To make a negative sentence, add not or n't to the modal verb:
Be able to
As I said above, can and could are modal verbs, and modal verbs don't follow the normal rules for verbs. For example, they don't have an infinitive or an -ing form.
For this reason can and could are impossible to use when you need to use the infinitive, the gerund or a continuous tense (though the continuous form would be impossible anyway!).
Being modal verbs also means they don't necessarily have a form that can be used for the past or the future, though in very general terms can is used to refer to the present and could is used to refer to the past.
When you can't use can or could, you need to use a form of be able to. This means exactly the same as can and could. Some examples:
To make things clearer, have a look at the chart below. It shows when you can use can, could and be able to.
Remember that be able to can always be used, but that English speakers use can and could whenever they can. Be able to sounds more formal and not English.
Notes about tenses
The chart above is only intended as a rough guide. As always with English verbs, a lot of the time the tense you use depends on what you're talking about.
For example, can can be used to refer to timetables or schedules in the future, just as the present simple is used normally:
When talking about the past there's a difference between could and was/were able to: could is used in a more general sense while was/were able to is used to talk about more specific occasions:
However, when you talk about the past in the negative couldn't and wasn't/weren't able to are completely interchangeable:
The conditional forms are also interchangeable:
Links to exercises and pdf files
choice exercise - online
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