Explanations » B1 Grammar Explanations » Can, could, be able to – ability and possibility
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Can, could, be able to – ability and possibility

Grammar chart outlining the use of 'can', 'could', and 'be able to' in different contexts such as possibility, permission, requests, sense verbs, and ability, with correct usage examples and common mistakes for B1 Intermediate learners.

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Can, could

Ability

We use can/could to describe ability, and we use can’t/couldn’t to describe the absence of ability.

  • She could play the piano very well.
  • Children can’t concentrate for long periods of time.
  • I can speak Chinese.

Possibility

We also use can to talk about possibility.

  • Anyone can win this competition. All the participants are very good. 
  • I can’t come to the party next week.

Permission

We use can/could to talk about something that is or was allowed, and we use can’t/couldn’t to talk about something that is not allowed.

  • You can’t smoke in the house, but you can smoke on the terrace if you want.

We also use can to ask for permission.

  • Can I come in?

Requests

We use can/could in requests, i.e. when we ask somebody to do something.

  • Can you help me?
  • Could you speak more slowly, please?

See, smell, hear, feel, taste

Verbs of perception (see, smell, hear, etc.) are stative verbs and cannot be used in a continuous form. Instead, we use can.

  • Are you hearing that? blank
  • Can you hear that? blank
  • I‘m smelling gas! blank
  • I can smell gas! blank

Be able to

Be able to is often similar to can and we may use it instead of can to talk about ability. But be able to is more formal and is not as common.

  • They are able to do the job faster than anyone else.

But can only has present and past forms: cancould. For all other verb forms (infinitive, gerund, present perfect, etc.), we should use be able to.

  • I’d like to can visit her more often. blank
  • I’d like to be able to visit her more often. blank (to-infinitive)
  • I don’t like loud music in pubs. I like being able to talk with my friends. (-ing form)
  • Will we be able to talk to the singer after the concert? (Infinitive)
  • I haven’t been able to study for the exam. (Present perfect)

Can/could vs be able to

We can use can and be able to to talk about general ability in the present.

  • She can speak five languages.
  • She’s able to speak five languages.

We can use could and be able to to talk about general ability in the past.

  • My son could walk when he was 11 months old.
  • My son was able to walk when he was 11 months old.

But if we want to say that someone did something in a specific situation, we must use was/were able to, or managed to + infinitive.

  • There was a fire, but all the workers could escape. blank
  • There was a fire, but all the workers were able to/managed to escapeblank
  • He didn’t have an address, but he could find the place. blank
  • He didn’t have an address, but he was able to/managed to find the place. blank

In negative sentences, both could and be able to can be used to say that we were not capable of doing something on a specific occasion.

  • It was very dark, and they couldn’t find the exit.
  • It was very dark, and they weren’t able to find the exit.