Can, Could & Be Able To

Grammar & Discussion Activity

These 3 modal verbs show ability in English. The point is if we are describing an ability that was used many times, or something that was done just once.

Can is used to talk about ability in the present.
      I can swim well.

Could is used to talk about ability in the past.
      I could swim well when I was younger.

Be able to is used...
1) to emphasize a specific ability in the present or past (could has no particular emphasis). Remember to conjugate the verb TO BE!
       I am able to swim well. - Present
       I was able to swim well when I was younger.  - Past

And, 2)  to talk about an objective reached at a specific moment.
I was able to swim 5 laps at the club swimming pool on Saturday. 
(In this case, speaking about a specific event, COULD is not used.)

The Future has just one version
       I hope I will be able to swim well at the competition next week.

Conversation Practice

  • What can you do specially well?  What are you not able  to do at all?
  • Can you describe a time in the past when you were able to solve a tough situation?
  • Could you speak another language 10 years ago?
  • Were you able to swim, ride a bike, rollerblade, ski or ride a horse when you were a child?

Exercise : Expressing Ability
Complete the sentences with: CAN- COULD- BE ABLE TO

1. My sister wears glasses because she ______________see very well.

2. Jason wasn't at home when I called but I ______________ contact him on facebook.

3. I know I promised, but I ______________ help you move out next weekend.

4. I’m not sure... If a small animal suddenly crossed the road I think that I  ______________ not stop just in time.

5. Ask the teacher about your problem. She ______________  help you.

6. My uncle has travelled a lot all his life. He ______________  speak five languages.

7. My roomate was feeling sick yesterday. He ______________ eat anything.

8. I used to run 5 kilometers but I  ______________  do it now.

9.  ______________ you help me tomorrow with my homework?

10. Speak up, please! I ______________hear what you are saying.

11. I ______________ read a short story but I ______________  to read a novel.

12. Lenny ______________  drive so he has to take the bus.

13. Whenever my bike broke in the past,  I ______________ repair it myself.

14. When we went into the apartment, we ______________  smell gas.

15. When I was 16, I was a fast swimmer. I  ______________ swim
200 metres in 20’’.

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