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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Soumis par omer3939 le jeu 28/01/2021 - 11:38

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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,

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Yigido le mar 29/12/2020 - 14:25

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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?

Soumis par Kirk le mar 29/12/2020 - 15:16

En réponse à par Yigido

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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,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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

Soumis par Goktug123 le dim 12/05/2019 - 20:14

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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

Soumis par Ahmed Imam le jeu 07/03/2019 - 19:25

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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]

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Zeeshan Siddiqii le ven 01/03/2019 - 08:36

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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

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Ahmed Imam le jeu 14/02/2019 - 19:54

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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.

 

Peter

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.

 

Peter

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.

Soumis par autumn le dim 10/09/2017 - 19:12

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Hello, I am struggling to understand the use of modal verbs in the following situation. The situation is I am having a chat with someone about a friend's mother who was to arrive to the city I live in last week. Here are the three ways that I thought this could be conveyed but i would really appreciate your guidance. 1) She must have arrived now 2) She will have arrived now 3) She should have arrived now. In the situation that I have provided, which of the above three sentences is most appropriate to use and if all three can be used then what is the difference among them? Thank you so much.

Soumis par Kirk le mar 12/09/2017 - 09:12

En réponse à par autumn

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Hello autumn,

All three sentences are possible and I'm afraid it's not possible for me to say which is correct without knowing how you see the situation. In addition, modal verbs have different uses and so can be used to convey different ideas.

That said, in general, 'must have arrived' suggests you strongly believe, 'will have arrived' expresses much the same idea, suggesting it would be unusual if not, and 'should have arrived' suggests much the same thing, i.e. that she will be there unless something unusual has happened.

By the way, in all three sentences I'd suggest 'by now' instead of 'now'.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Timothy555 le sam 26/08/2017 - 10:56

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Hi Teachers, Is it "May I know who you are ?" or "May I know who are you?"? Thanks! Regards, Tim

Soumis par Elva Perez le sam 12/08/2017 - 23:04

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Thank you , I think , it is good to refresh our knowledge through a fun exercise. All the best, Elva

Soumis par Timothy555 le mar 06/06/2017 - 14:10

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Hi, You mentioned above that "We use conditionals to give advice: Dan will help you if you ask him" and that "Past tenses are more polite: Dan would help you if you asked him". But aren't these the structures of the first and second conditionals respectively? In order words, regarding the second sentence which utilises the past tense, isn't it done so as to express the second conditional (•if + past simple, ...would + infinitive), rather than for politeness? Appreciate your advice, thanks! Regards, Tim

Soumis par Peter M. le mer 07/06/2017 - 06:56

En réponse à par Timothy555

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Hi Timothy555,

Second conditional forms are used to describe less likely events and one way to make a request or advice polite is to make it more tentative. Using a hypothetical form is one way to do this. In other words, the fact that it is a second conditional form and that it is a polite form are not mutually exclusive.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par racheed le sam 29/04/2017 - 11:56

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"you mustn't make a noise " it's says at the example above ,i'd like to know why we didn't use can't instead of mustn't and what's the difference and why at school in London they thought us that the negative form of must is can't not mustn't. thnx

Hello racheed,

'must' can be used in different ways -- i.e., it has different meanings. When it is used (as in the sentence you ask about) to express obligation, which is prohibition in the negative, 'mustn't' is the negative form.

When 'must' is to express a conclusion or deduction, 'can't' is the negative form. For example, 'That can't be Santosh -- he's in Manchester, not here in York'. This means I see a man who seems to be Santosh, but since I know Santosh is in Manchester and I am now in York, he 'can't' be Santosh.

I hope that clears it up for you.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par annamaria le mer 19/04/2017 - 10:44

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Hi, I´d like to know the exact meaning of the sentence: "Cyclists should have to pass a test to get a licence before they are allowed on the road". Cannot I just say „cyclists have to pass a test? What is a difference between have to pass and should have to pass and should pass? Thanks in advance.

Hello annamaria,

Both 'should' and 'have to' can be used to talk about obligation. In general, 'have to' is stronger than 'should'. There are several resources I would recommend you take a look at to get a better idea of how to use them. First, our sister site LearnEnglish Teens has a page on this very topic. Second, you can find explanations and examples of 'should' and 'have to' in the Cambridge Dictionary.

