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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.


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]


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.


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?


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.


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 ...?
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


can and could: possibility 2


can and could: other uses 1


can and could: other uses 2




Hello neh7272,

The ways in which 'can' and 'could' are used are on this page. However, which are relevant in this example depends upon the context. You could be talking about ability or possibility, you could be making a suggestion, you could be making an offer - it is impossible to identify the intended meaning from the sentences without any context.

If you tell us what you want to say - the intended meaning - then we can tell you how you might do it.


Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Mr.Kirk & Mr. Peter, I hope you are doing great.

I'm practicing English for few years but yet I've more doubts. I would like to know which of these correct and situational meanings about "What can I do for you?" & "What I can do for you" .. Please tell me which is correct and when to use it, I know more people using more often the second one in India alike "What will I do?" & "What I will do?" . Please reply the correct sentences.

Same doubt !

where are you ?

where you are ?

which is correct

Hello mknm,

If you want to ask the question then the first one is correct.


Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

Hello sangeetha01,

If you intend to ask a question then 'What can I do for you?' and 'What will I do?' are the correct forms.


Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team


Please explain 'could be' can it be used as past tense. Example "century ago America and Russia could be using hundreds of spies to Snoop down themselves"


Hello raji,

'Could' is the past tense of 'can', as the page says. However, your sentence does not represent a good use of 'could'. I'm not sure what you are trying to express there - that this was possible in the past but is not now? I'm afraid it's not clear to me.


Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

Im little bit confused with the sentence it can be very cold in winter.
What is the general thing in this sentence.can u give some more examples for can in possibility also explaining the general element of lt..

Hello jino,

As it says, this use of 'can' means 'it sometimes happens' or 'it's not impossible'. Here are some more examples:

Be careful when you speak to Mr. Jones. He can be irritable! [= sometimes he is irritable]

Drive carefully in London. It can be quite dangerous. [= sometimes it is dangerous]


Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

Hello sir, could you please tell me how to use can/could for invitations (with example)
Thank you.