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The Difference between Can and Could


In this article, you’ll find the difference between can and could. You will learn when you should use these words with example sentences. ‘Can‘ means ‘be able to do‘ something in most cases. The word can is commonly used together with other verbs to express ability, possibility, or permission (asking and giving).

I can ride any car. (ability)
My mother can visit me next week. (possibility)
Can I come in now? (permission)

Keep in mind ‘Could‘ is a different form of a wordcan‘. Could is also used to express ability, possibility or permission. Could is mostly used when asking permission not when you are giving it.


Can vs. Could Comparison Chart

Can (Modal Verb)Could (Modal Verb)
Meaning– Able to; permitted to
– Usually indicated a strong possibility
– Past tense of can
– Usually indicated a weak possibility
Usage– Used to indicate strong ability or possibility
– Make requests
– Informal use of asking for permission
– Refers to general truth
– Used to indicate weak possibility or past ability
– Can also be used to make requests
– Slightly more formal way to ask for permission
– Could be used to indicate strong annoyance or inclination to do something
– Used for giving advice or express hopeful desires
Examples– I can buy you a new car.
– Can I see him now?
– Can I have one more cup of coffee?
– You could be mine.
– Could you tell me your surname?
– Pele famously said an African team would win the World Cup by 2000 – could Morocco finally achieve his dream?


Can and Can’t Usage

usage – present skill

How well can you speak English?
I can’t understand you very well.


Could and Couldn’t Usage

usage – skill in the past

I could hardly speak Spanish last year but I can speak it quite well.

I couldn’t hear you, can you repeat again?


Can and Could Usage

usage – possibility

Can-‘sometimes’ (present)
Couldn’t – ‘sometimes’ (past)

The temperature can go above 40C in Istanbul in July.

usage – permission and request

You can come with me
You can’t smoke here.
Could you tell me the time, please?

Could, Can’t and Couldn’t Usage

usage – conclusions

It could be true (It’s possible that it’s true)
It can’t be true (It’s not possible that it’s true -confident-)
It couldn’t be true (It’s not possible that it’s true -more tentative-)


CAN and ABLE TO Difference

“Can” only has present and past forms. If you want to talk about ability in other tenses (present, past, future) use “able to”.

We can say “You will be able to ride this car one day.” but we can’t say “You will be can ride this car one day.

“Be able to” can be used with other modal verbs, while “can” cannot be used with other modal verbs. By using “be able to” together with other modal verbs, we can show both skill and possibility or necessity in the same sentence.

We can say “I might be able to talk to him soon.” but we can’t say “I might can talk to him soon“!


Could Usage in English

Conclusions about the past

He could have done it (It’s possible that he did it)
He can’t have done it (It’s not possible that he has done it)
He couldn’t have done it (It’s not possible that he has done it / he did it)


Very polite ways of asking permission and request

Could I possibly interrupt you?
Do you think I could speak to you for a few minutes?


Could – unreal and conditional uses

I am so hungry, I could eat a kilo of rice.


I wish I could – ‘impossible’ wishes

I wish I could read your mind.

I wish we could be lovers.

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