As for the specific sentences you ask about, using 'should' means that you're talking about your opinion -- you believe that an obligatory test (which doesn't exist yet) is a good idea. 'have to' implies that this test is already obligatory. 'should have to pass' means essentially the same as 'should'.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Ricardo A le lun 03/04/2017 - 14:18

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Hi. This sentence above is correct? "Would you like to come round to morrow?" Thanks in advance.

Soumis par Kirk le mar 04/04/2017 - 06:35

En réponse à par Ricardo A

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Hello Ricardo,

No, that was a spelling error, which I've now fixed. Thanks very much for telling us about this!

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par 12nguyenhien le ven 16/12/2016 - 10:25

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Dear The LearnEnglish Team, Can I use « Yes, I'd love to. » and « Yes, I would » to reply to the question « would you like some orange juice? » Al the best, Hien

Hello Hien,

'Yes, I would' is fine.

We use 'I'd love to' when the question includes a verb:

Would you like to go to the cinema?

Yes, I'd love to.

When the question is about a noun without a verb we don't use 'to':

Would you like some orange juice?

Yes, I'd love some.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par chancornelius le lun 28/11/2016 - 11:35

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Sorry, I mean "Dan would help you if you ask him"

Soumis par Andrew international le mer 16/11/2016 - 08:37

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Dear Sir Please let me know whether this question is right or wrong. May I know who is speaking there please? I request your help because there are two questions in one. Thank you. Regards Andrew international

Soumis par Kirk le mer 16/11/2016 - 12:15

En réponse à par Andrew international

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Hello Andrew international,

It is grammatically correct, though depending on the context, I would probably omit the word 'there'. This sentence, without 'there', is commonly used on the telephone to ask who the person on the other end of the line is.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Praveen kumar ntc le jeu 03/11/2016 - 19:11

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I was not here .I had been in mubai. I came across this sentence in an english magazine. Is this sentence correct? What does it really mean .

Hello Praveen kumar ntc,

The two tenses used here are described on our talking about the past page. I think that should help you, but if you have another specific question after that, please let us know.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par paulorspedroso le sam 08/10/2016 - 23:19

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Hi. I'm trying to find information on whether it is correct to answer a "Would you like a / to..." question (offer) by saying "Yes, I would. or No, I wouldn't." It seems to me that the person who answers considers that the question is hypothetical, as in "If everyone had to play sports, would you like to play tennis?" Rather than "I'm playing tennis tonight. Would you like to come with me?" Thank you.

Hi paulorspedroso,

The answer to both questions (the hypothetical situation and the invitation) is the same: Yes, I would or No, I wouldn't.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par roc1 le mer 10/08/2016 - 07:36

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Please, is this sentence correct? "It's unfair to judge people by their action"

Hello roc1,

That is almost correct. The correct form would be:

It's unfair to judge people by their actions.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par ibrahemjbs le ven 10/06/2016 - 00:44

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Hello.. I came across this sentence and I wonder if its right or not ... "I would sit there before I asked for a permission" It just doesn't make an sense to me....

Soumis par Peter M. le ven 10/06/2016 - 05:35

En réponse à par ibrahemjbs

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Hello felix barndon,

That sentence is almost fine, grammatically speaking. Whether or not it makes sense will depend on the context. 'Would sit' describes typical behaviour in the past, so the speaker usually did this before...

The only thing about the sentence which seems unlikely to be correct is the use of the indefinite article 'a' before 'permission'. Permission is usually uncountable, so we would normally say 'ask for permission'.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Landly (non vérifié) le mar 07/06/2016 - 10:28

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Hello! I had a question in my exam and I'm not sure how it's done. Question: Write down a sentence that means the same as the previous sentence : - That's not Tom who you saw yesterday. He has gone to Italy. - It couldn't _____________________________________. How do we answer it?

Soumis par Peter M. le mer 08/06/2016 - 06:49

En réponse à par Landly (non vérifié)

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Hello Rita Rihani,

This is really a question for your teacher rather than for us. We don't usually provide answers to test questions or homework tasks because the answer may depend upon the syllabus or certain instructions provided. However, the most likely possible answer here would be 'It couldn't be Tom who/that you saw yesterday. He has gone to Italy'.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team