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.
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.
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.
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.