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'can' and 'could'

Level: beginner

Possibility and impossibility

We use could to show that something is possible, but not certain:

They could come by car. (= Maybe they will come by car.)
They could be at home. (= Maybe they are at home.)

We use can to make general statements about what is possible:

It can be very cold here in winter. (= It is sometimes very cold here in winter.)
You can easily get lost in this town. (= People often get lost in this town.)

We use can't or cannot to say that something is impossible:

That can't be true.
You cannot be serious.

Level: intermediate

We use could have to make guesses about the past:

It's ten o'clock. They could have arrived by now.
Where are they? They could have got lost.

We use could to make general statements about the past:

It could be very cold there in winter. (= It was sometimes very cold there in winter.)
You could easily get lost in that town. (= People often got lost in that town.)

We use can't have or couldn't have to say that a past event was impossible:

They know the way here. They can't have got lost!
If Jones was at work until six, he couldn't have done the murder.

Ability

Level: beginner

We use can and can't to talk about someone's skill or general abilities:

She can speak several languages.
He can swim like a fish.
They can't dance very well.

We use can and can't to talk about the ability to do something at a specific time in the present or future:

I can see you.
Help! I can't breathe.

We use could and couldn't to talk about the past:

She could speak several languages.
They couldn't dance very well.

Level: intermediate

We use could have to say that someone had the ability or opportunity to do something, but did not do it:

She could have learned Swahili, but she didn't want to.
I could have danced all night. [but I didn't]

Permission

Level: beginner

We use can to ask for permission to do something:

Can I ask a question, please?
Can we go home now?

could is more formal and polite than can:

Could I ask a question please?
Could we go home now?

We use can to give permission:

You can go home now.
You can borrow my pen if you like.

We use can to say that someone has permission to do something:

We can go out whenever we want.
Students can travel for free.

We use can't to refuse permission or say that someone does not have permission:

You can't go home yet.
Students can't travel for free.

Requests

We use could you … as a polite way of telling or asking someone to do something:

Could you take a message, please?
Could I have my bill, please?

can is less polite:

Can you take a message, please?

Offers

We use can I … to make offers:

Can I help you?
Can I do that for you?

We sometimes say I can ... or I could ... to make an offer:

I can do that for you if you like.
I could give you a lift to the station.

Suggestions

We use could to make suggestions:

We could meet at the weekend.
You could eat out tonight.

Questions and negatives

We make questions by putting the subject after can/could:

Can I ...?
Could I ...?
etc.
Can you ...?
Could you ...?

 

The negative form is can't in spoken English and cannot in written English.

We sometimes say cannot, but it is very emphatic.

The negative form of could is couldn't in spoken English and could not in written English.

can and could: possibility 1

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can and could: possibility 2

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can and could: other uses 1

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can and could: other uses 2

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Comments

Hello teachers,
I am back with a question.
It is about "Later" and "Later on".
The difference, though being distinct to me, can sometimes get me.
I am sure u can help me with its distinction precisely.

Could you tell me when to use " later" and "later on"?

Hello GIRIKUMAR,

As far as I am aware, there is no difference in meaning. Later on is a little more informal.

Later is often used as an informal way of saying goodbye, with the same meaning as See you later.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello teachers, hope you are all doing great.
In the Oxford dictionary, the meaning of the phrasal verb "mess up" has the verb 'fail' not with the preposition 'in' but 'at' when it's supposed 'in' as regards one of the examples below the first meaning concerned with the verb 'fail' in the same dictionary.

The sentence goes thus,
Mess up: to fail at something or do it badly.

My question is,
What's the difference between "fail in" and "fail at"?
When should we you 'at' and 'in' with the verb 'fail'?
Thank you, teachers.

Hello GIRIKUMAR,

I don't think there is a difference in meaning. Rather, there are certain typical patterns of use.

We tend to use fail in with words related to trying something: fail in your attempt, fail in your plan.

We tend to use fail at with activities: fail at the task, fail at the final test

 

I think fail on its own, or fail to [verb] are much more common forms, however.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

I m sorry to post this question despite being irrelevant here. I request that you answer it just like you do regularly in order not to fail us, teachers. That's the only reason why I come over here hopefully. In return, all I can do is express my gratitude in mere words like "Thank you so much".
Could you tell me the differences between, " yourself, to yourself, and for yourself", teachers?
I saw a phrase on YouTube that goes like, "understanding your values to yourself". Can we say it without " to".
I did it myself.
I did it to myself.
I did it for myself.
What do they mean despite looking like they mean the same?
Thank you, teachers.

Hello GIRIKUMAR,

Myself can be used in several ways, as you show.

 

I did it myself (nobody else helped me) - this means that I did the task and nobody helped me; I did it alone.

 

I did it to myself (and nobody else was to blame) - this is generally used to describe unfortunate situations and it means that the speaker blames him- or herself; nobody else is responsible.

 

I did it for myself (not for you) - this is generally used to describe positive situations and it means that the speaker's motivation was their own benefit rather than the need or wish of someone else.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello teachers,
Hope you are doing well and you should be doing well or we would not be able to get our doubts clarified. We are very grateful to you indeed.
Could you tell me which one of the following sentences is correct and why?
Last night I went to a function.
Last night I went for a function.
Regards.

Hello Girikumar

The first one is correct because we use 'to' to speak about a destination. I'm assuming that 'function' here means 'a social event', as otherwise I wouldn't really understand what these sentences mean.

Thanks! Hope you also are doing well.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

I am in the meeting now.
I am at the meeting now.
What do the two sentences actually mean? Which one of them should we use when talking about the fact that we are involved in it?

Hello Girikumar

I'd probably say 'in' here, but I think both 'in' and 'at' are fine. As far as I know, there's no difference in meaning between them.

There's a good explanation of the differences in use between the most commonly used prepositions of place on this page if you're interested.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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