can, could and could have


Questions and negatives:

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

Can I …? Can you …? Could I … Could you …? and so on.

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.
We sometimes say could not.

We use can and can’t :

  • To talk about ability:

Maria can speak four languages.
I can’t swim, but my sister can.

  • To say that something is possible or impossible:

Learning English can be difficult [= Learning English is sometimes difficult.]
Children can be very naughty [= Children are sometimes very naughty.]
It’s still light. It can’t be bedtime.

  • For requests and refusals of requests

Can I go home now?
You can go whenever you like.
You can borrow the car today, but you can’t have it tomorrow.

  • To offer to help someone:

Can I help you?
Can I carry that bag for you?

We use could and couldn’t as the past tense of can/can’t:

  • To talk about ability:

I could run very fast when I was younger.
She couldn’t get a job anywhere.

  • To say that something was possible or impossible:

Our teacher could be very strict when we were at school. [= Some teachers were very strict.]
People could starve in those days. [= People sometimes starved.]
You couldn’t use computers in the nineteenth century.

  • To make a polite request:

Could I go now please?
Could you lend me a dictionary please?

  • To make a polite offer:

Could I give you a lift?
I could carry that for you.

We use could have:

  • to show that something is possible now or was possible at some time in the past:

It’s ten o’clock. They could have arrived now.
They could have arrived hours ago.




Hello manumkj,

'Can't have' is an example of a perfect modal verb and is used when we are speculating or making logical deductions about the past on the basis of some evidence or expectation.

There are five modal verbs typically used in this way:

He must have lived in Paris. (I'm sure this was true)

He could/might/may have lived in Paris. (It's possible this was true)

He can't have lived in Paris. (I'm sure this was not true)

The modal verbs in your sentences are correct; however, we would say 'the function' rather than just 'function'.

I hope that helps to clarify it for you.

Best wishes,



The LearnEnglish Team

sir can we substitute could or might for would in conditional....please let me know,,,

Hello maxamun,

Your question is too general. We use 'would' in many different ways in conditionals and some uses can be replaced by other modal verbs while others cannot. If you provide a specific example then we'll be happy to tell you if 'might' can be used or not.

Best wishes,



The LearnEnglish Team

hello sir, i have a huge confusion...such as..i could do it( as past possibility not ability) it possible to say that i could do that(but i didnt) like i could have done that.......another is....i could have done that(but i didnt) but i couldnt have done that(is that mean i did or what) an example..i couldnt have called you if i hadnt bought a mobile...(is that mean i made a call)....please please please sir hepl me out.....

Hello maxmamun,

I'm afraid it's very hard to understand your question, and we can't answer a question which we do not understand! To help us, please ask about one thing rather than several at once and please start with a concrete example, then ask about that example rather than starting with a very general question and adding a sentence at the end.

Best wishes,



The LearnEnglish Team

Hello niranjankumar47,

Yes, you can, with the same meaning.

Best wishes,
The LearnEnglish Team

Can 'could' be used to express a wish ?
e.g. I'll be happy if I could do half as much as you did (speaking of something that is yet to be done)

Have 2 questions here.

She couldn’t get a job anywhere.

May I know is it the meaning of this sentence is previously she couldn't get a job, but now she can. Am I correct?

I still don't understand how to use past tense, could we use past tense when something happened in the past but we are not sure whether it still happen now?

For example, She liked to eat orange. We knew she liked orange, but now we don't know. In this circumstance, should we use past or present tense

Thank you.

Hello stevencch,

As I said in reply to your earlier question on this, the past tense does not tell us either way about the present; for this, we rely on the context.  Your first example does not tell us whether or not she can get a job now - it only tells us about the past situation. Similarly, the sentence 'She liked to eat oranges' does not tell us anything about whether or not she likes oranges now.  Again, the context is necessary for us to form an opinion on this.

Best wishes,



The LearnEnglish Team