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

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Ability: can and could 2

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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

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Ability: could have 2

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Submitted by l.audisio on Fri, 06/05/2016 - 07:13

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Hi can 'have to' only be used as the past form of 'must'? I mean, can't it be used as an alternative to it: 'You must wear a safety helmet' 'You have to wear a safety helmet'? Are there any differences in meaning? Thanks in advance

Submitted by Peter M. on Sat, 07/05/2016 - 07:12

In reply to by l.audisio

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Hello l.audisio,

'Have to' can be used instead of must as you suggest:

I must go now.

I have to go now.

There is a slight difference in meaning. We generally use 'must' when the obligation is a personal one: the obligation comes from us. We tend to use 'have to' when the obligation is external, from a rule or organisation, for example.

Note that this page deals with 'ability, permission, requests and advice', not obligation. You can find more information on the distinction between 'must' and 'have to' on this page.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by sanjay.singh on Thu, 14/04/2016 - 08:28

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Hi Sir, Please tell me, what is the difference between following sentences. I have lived here for 20 years. I have been living here for 20 years. As I understand, In the first sentence, I lived there for 20 years but now I am not living there. ?? In the second sentence , I am living there for 20 years nd still living ? Thanx Sanjay Singh

Submitted by sanjay.singh on Sun, 27/03/2016 - 10:36

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Hi Sir, Im confused about use of could, sometimes it use for past tense and sometimes it use for present tense like u have used for present tense in these examples - 1- Could I ask a question please? 2-Could we go home now? Sir, Please tell me how to change these two sentences in past with use of could. And also clarify the use of could in present and past tense.

Submitted by Peter M. on Sun, 27/03/2016 - 11:36

In reply to by sanjay.singh

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Hi singh singh,

These are both requests, and to make them requests in the past we would use a perfect modal - 'could have':

Could I have asked a question (then)?

Could we have gone home then?

However, the present and past forms depend on the meaning for which 'could' is used. The examples above are requests and there are similar past forms for permission, but if we talk about ability then we have different forms for present and past:

I can swim. (present)

I could swim. (past)

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Josef72 on Sat, 12/03/2016 - 08:49

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Dear I would like to know if its following sentence is correct? 'With pleasure, I would to confirm my arrival day' .Thanks in Advance

Submitted by Kirk on Sun, 13/03/2016 - 06:25

In reply to by Josef72

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Hello Josef,

That sentence is intelligible, but not completely grammatical. Perhaps 'I would like to confirm the day of my arrival'. You could use 'with pleasure', but please note that it's really quite formal, so in most contexts 'would like to' is polite enough.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by chris kim on Wed, 02/03/2016 - 15:49

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hi my sister used to live next door is it stative?

Submitted by Kirk on Thu, 03/03/2016 - 07:21

In reply to by chris kim

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Hello chris kim,

No, 'used to live' is not stative. You can see our pages on stative verbs and 'used to' for explanations of these forms.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by chris kim on Tue, 01/03/2016 - 13:24

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hi Is the live (verb) stative verb?

Submitted by Peter M. on Wed, 02/03/2016 - 06:22

In reply to by chris kim

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Hello chris kim,

This depends on the context in which it is used. Many verbs can be used in different ways, and this affects their meaning and how they are used. Perhaps you can provide us with an example sentence and we'll be happy to comment on it.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by chris kim on Mon, 22/02/2016 - 10:31

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hi there what is difference among can,manage to and be able to ?

Submitted by Peter M. on Tue, 23/02/2016 - 06:04

In reply to by chris kim

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Hello chris kim,

Have you tried using the Cambridge Dictionaries tool on the right of the page to look these up? That will be a good place to start, and you'll see the meaning of 'manage to' is more specific than the others.

'Manage to' means you did something, and it was not easy, so it's some kind of achievement or success

'Can' means you have the ability to do something, but is also used in other contexts (permission, requests etc)

'Able to' is used in a more restricted sense, only to talk about ability.

For example:

I can swim - this could describe physical ability, possibility and permission

I am able to swim - this is generally restricted to physical ability

I managed to swim - this means I succeeded in doing it, though it was not easy for some reason

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by sonitaespino on Thu, 03/12/2015 - 19:31

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hello, I was checking some grammar about modal verbs...in the part of ability, permissions requests, etc...there is an example in the part of Permission... it says we use can to ask for...but in the examples i think there is a mistake, because only one of the examples is a question...it says..Can we go home now ........i think it should say..Can we go home now? I mention it because someone could missunderstand the example...and get confuse.... Or probably Im confuse....or wrong. Thanks

Hello sonitaespino,

No, you were right! Thanks very much for pointing this out. I've now corrected it, thanks to you!

