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18 / 06 / 2004

REVIEW OF MODAL VERBS-5 --> CAN and COULD: meaning and examples

Good morning.

Today we look at Can and Could, two modal verbs that add either Ability or Permission to the main verb.

Example 1 (Ability):
I can speak English.

Example 2 (Ability in the past):
I could speak English when I was ten years old.

Example 3 (Permission):
Can I take holidays in September?

In Example 1, the speaker has the ability to speak English. Example 2 is the same, but in the past. In Example 3 the speaker asks for permission to go on holiday in September.

Many years ago, we only used the modal verb may for permission and can was reserved for ability:

Example 4 (permission):
Teacher! May I please go to the toilet?

However, today very few native speakers make this distinction, except in formal situations. When I was a child, one of my primary-school teachers always tried to correct us when we used can for permission.

Matthew: Teacher! Can I go to the toilet?
Teacher: I don't know, can you?

In her answer she was sarcastically saying, "I don't you have the ability to?" since in her vocabulary, can only added ability to the main verb go, and not permission.

On Monday we will look at the difference between can, could, and be able to for ability.

If you have any questions about can and could, please don't hesitate to contact me.

I hope you enjoy the rest of your day. Have a great weekend!