Level: beginner

The modal verbs are: 



We use modals to show if we believe something is certain, possible or impossible:

My keys must be in the car.
It might rain tomorrow.
That can't be Peter's coat. It's too small.

We also use them to do things like talk about ability, ask permission, and make requests and offers:

I can't swim.
May I ask a question?
Could I have some tea, please?
Would you like some help?

Modal verbs




Thank you so much Kirk. I am very grateful to you and to British Council.

Dear Sir,
               This is Sumeet. I have got some questions related to Modals. How can we distinguish the usage of can and be able to? Is the present / past continuous of be able to is grammatically correct and formal?
Are you being able to comprehend what is being taught to you? 
Is it grammatically correct ? Thank you so much, Sir. 
With regards,

Hello Sumeet,

Both of these can be used to talk about ability, but 'can' has other uses as well (see here for more information).  When talking about ability in the present, the two are largely interchangeable, though 'can' is more common and 'be able to' a little more formal.  There are some differences between the two when we talk about future and past meaning, however:

If we do not have the ability now but will have it in the future then we use 'be able to':

I will be able to swim after I finish my lessons. [I do not know how to swim now, but am learning OR I know how to swim but am busy with lessons now]

The future meaning of 'can' is more limited:

I can swim after I finish my lessons. [I know how to swim but am busy with lessons now]

In the past, we can use both 'be able to' and 'could' (the past form of 'can') to talk about general ability:

When I was young I could ski really well.

When I was young I was able to ski really well.

However, when we talk about single events in the past we use 'be able to':

One Christmas I was able to beat my brother in a race! [NOT '...I could beat...']

However, we can use the negative forms 'not be able to' and 'couldn't' for both general ability and single events in the past:

When I was young I couldn't ski very well.

When I was young I wasn't able to ski very well.

One Christmas my brother couldn't beat me!

One Christmas my brother wasn't able to beat me!

I hope that helps to clarify it for you.

Best wishes,



The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Sir, 
               First of all I would like to express my gratitude to you all and to British Council who have been doing a great favor to all the English learners. Thanks a lot.
Could you please tell us the difference between Probability and Possibility with some examples? Thank you so much in advance.

Hello Sumeet,

You can find the difference by using the Cambridge Dictionaries Online tool:

Possibility: a chance that something may happen or be true

Probability: the level of possibility of something happening or being true

In other words, if something is possible then there is a chance of it happening, but it is not certain.  When we talk about probability, we are also say how likely it is - very likely, quite likely, unlikely etc.

You can find examples of both probability and possibility on this page.

Best wishes,



The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you so much Sir. 

Dear Sir,
               Could you please tell us or enlist the Semi modals ? I have read somewhere that Semi-auxiliaries include be about to, be able to, be going to, be likely to, be supposed to, had better, have to, ought to, used to and would rather. Is it correct ? Thank you so much in advance, Sir.
With Regards,

Hi Sumeet,

This is an interesting question, but I'm afraid it falls outside the scope of what we do at LearnEnglish. We are principally concerned with helping members make the best use they can of our site. In addition, your request is very broad. We do our best to answer questions about specific points, but we are a very small team answering questions from millions of users - we simply don't have the time to provide lessons on demand.

You can find information on this topic by doing an internet search - one good place to start might be the wikipedia page on modal verbs.

Best wishes,

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello! Sir,
Would you please tell me which one is correct and what's the difference between these two?
What you mean?
What do you mean?

Hello chandini,

"What you mean?" is not correct in standard English - the correct form is "What do you mean?" The formation of such questions is explained on our present simple page.

Best wishes,

The LearnEnglish Team