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Lamastry on Tue, 15/09/2015 - 11:51

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Good day sir may you help me know if you have a column that covers English Registers

Hello Lamastry,

You can find references to register, formality and polite forms all throughout LearnEnglish, but as far as I know, there is no page dedicated to the topic. I'd suggest you do an internet search for something like 'awareness of register in English' – I expect you can find some useful explanations that way.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by akaash akaash on Sat, 22/08/2015 - 14:52

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hello British council. i am your new students. please tell me how can i build up my vocabulary?

Hello akaash akaash,

Welcome to LearnEnglish! The best place for you to start is our Help page, which will give you ideas and advice for how to do this, as well as other aspects of learning English.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by sabago on Sat, 25/07/2015 - 18:27

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hello , WITH REFERENCE TO THE PREVIOUS ANSWERS TO MY QUESTIONS "Iwill come" means I am determined to come, but how can we use the same sentence for simple future.... ok right, if we the same sentence for future , what would be the sentence for determination of the speaker. If external events plays a role for compulsion of speaker coming, what would be the sentence.

Hello sabago,

I'm trying to understand your question but I'm afraid it's not clear to me. It's possible for 'I will come' to refer to your determination (making it, in effect, a promise) and it necessarily refers to future time, as promises do. There are many possibilities for obligation, such as 'must' and 'have to' - the latter is generally used for external obligation.

I'm not sure if that answers your question. If not, please provide an example - a sentence - of what you mean. This will help to clarify it for us.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by sabago on Wed, 22/07/2015 - 07:40

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hi peter I am asking for first person[ I/WE] for shall. '' I shall come'' express mere future or obligation? or both explain me with examples.

Hello sabago,

In most contexts in modern British English, 'shall' is only used in the way described on this page, i.e. for invitations and offers, and even there usually only in questions. Saying 'I shall come' would sound a bit pompous in most contexts, and so I'd not recommend using it, at least with British people. Instead you could say something like 'I plan to come', 'I'm going to come', 'I will come' – it depends on the context. See our talking about the future page for an explanation of this.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by sabago on Tue, 21/07/2015 - 19:20

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hi how can we use obligation for fist person[ I /WE] using shall with verb come... can you explian with examples?

Submitted by Peter M. on Wed, 22/07/2015 - 06:00

In reply to by sabago

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Hello sabago,

'Shall' has a similar meaning to 'will' and is rarely used for obligation. The only way I can think that it would be used is with a heavy emphasis:

You shall come when I call you! No arguing!

However, this is unusual and would be considered quite rude. It's something that an angry parent might say to a child, for example.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by SooTW on Sun, 19/07/2015 - 06:49

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Hi British Council, I am a bit confused of tenses used in asking questions. Like a few days ago, I went to a cafe to buy drink, the worker asked me "what was your name?" I am wondering why this question uses past tense instead of present tense. I thought name is something that is always true, so present tense (what is your name) should be used. Best regards, Soo

Hi SooTW,

The past form in English has many uses and one of these is for politeness. I don't know the full context of your conversation but one possible reason is that 'What was your name?' sounded more polite. It could also be that you told the other person your name previously and they were thinking back to that time.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by HtetMMyint on Fri, 03/07/2015 - 03:54

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I am not clear about using must for very polite invitation. I knew that must is very strong and some time must is used to give instruction. So, could you explain about how to use or where to use must for polite invitation in detail and more examples?

Hello HtetMMyint,

There is no grammatical difference in use, thought for polite invitations we often add 'really' as in 'You really must...'

The meaning is clear only through the context and, if spoken, through polite intonation. I think it's quite easy to tell from the context whether someone is politely inviting or ordering a person to do something.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by misam on Sat, 13/06/2015 - 15:49

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Hello Kirk and Perter, would you please tell me the difference in meanings of these three nouns, suggestion,advice,offer. and the difference in using their verbs. best regards
Hello Misam, Thanks for your comment. To give you a complete answer would take some time, so it would be best if you first look up these words in a dictionary, for example using Cambridge Dictionaries Online box on the right side of this page. That should give you answers to some of your questions and if there are still specific questions you have, we'd be happy to answer them. Best wishes, Adam The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Muhammad Salik on Wed, 03/06/2015 - 07:08

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Hi Kirk whenever i write anything so i have a feeling of incorrect what should i do?

Submitted by Kirk on Thu, 04/06/2015 - 07:41

In reply to by Muhammad Salik

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Hello Muhammad,

On the one hand, this can be valuable, as it can encourage you to check your work and to learn accurate grammar, vocabulary and collocations. On the other hand, making mistakes is a perfectly natural part of learning, and if this feeling gets too strong, it could discourage you from using new and more advanced forms. Without knowing you better, it's impossible for me to recommend anything more specific, but please keep this in mind as you think about this. Finally, you might find it useful to read the advice on our Help page.

I hope this helps you!

