'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.

Ability

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]

Permission

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.

Requests

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?

Offers

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.

Suggestions

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 ...?
etc.
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

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can and could: possibility 2

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can and could: other uses 1

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can and could: other uses 2

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Soumis par ksjksyhmwwjh le mar 06/02/2018 - 17:37

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hello sir. im just?? confused as to which is correct between "what more could i ever ask for" and "what more can i ever ask for" or both can/could apply to the sentence?

Hello ksjksyhmwwjh,

It's difficult to be clear without having a context to which we can refer. In general, we use 'could' when the situation we are describing is either (a) a real situation in the past (the speaker may be talking about his or her childhood, for example) or (b) a hypothetical or unreal situation in the present or future. We use 'can' when the situation is a real or likely situation in the present or future.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

hello again sir. if i were to use it in this sentence: "I'm blessed with good family, good friends and good health. What more can/could I ask for in life?" which one should i use?

Hello

In this case I think 'could' is probably the best option. 'Can' suggests that asking for more is a real possibility, while 'could' suggests that it is purely a hypothetical situation. Perhaps a very religious person who is praying and who believes that they are speaking to their god might say 'can', for example, but generally 'could' is the more natural-sounding option.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par BHOLESH le mar 19/12/2017 - 08:55

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Sir, I have a doubt, while giving answers of the questions asked ,you use ,'you could say' and why don't you say 'you can say' in the comment section . What is the difference between both the phrases ,i would be grateful if you answer

Soumis par Kirk le mar 19/12/2017 - 09:33

En réponse à par BHOLESH

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Hello Bholesh,

Could you please reply under my comment when asking follow-up questions? It will make it much easier for me to see what you are referring to that way.

Both 'can' and 'could' can be used to speak about possibility. 'could' can also be used to speak about a hypothetical situation, so when I say 'you could say' I'm referring to an imaginary (hypothetical) situation and explaining one possible thing to say then.

Does that make sense?

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par sarab le jeu 14/12/2017 - 06:41

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Which one of usages is appropriate for 'could' in the sentence below? "You could use the second response as you don't like to do something, like in this example"

Hello sarab,

It's not possible to be certain without knowing the context in which the sentence appears. It is probably best described as possibility ('this is an option for you') and the use of 'as...' here suggests it has  the communicative function of making a suggestion ('why not do this?').

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par amrita_enakshi le mer 01/11/2017 - 16:53

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Hello sir in the following sentences what is more appropriate? 1. We 'can/ could' easily meet next Saturday. 2. You 'can/ could' come home at the weekend. Sir both the examples suggest future and could is used for 'ability in past' but again we also use 'could' for giving suggestions so which modal should be used? Or can either ones be used interchangeably?

Soumis par Peter M. le jeu 02/11/2017 - 07:20

En réponse à par amrita_enakshi

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Hello amrita_enakshi,

Generally speaking, 'can' suggests that something is possible, while 'could' is more likely as a suggestion. However, context and intention is key. It is possible to use 'can' to make a suggestion like this, for example, if the context and tone of voice is appropriate.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par masri.ahm04 le mar 08/08/2017 - 10:40

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Hi Peter Which of these two statements is correct -Could you me make ... -Could you me to make ... using base form or infinity form after can or could is confused me Thanks

Soumis par Kirk le mar 08/08/2017 - 16:26

En réponse à par masri.ahm04

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Hello masri.ahm04,

I'm afraid neither of these is correct -- 'me' should come after the verb 'make'. The bare infinitive form is used after modal verbs like 'could', so the correct way to say this is 'Could you make me ...'

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par masri.ahm04 le mar 08/08/2017 - 10:05

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Hi Peter What is the deference between tow following sentences -It can be used as ... -It can be using as ... In another words, when I should use past participle and ing-form, in this case they are an adjective, aren't it ?? Thanks a lot.

Soumis par Peter M. le mer 09/08/2017 - 07:08

En réponse à par masri.ahm04

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Hello masri.ahm04,

The first option ('it can be used as') is fine. The second option is not correct grammatically.

In these phrases 'used' is not an adjective but a past participle of the verb 'use'. It is a passive construction:

He uses the stick as a sword. [active]

The stick is used by him as a sword. [passive]

 

Your examples have a modal verb ('can') and so there is an infinitive form:

He can use the stick as a sword. [active]

The stick can be used by him as a sword. [passive]

 

You cannot replace the past participle ('used') with a present participle ('using') in passive constructions.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Helan gian le jeu 03/08/2017 - 18:54

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Hi. Team In the (can or could) you mentioned for permission could is more formal and polite Ex. Could I ask a aquestion? But in May or Might section you said (might) is very polite for request Ex. Might I ask aquestion? My question is what is the diffrence between these two sentences. Coud Iask a question?permission Might l ask a question?request I think they have the same meaning. Why they are different in your explanation? Thanks alot.

