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.
I couldn't see you.

Ability: can and could 1


Ability: can and could 2


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]

Ability: could have 1


Ability: could have 2


Average: 4.1 (45 votes)

Submitted by AHMED-22 on Thu, 20/10/2022 - 21:27


What's the different between he can speak several languages and she could speak several languages ?

Hello AHMED-22,

In this context, which is describing ability, 'can' is the present form and describes his ability now. 'Could' is the past form and describes his ability in the past. We would probably use 'could' if the person is no longer alive, for example, or has forgotten the languages for some reason.



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by g-ssan on Tue, 11/10/2022 - 20:01


Hello sir ,
Can we replace could to can in any situation,
For example we replace it in impossibility when we use sentence like cannot have got lost .
Can we do same thing in ability with sentence like she could have learned English , we say she can have learned English .

Hi g-ssan,

No, sometimes their meanings are different. For ability, can refers to the present and could refers to the past. Also, to talk about past opportunities, you can say could have but can have is ungrammatical.

I hope that helps.


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by g-ssan on Sun, 25/09/2022 - 20:12


Hello sir ,

What about couldn’t have in ability what’s it mean ?
for example : ( I couldn’t have danced all night but i want to ).

Hello g-ssan,

I'm afraid that sentence doesn't really make sense because 'couldn't have' refers to the past, but 'I want to' refers to the present.

If you meant to say 'I couldn't have danced all night, but I wanted to', I'm afraid this doesn't work either. When we're speaking about ability, 'could have' has this specific meaning of having the opportunity to do something but not doing it. It's not used in a negative form in this way, i.e. 'couldn't have' does not mean you didn't have the opportunity to do something but did it anyway. This doesn't make sense because you can't do something that you don't have the opportunity to do.

I hope this helps you make sense of it.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by omer3939 on Thu, 28/01/2021 - 11:38

Can we use "ability" to describe things that non-animate things can or can't do? I found some examples like "generalization ability of AI" but I couldn't find a solid source.

Hi omer3939,

Yes! Here are some examples I found.

  • What impresses more about this car is its handling ability.
  • The city has thrived on its ability to sell.
  • The machine has a superior cutting ability.

But overall, it seems more common to use this word to refer to human (or animate) abilities.

Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Yigido on Tue, 29/12/2020 - 14:25

Hi, In this sentence "She could get up at 9 Am, but She did not clean her face"Why we use -could-instead of -was able to- ?In this situation getting up is special ability,isn't it?
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Submitted by Kirk Moore on Tue, 29/12/2020 - 15:16

In reply to by Yigido


Hello Yigido,

That sentence sounds wrong to me. Perhaps it would make sense in its context, but looking at it now, I can't imagine how it is correct.

All the best,


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by abdirahman moh… on Tue, 14/05/2019 - 12:08

hi how to learn tofel
Hello abdirahman mohamed yousuf, The British Council focuses on the IELTS exam rather than TOEFL. We have plenty of resources for the former: http://takeielts.britishcouncil.org https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/IELTS ~ For TOEFL, I suggest you try the homepage of the exam, where you should be able to find more information: https://www.ets.org/toefl ~ Peter The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Goktug123 on Sun, 12/05/2019 - 20:14

Hello Team! I want to ask a question. I saw this sentence in a technical book.But I don't understand the meaning and duty of "to" used after shall modal verb.Here is the sentence: "Unless otherwise specified,all codes,standarts and recommended practises herein shall be to latest editions,addendums and suplements issued before March 17, 2017" Is this sentence grammatically true?And the meaning of this sentence unclear for me. Could you please explain? Thank you!
Hello Goktung123, The meaning of the sentence is that all of the specified codes etc are relevant to the most recent editions (etc), not to earlier ones. ~ The sentence is not completely grammatical. There are spelling mistakes and grammar mistakes in it and I would not like to try to explain something which may also be an error. This is why we tend not to provide explanations here of language from unknown sources, but rather focus on explaining the material on our own pages. ~ Peter The LearnEnglish Team
Hello Peter! Thank you for your explanation.Can we say that "to" in that sentence has spelling mistake?I thought that it would be "the".Can we say that? Thank you so much again!
Hello Goktug123 'to' makes sense in this sentence; as Peter says, it shows which editions the codes are relevant to. If you changed it to 'the', the sentence would become even more difficult to understand. All the best Kirk The LearnEnglish Team
Profile picture for user Ahmed Imam

Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Thu, 07/03/2019 - 19:25

Could you please help me? What is the difference between "didn't have to do" and "needn't have done"? We didn’t have to run to the museum because it was already closed when we got there. We needn’t have run to the museum because it was already closed when we got there. Thank you. I appreciate your helping me.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

When we use needn't have it means we did something and it was not necessary.

When we use didn't need to it is not clear if we did something or not.


For example:

I didn't need to go to work. [we don't know if I went to work or not]

I needn't have gone to work. [I went to work and it was not necessary]



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Zeeshan Siddiqii on Fri, 01/03/2019 - 08:36

Do we use 'shall' instead of 'should'? For instance we talk about the result of drizzling that it causes mess on streets. We know that streets are in bad condition so there is a mess on the streets due to their bad condition itself, not because of the drizzling. So can we say: Therefore, drizzling shall not be called a distress. Our streets shall be called a distress.

Hello Zeeshan Siddiqii

I would recommend saying 'we shouldn't call our streets a mess' or something similar here. 'should' works better because you are describing the best thing to talk about the streets in this situation. Note that 'distress' isn't really appropriate in this context in standard British English -- I think 'mess', the word you used earlier, works better here.

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Thu, 14/02/2019 - 19:54

I'm really confused and I need your help with these modals. You ……… have the car inspected next week. The registration expires soon. (must - have to - need to) Are all correct in this context? Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

All three options are grammatically correct.

I think the third option (need to) is the best, but the second (have to) is also possible. The first option (must) does not seem a natural choice in any normal context.



The LearnEnglish Team

sorry, I don't understand the point related to "must". Is "must" correct here or not. Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

In the context you provided, we would not use must.

Please note that we generally do not comment on questions from other sources. We're happy to answer questions about our own material or about the language generally, but we don't check exercises or questions from textbooks or similar sources.



The LearnEnglish Team

I'm sorry for disturbing you but I just try to improve my English. I am a teacher of English in Egypt and I sometimes face some exercises in our outside books which really confuse me. You are a reliable and trusted source so I hope you still receive my notes. Thank you so much.