Best regards,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by ozan1071 on Mon, 03/11/2014 - 22:03

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Hi! May is more formal than could. Isn't it?

Hi ozan1071,

In general, that is correct. However, remember that they are not synonyms in all contexts but can have different meanings and uses, as this page and other pages on modal verbs show.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kishoreDhak on Sat, 12/07/2014 - 04:32

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Hi, is it possible to use like,,, Hi could you please pass it to me ?

Submitted by Peter M. on Sat, 12/07/2014 - 18:16

In reply to by kishoreDhak

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Hi kishoreDhak,

'Could you please pass it to me?' is a perfectly good sentence.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish

Submitted by monchoroca on Thu, 24/04/2014 - 18:14

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hello could someone answer me two questions please? first one, is "have to" a modal verb? second one, when do I have to use "must" or "have to"? thank you in advance

Submitted by Kirk on Fri, 25/04/2014 - 08:56

In reply to by monchoroca

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Hello monchoroca,

No, have to is not considered a modal verb. Both must and have to are used to say that an action is necessary, and much of the time there is no difference between them, i.e. you can use either form. There is sometimes a difference between the two in that must can be used to express the speaker's personal feelings, but normally have to isn't used in this way - it is used to talk about rules or facts.

In the negative (don't have to and mustn't), these two forms have completely different uses! mustn't means it is necessary not to do something, whereas don't have to means it is not necessary to do it. For example:

You mustn't tell him my secret. (don't tell him!)
You don't have to come to my party. (you can come if you want to)

I hope this helps!

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by youssef25 on Sun, 30/03/2014 - 20:43

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Hello, I have a problem, I'm a student and I want the anser for this question complete the suggestions and requests below: ................ opening the window, please? Can someone help me please?

Submitted by Peter M. on Wed, 02/04/2014 - 08:37

In reply to by youssef25

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Hello youssef25,

This looks like a question from an exam or from some homework, and we prefer not to do users' homework for them!  However, I will help you this time.  The most likely answer is 'Would you mind opening the window, please?'

One thing to be careful of here is the reply to this question.  If the person replying wants to help - that is to say, if they will open the window - then they answer 'No, not at all.'  If they do not want to open the window then the answer is 'Yes, actually, I do (mind).'

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by valentintoma on Sat, 29/03/2014 - 05:51

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Good morning, Can you please tell what is the difference between COULD and MAY when asking for permission. Thanks

Hi valentintoma,

may is a bit more formal than could, and some say that it is more correct, but the fact is that most people use could (or can) to ask for permission. One difference between may and could is that could is only used to ask for permission - not to give or refuse it. When giving or refusing permission, you should use can or may. Below is an example - note the two forms that are crossed out (to indicate that they are not correct).

May I borrow your car?  Could I borrow your car?    Can I borrow your car?
   - Yes, you could.    Yes, you can.   Yes, you may.
   - No, you couldn't.   No, you can't.   No, you may not.

Best wishes,

Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team
 

Submitted by kristina26 on Thu, 28/11/2013 - 13:44

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Could interpret  "can" and "could" , please.

Is "could"  the past form of "can" and do we  use "could"  as "can" in the past?

Thank you!

Hello kristina26,

'Can' and 'could' are examples of modal verbs and they have many uses and meanings. In some contexts, 'could' is the past form of 'can', such as when talking about ability:

(present) I can swim / I can't swim.

(past) When I was a child, I could swim / I couldn't swim.

However, the range of meanings is much broader than this, and the relationship between 'can' and 'could' much more complex.  For example, both forms can be used in requests, with 'could' being a more polite form:

Can I have a glass of water, please?

Could I have a glass of water, please?

This page, and the other pages relating to modal verbs preceding and following it, show the various meanings of 'can' and 'could' (and other modal verbs), so my advice to you is to work through these pages and I'm sure that will help to clarify it for you.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by LIKHONRUMI40 on Mon, 25/11/2013 - 10:46

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Dear teacher,

I have a question about usage of could as future permission.I have found this sentence in one grammar tutorial." Could we apply for a loan again after we've found a guarantor?"-  How this sentence is right because they use present perfect tense for future permission.

 

Hello LIKHONRUMI40,

The present perfect in this sentence is in a dependent clause, and the use of some tenses is different in these clauses.  We could not say 'we've found a guarantor' with future meaning by itself; however if it is part of a dependent clause then it can have future meaning.  Following 'after' in this sentence you can use the present perfect (we've found) or the present simple (we find) with very similar meaning - the present perfect emphasises that the action is completed before the other action in the sentence (applying).

Here the dependent clause is introduced by 'after', but you can find tenses used like this with similar dependent clauses introduced by other words such as when, as soon as and until.

I hope that helps to clarify it for you.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

True Peter. That's what I know concerning dependent clause, either present perfect or present simple has similar meaning. Thank you :)