Soumis par Peter M. le ven 04/08/2017 - 07:13

En réponse à par Helan gian

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Hello Helan gian,

The meaning is the same - a polite request. 'Might' is more polite and less common than 'could' - that is the difference between the two. 'Might' in this use is rather old-fashioned and quite unusual, I would say.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish

Soumis par Crokong le mar 01/08/2017 - 17:45

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In the sentences "you could say", "you could use", "it could mean", does "could" here show possibility in the present? Which could means "may be able to"?

Soumis par Grey101 le mar 04/07/2017 - 10:28

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Hi Kirk, Is the sentence "I am doing as much as I could" grammatical? I don't want to use "as I can" because it's a strong assertion, one that is a guaranteed activity. Rather, I want to project it as a suggestion of what I "can" do because I might not fulfill the promise of doing the activity at every possible opportunity even when I am able to. Someone said I was wrong as the general rule is to use present tense throughout: "I am doing as much as I can." and "could" is only used for past or some other more obvious contexts. Thanks Thank you

Hello Grey101,

No, I'm afraid the sentence with 'could' is not correct. Although you're right that 'can' can imply more commitment than you want to express, it doesn't necessarily imply 100% commitment in the way you don't want it to. 'can' can imply that you are doing as much as circumstances (which can include your willingness to commit) allow.

Another option would be to change the phrasing. For example, you could say something like 'I'm doing what circumstances allow', though this is rather formal-sounding.

I hope this helps you.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par aria rousta le sam 01/07/2017 - 19:44

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regarding the usage of "could have pp", it became somehow clear for me its usage in the past sentences but for future, is this sentence correct: I have made my decision that up to two years later, I could(or should) have learned French language. my problem root back to the way I was learned the modal verbs, I would always think should or would + have + pp only utilize when something should happen in past but for any reason, not happened or vise versa. thanks a lot

Hello aria rousta,

Perfect modal verbs can have future meanings but they still need to have a retrospective sense. In other words, they are used with a sense of looking back. I think your example is rather ambiguous and would be clearer if you said 'within two years' or 'before two years pass' rather than 'up to two years later'.

This use of modals is sometimes called the future perfect. 'Will' is the modal verb most often used but other modals are possible, as you say. You can read more about the future perfect here and here.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Timothy555 le sam 13/05/2017 - 15:54

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Hi, Pardon me if my following questions seem a bit superfluous, but I would appreciate it if you could confirm my understanding on the following: You mentioned under "Possibility", that could acts as the past tense of can. You then mention under "impossibility" and "ability" that could is used to talk about the past. By this, you simply mean that could serves as the past tense of can under "impossibility" and "ability"? Also, my second question would be that under "possibility", you mentioned the use of could have to "show that something is/was possible now or at some time in the past". Quoting your example above, I suppose I could simply add a "not", as in "could not have arrived" to mean something is/was impossible, now or at some time in the past, and hence relegate this to be under the "impossibility" section? Thanks! Regards, Tim

Soumis par Peter M. le dim 14/05/2017 - 07:29

En réponse à par Timothy555

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Hello Tim,

Each modal verb can represent multiple meanings. For example, 'could' can describe ability in the past:

When I was younger I could run 10km without any trouble.

It can also describe possibility in the present or the future:

The guests could be waiting for us already.

The guests could be here before 6.00.

You need to bear in mind that one modal has several uses/meanings and not try to fit all examples into one use.

This is why the modals section on the site is organised in the way it is, with sections showing different ways to express certain notions (possibility, obligation etc) and sections showing the different uses of certain modals (can, could etc).

 

The example you give of 'couldn't have' does represent impossibility from the point of view of the speaker. It is a form of deduction: the speaker does not know for sure but is convinced that it is not possible.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Timothy555 le dim 14/05/2017 - 09:01

En réponse à par Peter M.

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Hi Peter, Thanks for the advice. Actually, I wanted to seek your clarification on the use of "could" to talk about the past, specifically under the sections of Possibility and Impossibility. Under Possibility, I note that Could may act as the past tense of Can. Under Impossibility, you mentioned couldn't/could not is used to "talk about the past" - does this mean that couldn't/could not is acting as the past tense of cannot/can't (e.g. He was obviously joking. He Could Not be serious)? Thanks once again! Regards, Tim

Soumis par Peter M. le lun 15/05/2017 - 06:31

En réponse à par Timothy555

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Hi TIm,

Yes, that is correct. We phrase it quite cautiously on the page as we do not wish to suggest one-to-one correlations in this area when concepts such as possibility, deduced probability and so on overlap a lot and have very subtle distinctions between them.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par ramzipure114 le sam 29/04/2017 - 10:22

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could you please tell me the difference between two sentences which are : _ i will wait for you in the airport _ i will be waiting for you in the airport thank you

Hello ramzipure114,

That depends a bit on the context, but in general they mean the same thing. The difference is in how we imagine the future event. The first is a general statement, or it could also be a promise or a plan you've just decided. In the second, that time in the airport is seen as an event with some duration and you see yourself in it.

