How to use CAN?

How to use CAN? :

We use CAN to talk about ability in the present.


COULD is used for ability in past time.

He can swim across the river.

I can play the guitar.

He could swim well when he was young.

Note that COULD only expresses ability to do something, but does not say that it was done.

We should use WAS / WERE ABLE TO to talk about abilty + action in the past. Don’t use COULD for a past action which really happened.

When the boat upset, they were able to swim to the bank (NOTE : They could swim to the bank. – This is a wrong one)

How much sugar were you able to get? (NOT: could get)

He could pass the exam.

Was it possible to pass the exam? – YES

Did he pass the exam? Not clear

He was able to pass the exam.

Was it possible to pass the exam? – YES

Did he pass the exam? YES

In negative sentences, however COULD or WAS/WERE ABLE TO may be used.

He couldn’t (or: wasn’t able to) lift the box. It was too heavy.

We use CAN and MAY to talk about permission or to seek permission.

May is rather formal.

You can/may go now.

Can/may I use your telephone?

“Could I use your telephone?” would be more polite.

We use MAY and MIGHT to talk about possibility in the present or future.

He may/might come tomorrow. (Perhaps he will come tomorrow.)

The news may/might be true.

MIGHT expresses a smaller degree of possibility than MAY.

COULD is also used in the same way.

I could see him this evening (= it is possible, but not very likely. I have a lot of things to do.)

CAN, not MAY/MIGHT, is used in question about possibility.

CANNOT is normally used to express impossibly.

Can the news be true?

The news can’t be true (It is not possible that the news is true.)

Compare the above sentence with…..

The news may not be true (Perhaps the news is not true.)

Could you -----------------? (Less often : can you ………..?) is a polite request.

Could you lend me your pan?

Could you give me a lift, please?

In the examples below, COULD and MIGHT refer to the past.

He said that I could /might go. (Permission)

I thought the news might be tree. (Possibility)

I wondered whether the news could be tre. (Doubt about possibility)

Note the use of CAN, COULD, MAY, MIGHT with the perfect infinite (i.e have + past participle).

He is not in the room. Where can he have gone?

(Where is it possible that he has gone?)

I could have got full marks in mathematics. But I had a bad cold on the day of the examination.

I had the ability to get full marks. But I didn’t get so many marks.

You may /might have met my brother. (Possibly you have met/met him.)

You might have asked him to attend the party (I wish you had done so.)

You might have been injured. (It is fortunate that you were not injured.)

Business English Index

Business English Exercises Index

How to use CAN?

Letter Asking A Donation
Letter Asking A Favor
Letter Asking for More Details
Letter Asking for Donations
Letter Denying of Dealership
Letter for Change of Address
Letter for Distributorship
Letter for Employment
Letter for Hotel Reservation
Letter for Letter of Credit
Letter for Line of Credit
Letter for Product Launch
Letter for Promotion
Letter for Retirement Congrats
Letter for Scholarship
Letter for Settlement of Bill
Letter for Tender
Letter for Testimonial
Letter of Agreement
Letter of Assurance
Letter of Credit
Letter of Enquiry
Letter of Order
Letter of Persuasion
Letter of Sympathy
Letter Offering Discount
Letter Related to Advertisement
Letter Related to Despatch
Letter Related to Training
Letter to A Foreign Buyer
Letter to Pen-Friend
Letter to Police
Letter with Order
Letter with Quotation
Letter Writing
Letters about Company Shares
Letters by Clubs and Societies
Letters by Landlords & Tenants
Letters for Appointment of Dealers
Letters for Business Relations
Letters for Buying and Selling
Letters for Credit & Collection
Letters for Foreign Travel
Letters for Lease & Tenancy
Letters for Loan & Borrowing
Letters for Transfer & Assignment
Letters for Insurance
Letters Noting Discrepancy
Letters of Condolence & Sorrow
Letters of Regret
Letters Regarding Maintenance
Letters Regarding Payment
Letters Related to Employees
Letters to Local Corporation
Letters to Postal Authorities
Letters to The Editor
Letters Used in Real Estate
Letters With Postal Department
Letters With Railways Authorities

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