Can and Could


In English, the modal verbs "can" and "could" are integral parts of grammar used often in our daily conversations. They assist in constructing polite requests, questions, possibilities, abilities or suggestions. While they may seem simple, the context of their use often challenges non-native English speakers. This tutorial will guide you through the correct use of "can" and "could".

Use of 'Can'

The modal verb "can" is used in various contexts with different interpretations. Here are the primary uses of 'can':

1. Ability

"Can" is used to express physical or mental ability. It reflects what someone is capable of doing.

For example:

  • I can play the guitar.
  • She can solve complex mathematical problems.

2. Permission

"Can" is used to mildly request or give permission. Although it's considered less polite and formal than "may", it's commonly used in informal speech.

For example:

  • Can I borrow your book?
  • You can leave now if you wish.

3. Possibility

“Can” is used to show something is possible or might happen, although it's rare and less formal.

For example:

  • Anyone can make a mistake.
  • Accidents can happen.

4. Suggestion

"Can" is also used to make suggestions.

For example:

  • We can go for a walk after dinner.

Use of 'Could'

Like 'can', 'could' also serves various communication needs. Here are the primary uses of 'could':

1. Past Ability

"Could" is the past tense of "can". It's used to discuss an ability that someone had in the past.

For example:

  • When I was younger, I could run very fast.
  • She could play piano perfectly when she was just six.

2. Polite Request

"Could" is also used to make polite requests. It's more polite than "can".

For example:

  • Could you please pass the salt?
  • Could I have a glass of water, please?

3. Suggestion

"Could" can also be used to make suggestions, similar to "can", but it's usually used for less probable suggestions.

For example:

  • We could go to the new Italian restaurant for dinner.
  • You could try calling him again.

4. Possibility

"Could" is commonly used to express less certain possibilities or hypothetical situations.

For example:

  • It could rain tomorrow.
  • They could be stuck in traffic.


The English modal verbs "can" and "could" enrich our language by allowing us to express various tones such as requests, suggestions, or capabilities. While their uses can overlap, understanding their differing nuances will enable you to use them effectively. By carefully considering the context and the tone we wish to express, we can choose the right modal verb to make our speech or writing accurate and natural.

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