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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

What is the difference between could and may? I they both express the same thing, that is, could is used for hypothetical situation in the future.

John is coming to visit. He could stay with us.
John is coming to visit. He may stay with us.

Hello akatsuki,

Modal verbs can have a range of meanings in different contexts. Here, 'could' tells us that something is possible. 'May' can mean the same, or it can mean that the speaker agrees to let John stay.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

hello sir could you pls tell me, what is the difference b/w "can be find and can be found" with examples

Hello anuj,

'can be find' is not correct and 'can be found' is correct. It's the modal verb 'can' plus a passive infinitive.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

is this sentence is correct?

we are waiting for the power, so we could microwave our dinner.

Hello helpinspeaking,

I would say that 'can' is needed here, as 'could' would refer to the past in this context. You could also say 'will be able to'.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

but i read that could can also use for the future.

Hello helpinspeaking,

It says just that on the page:

We use could to show that something is possible in the future, but not certain

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi there!
Is this sentense true?
(as a child my life could be streesful.)
Regards

Hello smsahand,

'As a child my life could be stressful' is grammatically correct (good work!), but only you can tell us whether it's true or not! ('true' means 'accurate' - see the dictionary.)

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

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