English Lesson: Can and Could

Michael Uncategorized 2 Comments

I love music. I can listen to just about any kind of music, from pop to rock to jazz and classical. When I was a kid, I could spend a whole day listening to records. I started playing the guitar, and when I realized that I was able to play pretty well, I decided to go to college to study music. I worked as a music teacher and arranger. I could have continued doing that, but I became interested in the ESL field, and decided to become an English teacher. I could continue this story even more, but I think I should stop here and get to our lesson!

Let’s have a look at can and could. Do you know how to use these words?  Have another look at the paragraph above and then check today’s lesson:

Can is used to talk about ability. We use can + the base verb like this:

  • I can listen to just about any kind of music.
  • Lori can sing Italian songs very well.
  • Can you dance?

Can  is also used to ask for or give permission to someone, and to offer something, like this:

  • Can I borrow your pen?
  • If you want, you can come to my house and study here.
  • Can I help you move those books?

Could is used to make polite requests, like this:

  • Could I borrow your pen?
  • Could I have another piece of cake?

Could is also used to talk about future possibility, like this:

  • You could get hurt if you do not hold that knife correctly.
  • It could snow this afternoon, so we should prepare for that.

When we talk about the past, could is used as the past tense of can to talk about someone’s general ability to do something. In this case, we are not talking about a specific point in time, just a general ability in the past:

  • When I was a kid, I could spend a whole day listening to records.
  • My grandmother could cook very delicious dishes.
  • Jane could count to 100 when she was three years old.

In the above three sentences, could means ability was possible any time, not just on one occasion. When you want to talk about past possibility on one occasion, you can use  was able to, like this:

  • Yesterday was my day off, so I was able to spend the whole day listening to records.
  • My grandmother was able to cook very delicious dishes for us on Thanksgiving.
  • Were you able to contact Jane this morning?

We use could have + the PP verb (past participle) to talk about something someone was able to do, but they did not do it:

  • Yesterday was a nice day. I could have gone fishing, but I stayed home and worked in the garden.
  • I could have missed my flight if the taxi driver was late.

Well, I could have said a bit more about can and could, but I think we covered a lot of information here. Could you understand this lesson? I hope you can use can and could with more confidence now!