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Modal Verbs of Ability

We use ‘can’ and ‘could’ to talk about a skill or ability.

When we talk about ability, we mean two things.

  • general ability. This is something that once you have learned you can do any time you want, like being able to swim, ride a bicycle or speak a language.
  • specific ability. This means something that you can or cannot do at a particular time in the present or future. For example, being able to do something on a particular day, or find something you are looking for.

Present:

can / can’t (for both general and specific ability)

  • I can’t dance very well.
  • She can speak several languages.
  • He can’t drive, he has drunk too much beer.
  • We can’t come now.

Past:

could / couldn’t (for general ability)

  • I couldn’t dance at all until I took lessons.
  • She could speak German when she was a child, but now she has forgotten it.
  • I could drive when I was 16.
  • I couldn’t ride a bicycle until I was 21.

was able to / couldn’t (for specific ability)

  • I wasn’t able to dance at the party because I had broken my leg.
  • She was able to pass her driving test first time.
  • He called the fire brigade because couldn’t put the fire out.
  • I couldn’t find my phone.

could + have + past participle (an ability someone had in the past, but didn’t use)

  • I could have played football professionally but I didn’t practice enough.
  • I could have passed my exams if I had studied harder.
  • She could have married anyone, but she preferred to stay single.

Future:

will / won’t be able to (general ability)

  • At the end of the course, you will be able to speak English.
  • I won’t be able to use a typewriter perfectly until I have a lot more lessons.

can / can’t (specific ability)

  • I can’t drive you to the shops, my car is in the garage.
  • I can come to the party.