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Learn to use Can and Could with Lalitha Manjunath


Hypothetical situation

To understand the difference between 'can' and 'could', we need to create a situation. For this, we can assume that there is an event in your workplace if you are employed or college if you are a student. The person in charge of an event wants you to participate in it. Depending on your capability, there could be a few ways you can involve yourself with the event.

The options could be:

  • I can sing well.

  • I can play the guitar.

  • I can t dance at all.

  • I am good at mimicry.

  • I can recite poems.

So all the actions mentioned above could be your abilities or skills.

So now we would discuss CAN/ COULD in detail.

We would know its

  • Use

  • Structure

  • Practice


We use this word or phrase to speak about Present Ability. This means while explaining the things that we can do now. We use Can in the sentence.


Subject + can/can t +V1+Other words.

Rita can play the veena. ( positive)

Here we can see that can + verb 1 that is play combines to construct a positive sentence.

I can t speak Tamil. (negative)

Here we can see that can t + verb 1 that is speak , combines to construct a negative sentence.

The word can t is actually the short form of cannot.

A few other examples of such usages are given below-


Can+ subject+V1+other words?

Can you cook Chinese food?

Words + Can+ subject +V1+ other words?

What can we do for these poor people?

To construct such sentences, we should have a clear idea of the various types of abilities or skills you may have. Here is a list:

Kinds of abilities:

Artistic: Draw, sing, act.

Mechanical: Drive, repair, operate.

Sports: Run, play, swim.

Academic: Study, read, write.

Language: speak, understand, read.

Others: cook, stitch, make something.

Let's practise!

1. I can_____very well/ quite well. (sing) By using 'very well' or 'quite well', you mean you can do it really well.

2. I am good at_____ (singing)

3. I can't ______ Very well. ( dance)

4. I cannot ____ swim at all. ( swim) Here, using 'at all' means you cannot do it.

5. I am very good at _____ (swimming)

Some other words you can use in such a context are- Fairly well, which means quite well, to some extent.


Past ability: 'Could' is used to talk about past ability. For example,- I could run fast when I was young.

Couldn't But I couldn t run faster than my sister.

Could not= couldn't.

Could: Past Ability

I could eat a lot at a time when I was a teenager!

She couldn t speak Hindi before 5 years.


Structure+ could/couldn t+V1+other words.

( Q words) + could+subject+V1+other words?

Could Rakesh learn the song easily?

Here you are asking a question about the past.

Comparing the past and present:

Here is a list of specific skills such as

  • Speak languages
  • Play games
  • Drive a vehicle
  • Run fast
  • Eat a lot
  • Use a computer
Comparing past and present: (Sentence starters)

Now all you need is to think about a few skills you have in terms of the above-mentioned ones.

And use these below mentioned sentence starters to describe those.

Now we will combine those words and make a few sentences. Here are a few sentences with words missing. The words should be filled with appropriate skills.

Fill the gaps with suitable words:

1. When I was young I could ____ Very well, but now I can t. (sing)

2. Before some years I couldn t ____but now I can ___effortlessly. (speak English, communicate)

3. In the past I could ___ but nowadays, I can t ____ at all. (run fast, run)

Following this technique, you can easily make your own sentences and practice them.

A step further :

1. I am good at / proficient in ____ ( a language; suppose French)

2. My area of expertise is ____

3. ____ is my strong point.

4. ____ is my forte.

Strength and weaknesses:

The topics that we have discussed so far are the foundation for this, and now you can use all those to construct new sentences about your strengths and weaknesses.

Some examples of such sentences are: (you can fill the blanks using the appropriate skills)

1. I feel my ____ is my greatest strength.

2. My friends say that I am very ____

3. I consider my ____ To be my strong point.

4. I am really good at ____/I can ____ extremely well.

5. I am confident about my ____

6. One area of improvement I have identified is ____ I would like to overcome my ____

7. I think I should work on my ____

Some other uses of CAN/COULD

Request and permission


  • Can I go to the cinema?
  • Could I go to the cinema?


  • Can you wait a moment, please?
  • Could you wait a moment, please?


  • Can I help you?
  • Can I carry your bags?
  • Could is more polite /formal

The finals step is to write down all the new words you learn today and then practise the way mentioned in the article. After getting some ideas, you can easily communicate with your friends and colleagues properly.

Author Bio: Lalitha Manjunath is a Bangalore based English teacher. She has fifteen years of experience in this field, including teaching students from various countries and backgrounds.



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