icon  icon icon

Mobile

Modal verbs - can

As a simple expression of ability or permission to do something, can is not very difficult. For example, Can you swim? or I can use his car when he's on holiday. Unlike the other modals, can also has a past simple form could, as in the sentences I could walk before I was one, or I couldn't find my keys this morning. However, could has other functions and is not always so easy to use correctly. The following questions will show the complexity of this modal for English learners!

Quiz 1

This quiz tests your ability to choose the right form of the verb in the different tenses to express either ability or permission.

Quiz 2

What does could mean in each of the following sentences.

Quiz 3

Why is could needed in the first sentences below and was able to in the second?

Quiz 4

Which, if any, of the following sentences is not possible? Explain the meanings of each sentence. (Some have more than one meaning!)

Quiz 5

Finally, a quick question. Is there anything wrong with this short dialogue?


Answers

Quiz 1

Quiz 2

What does could mean in each of the following sentences.

Quiz 3

In the sentences above, could is used to talk about a past ability; whereas in the sentences below was able to is needed to talk about a single past action.

Quiz 4

All the sentences are possible, although He couldn't win the race, standing alone, seems unlikely. In the answer to quiz 3 above I explained that could is not usually used when referring to a past action rather than a past ability. In fact, it can be used in negative sentences or questions. E.g. I'd lost my key, so I couldn't get in. The sentence in question is possible in the following context: He couldn't win the race, because he had forgotten to bring the right shoes (although, even here it does not sound quite right; more likely is: He didn't win ..)

For the reason explained in answer 3, He could win the race does not mean that the race is over and he won it; it means that the race is in the future and he has a chance of winning it. If you want to negate the possibility that he will win, you do not say He couldn't win the race, you say something like He has no chance of winning.

He could have won the race. This means the race is over and he did not win. He had a chance of winning but through bad luck or by not training hard enough etc., he did not win. It could also mean that the race is over and it is possible that he won, but I didn't see the finish so I am not sure.

He couldn't have won the race also has two possible meanings: Firstly, it implies that the race is over but I do not know the result. However, I am deducing that he did not win or expressing my doubt that he did. E.g. He couldn't have won the race, because I saw him fall and twist his ankle at the 3-mile mark.

The second meaning is that the race is over and (I know) he did't win, but I am saying that he had had no chance of winning. E.g He couldn't have won the race, even if he had had an engine on his back. (But again, this use of could seems a little strained. More likely is: He wouldn't have .. or He had no chance of ..

Quiz 5

The answer Yes, you could is possible only if the speaker is trying to be funny. The usual response to the polite question Could I .. is Yes, you can! The answer Yes, you could!, with stress on the word could, implies the continuation Yes, you could but I'm not going to let you or Yes you could if you asked very nicely! etc.


Frankfurt International School: Art and artists. (Click to see at full size.)