Modal verbs to express ability
We use the modal verbs can, could and be able to + verb infinitive to talk about ability.
Here’s an overview, with examples:
|Modal verbs to express ability|
We use can when we speak about general ability in the present.
We use could when we speak about general ability in the past.
|Tommy can swim.
I can play the guitar. Can you play?
| Picasso could paint when he was two.
I could swim before I could walk.
|The negative of can is can't (cannot):
I can't ski and I can't skate.
|The negative of could is couldn't (could not):
I couldn't swim until I was ten.
|We also use can to speak about specific situations in the present:
I can hear you, but I can't see you.
Can you hear me? ∼ Yes, I can.
|We often use was able to to speak about about a specific situation in the past:
We fixed the car and then we were able to drive home.
|We prefer could to speak about a specific situation in the past when we use these verbs: see, hear, feel, smell, taste, remember, believe, understand, decide.
They could smell smoke.
I could understand him perfectly.
|Questions about ability in the present:
How many languages can you speak?
Can you name all the capitals of Europe?
|Questions about ability in the past:
Could you write before you started school?
Could you ride a bike when you were small?
See also: Can, can’t, could, may: modal verbs for permission