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Can and Could for Ability

 

General Abilities


Some abilities are general: you have the skill to do it at any time you like.

I can play the accordion.

I could play the violin when I was a child.

Remember: modal verbs don't need an 's' for he/she/it, and always have an infinitive verb (without 'to') after them.

He cans play the piano. X

He can play the piano.

They can to make delicious cakes. X

They can make delicious cakes.


General Abilities
Present+ I can speak 3 languages.
- I can't speak Arabic.
? Can you speak any languages?
Past+I could speak some German when I was 15.
-I couldn't speak any Spanish when I was 15.
?Could you speak French when you were 15?

Note: if you want to talk about abilities in the future, or use other tenses, you need to use be able to.

I will be able to speak perfect French one day.

I have been able to swim since I was a child.




Specific Abilities in the Past


Not all abilities are general. Some abilities happen only once (or a certain number of times) in a particular situation. In positive sentences, we only use was able to.

I was very tired but I could stay awake all night. X

I was very tired but I was able to stay awake all night.

If the sentence is negative, we use could or was able to.

I couldn't hear him because of the music.

I wasn't able to hear him because of the music.



Practice 'can' and 'able to' Next: modals of obligation

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