Modal Verbs of Ability

Can / Be able to (ability in the present/future)

‘Can’ is more usual and less formal than ‘be able to’ when talking about the present or future. Ann can type fast.

I can pay you next week. (usual)

I will be able to pay you next week. (less usual)

Was able to (= managed to do) (ability in the past) is used for either repeated or single actions.

I was able to go on a trip round the city last week. (single action)

Could (ability in the past)

‘Could’ is more usual than ‘was able to.’ It is used in statements for repeated actions.

However, with the verbs see, hear, smell, understand, etc. we normally use ‘could’ for single actions.

She could / was able to play the violin when she was six. (repeated action)

I could smell something burning. (single action)

Could / Was able to can both be used in negations and questions for either repeated or single actions.

She couldn’t / wasn’t able to pass her driving test. (past single action)

Were you able to / Could you get to work every day’ last week? (past repeated action)

Can is used in the present.

Could is the past tense of can. We use be able to form for all the other tenses.

I will be able to get a job when I finish school.


Complete the sentences with can, can’t, could or couldn’t and the verbs below:

Come           open         read         drive         use         stop

  1. I’m sorry I ___________________ to your party on Saturday
  2. Oliver’s joke was so funny that we ______________________ laughing.
  3. Xenia ____________________ but she hasn’t got a car.
  4. “Oh, no, my battery’s dead! I _______________________ my mobile phone.”
  5. When Jake was five, he _______________________ and write.
  6. Claire tried, but she ___________________ the door.

Complete the answers using was/were able to:

  1. A: Did you get to the concert on time?

B: Yes, although there was traffic, we __________________________________ .

  1. A: Did Ben manage to find his watch?

B: Yes, after searching the entire house, he __________________________________ .

  1. A: Did you finish your work in the garden?

B: Yes. It took all afternoon but I ________________________________________ .

  1. A: Did you have a hard time finding the place?

B: No. We _____________________________________ quite easily.

Fill in can/ be able to in the correct form:

  1. I __________________________ to speak perfect English very soon.
  2. “__________________________ you hear me, Mum?”
  3. They _________________________ swim since they were five.
  4. When he got to the front door, he ______________________ hear a dog barking inside a house.
  5. I would love ______________________ to fly an airplane.

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My Lingua Academy

My Lingua Academy is an online school of English language. We give one-on-one lessons to students of English of all ages and all levels of knowledge all around the world. With us you can prepare for written assignments and exams, attend a general or business English course, or have conversation classes with qualified native English teachers who have years of experience.

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