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Some verbs in English have just one meaning, while others are more complex and can be used to express many different things. The verb “can” belongs to the second group. This verb is one of the most used in the English language, and it has a variety of uses so wide that sometimes is hard to keep up!

Usually, “can” is considered one of the most strange verbs in English. This verb is part of the so-called “modal verbs”, which are a group of verbs that behave in a particular way, and which have very particular uses as well. Modal verbs are used to express necessity, obligation, or the possibility of doing something, and, more importantly, they need another verb to function. The verb “can” adopts many of the particularities that modal verbs share, and its many uses make it an important study point for any English learning.

Meaning of the verb “can”

The meaning of the verb “can” in English is very varied. It means to be able to do something, or that some action will be done in the future. Also, it’s used to talk about things that are allowed, and to make requests and even to talk about the possibility of doing something.

Conjugation of the verb “can”

can

I can
you can
he can
she can
it can
we can
you can
they can

This the present form of the verb “can” and it’s used to make affirmative sentences, yes or no questions and their answers. It is used with all pronouns in English and, unlike other verbs, it remains the same for the third person singular, and for the plural forms.

Negative of the verb “can” in present simple

I can’t
you can’t
he can’t
she can’t
it can’t
we can’t
you can’t
they can’t

The negative of the verb “can” is the word “can’t”, which is a contraction of the word “cannot”. This word can also be written as dos separate words as “can not”, and even though the meaning is the same, the first spelling (can’t) for speech and informal writing, while the second (cannot) is more common for formal writing or very formal speech.

Verb Can

Examples with the verb “can” in the present:

She can kick the ball.
Marcos can clean the kitchen tonight.
She and Ann can go to the beach later.
Maria can’t go to the theater today.
Can you help me with the homework?
Lisa and I can’t go to the park, we’re going to the cinema.
Can we call you later? Yes, you can!
Can Sheila go with you to the market? Yes, she can. I leave at 3 p.m.

could

I could
you could
he could
she could
it could
we could
you could
they could

The past form of the verb “can” is “could”, this is just used for the past simple of the verb. Just as the present form, it doesn’t change for any of the pronouns.

Negative of the verb “can” in past simple

I couldn’t
you couldn’t
he couldn’t
she couldn’t
it couldn’t
we couldn’t
you couldn’t
they couldn’t

The negative of “could” is “couldn’t”, which is the contraction for the words “could not”. Like the affirmative, it’s the same for all the different pronouns.

Verb Can

Examples of the verb “can” in the past simple:

Could you go to the market? Yes, I went yesterday.
I couldn’t call you earlier, I was busy.
Elliot couldn’t ride a bike when he was six, now he can.
Billy could sing very well, but Sandy couldn’t.
He couldn’t go to the concert, he was late.
Daniel is studying right now. He couldn’t study earlier.

Yes or no questions with the verb “can”

Can I…?
Can you…?
Can he…?
Can she…?
Can it…?
Can we…?
Can you…?
Can they…?

To answer these questions, there are two possible ways: affirmative and negative. Affirmative answers are formed by the word “yes” followed by a comma, the subject, and the verb “can”. (Yes, I can…), while the negative is formed by the word “no” followed by a comma, the subject, and the word “can’t” (No, I can’t…)

Be able to

One of the peculiarities of the verb “can” is that it doesn’t have a future form. If a person wants to express any of the uses of this verb in the future, then that person has to use the verb “be able to”. This verb maintains the meaning, but it makes possible for the speaker to talk in future form or to make some more complex tenses since it can be combined with the future form “will”, and since it contains the verb “to be” which can be conjugated in all its forms.

Examples with “be able to”:

I will be able to go to the movies, I’ve finished my homework.
Are you able to help me later? Yes, I will be able to do it!
Patricia is working this week, she won’t be able to attend the meeting tomorrow.

Uses of the verb “can”

The verb “can” has several different uses since it’s a modal verb. These are some of them:

To talk about ability

This use is valid for both the present and past form of the verb, and it means that the person was able to do something, both physically and referring to the fact of knowing how to do something.

Examples:

Dolphins can swim.
Jimmy couldn’t swim when he was little.
Michael can speak English and Chinese.
Carmen can run very fast.
Erica can’t play the flute, but she can play the guitar.

To talk about permission in the present and future:

The verb “can” in its present form is perfect to ask for permission or to give permission to someone. Also, its negative form, can’t, can be used to refuse permission. Its past form, could, can be used to ask for permission in a more polite way.

Examples:

Can I ask you a couple of questions?
Could Elisa come to the movies with me, please?
You can borrow my book, I’ve finished it already.
All students can go to their classrooms now.

To talk about possibility and impossibility

This verb can be also used to talk about something that is possible (when using the affirmative form) or to discuss impossibility (when using the negative form).

Examples:

This summer can be really warm.
You can pass your exam tomorrow.
It could be very dark at night in the forest.
The book can’t be here. I left it at school.

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