English Grammar in Use – Unit 26: Can / Could

We use can to say that something is possible or allowed, or that somebody has the ability to do something. We use can+ infinitive (can do / can see etc.):

We can see the lake from our hotel.
0 ‘I don’t have a pen.’ ‘You can use mine.’
0 Can you speak any foreign languages?
0 I can come and see you tomorrow if you like.
0 The word ‘dream’ can be a noun or a verb.
The negative is can’t (= cannot):
I’m afraid I can’t come to the party on Friday.

You can say that somebody is able to do something, but can is more usual:
We are able to see the lake from our hotel.

But can has only two forms: can (present) and could (past). So sometimes it is necessary to use (be)
able to. Compare:
I can’t sleep.
Tom can come tomorrow.
Maria can speak French, Spanish and English.

I haven’t been able to sleep recently.
Tom might be able to come tomorrow.
Applicants for the job must be able to speak two foreign languages.
Sometimes could is the past of can. We use could especially with:
see hear smell taste feel remember understand
We had a lovely room in the hotel. We could see the lake.
As soon as I walked into the room, I could smell gas.
I was sitting at the back of the theatre and couldn’t hear very well.
We also use could to say that somebody had the general ability or permission to do something:
My grandfather could speak five languages.
We were totally free. We could do what we wanted. (=we were allowed to do)

Could and was able to
We use could for general ability. But if you want to say that somebody did something in a specific
situation, use was/were able to or managed to (not could):
The fire spread through the building very quickly, but fortunately everybody was able to escape – managed to escape. (not could escape)
We didn’t know where David was, but we managed to find – were able to find him in the
end. (not could find)
Jack was an excellent tennis player when he was younger. He could beat anybody.
(=he had the general ability to beat anybody)
but Jack and Andy played a match yesterday. Andy played well, but Jack managed to beat him.
(= he managed to beat him this time)
The negative couldn’t (could not) is possible in all situations:
My grandfather couldn’t swim.
We looked for David everywhere, but we couldn’t find him.
Andy played well, but he couldn’t beat Jack.

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2 thoughts on “English Grammar in Use – Unit 26: Can / Could”

    1. The fire spread through the building very quickly, but fortunately everybody was able to escape – managed to escape. (not could escape)
      The tense of this sentence is simple past, and the simple past form of the verb “spread” is the same.
      You should add “S” to verbs only when the sentence is in the simple present tense.

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