It can be difficult to see what the difference is -- there isn't any easy rule to learn. I'd recommend you pay attention for the future continuous form ('will be waiting') as you read and listen to English. As you see it more and more in context, I think you'll understand how it is used better.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par ankitrawat18 le ven 28/04/2017 - 08:52

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"So that I can meet you with my friends" is it right?

Hello ankitrawat18,

That is grammatically correct, though it's not a complete sentence. That doesn't matter if it's a response to someone's question, especially in speaking, but in writing it could be problematic depending on the kind of text it's used in.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Gager le lun 06/03/2017 - 22:19

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Hi ! I have to use in this sentence a modal verb "it's not possible that he heard about it on the radio. He never listen to the news.". I wrote " he couldn't have heard about it......." But apparently it's wrong. Could someone explain me why, please?

Soumis par Peter M. le mar 07/03/2017 - 07:11

En réponse à par Gager

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Hi Gager,

As far as I can see 'could have' would be fine as a way of expressing that meaning. If you want to know why it was not accepted then you will need to speak to the person who made that decision.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Pratiksha Chauhan le dim 05/03/2017 - 07:49

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But you couldn't made me laugh. Is the sentence correct?

Hello Pratiksha Chauhan,

No, it is not. Modal verbs such  as 'could' (including the negative form 'couldn't') are not followed by past simple forms like 'made'. In this case, 'make' is probably your best option, though 'have made' is also possible.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Asgharkhan8 le dim 12/02/2017 - 09:14

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What's the mistake in it? He had travelled so much that he could assess the relation between the state and the society at one's airport.

Hello Asgharkhan8,

'the' is probably not needed before 'society' (whether or not it should be used depends on what the sentence means precisely) and 'one's' is also a bit unclear out of context.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par mehdiraza le sam 11/02/2017 - 17:37

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Plz read it and tell me my mistakes My friend asked me to elaborate some topics related to his course. When he asked I had exams on very next day, that’s why we have shortage of time and it was difficult for me to manage this. The topic was little tough to explain in short time period. At last I managed and put all my efforts to explain that topic but it was all in vain. Because he had fear of exam, and he messed all the topics, and got confused, he could not focused on it. I gave my level best but it did not work at eleventh hour. I control my aggression and treat him very politely till end then I realised all my attempts didn’t achieve the desired outcomes. I decided not to bother and left him.

Hello mehdiraza,

Thank you for your comment. I'm afraid we don't offer a correct service for our users, however. We are a small team here and the site has many thousands of users, so it is just not possible for us to do this - and, of course, we would simply end up checking users' schoolwork for them! We do, however, read every comment which is made on the site and we are happy to help where we can with particular aspects of the language.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par mayallen le mar 22/11/2016 - 10:23

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Which is correct? -I'm not sure if I can bring.... -I'm not sure if I could bring....

Hello mayallen,

Both can be correct - it depends on the context. In general, you'd probably use 'can' for a situation you see as likely or possible and 'could' for a less likely situation - but again, it really depends on the context. If you want to explain it a bit more, we can help you with a specific context.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par mknm le ven 07/10/2016 - 22:13

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what is the difference between can & can be or could & could be? You can easily lose your way in the dark or You can be easily lose your way in the dark.

Hello mknm,

After 'can' we use a verb in the base form (the infinitive without 'to').

'Can be' is just the verb 'be' used after 'can'. It has no special meaning beyond this.

The sentence 'You can be easily lose your way...' is not correct. You would need to say 'You can easily lose your way...'

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par neh7272 le dim 18/09/2016 - 19:06

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Sir, What is the difference between the following: I can go for a movie. I could go for a movie?

Soumis par Peter M. le lun 19/09/2016 - 06:14

En réponse à par neh7272

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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,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par sangeetha01 le jeu 18/08/2016 - 12:14

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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.

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,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello mknm,

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

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par raji le dim 31/07/2016 - 05:24

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Sir, 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" Regards

Soumis par Peter M. le lun 01/08/2016 - 06:20

En réponse à par raji

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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,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par jino le ven 01/07/2016 - 16:35

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Im little bit confused with can.in 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..