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How to Use Modal Verbs Can Could for English

Updated: Jan 10, 2022

The English Language

Brief overview of the Modal Verbs- Can/ Could

Modal verbs are a kind of auxiliary verb that expresses possibility, permission, prediction, ability, advice, habits, and obligation. Modal Verbs are generally used in combination with other verbs and are used to change the verb's meaning to something different from simple fact.

"Can," and "could" modal verbs are generally used to make requests. Both these modal verbs "can" and "could" appear mainly in speech.


  • "Can I have your attention?"

  • "Could I have your attention?"

‘Could’ is used as the past tense of ‘can’. In general, ‘Could’ is considered more polite (or formal) than ‘Can’.

All grammar rules for forming the Modal Verbs- Can/ Could

1. We put "not" after the modal verb is used to make a verb negative

e.g.: I can’t sing today.

2. The basic structure for use of ‘can’ is: subject + auxiliary verb +can + main verb

3. The basic structure for use of ‘could’ is: subject + auxiliary verb+ could + main verb

Sentence patterns for Modal Verbs- ‘Can/ Could’

Positive Sentences

Subject+ auxiliary verb (can /could) +main verb

e.g.: I can play cricket

Negative Sentences

Subject+ auxiliary verb (can /could) + not+ main verb

e.g.: I cannot play cricket

Interrogative Sentences

Auxiliary verb Can/Could + subject+ main verb

e.g.: Can I play cricket?

Uses of modal verbs ‘Can’

1. To express ability- ‘Can’ generally means to be (physically) able to do something or to know how to do something.


  • Peacock can fly

  • Tim can speak French

2. To express a possibility (in general)


  • It can get chilly there so take warm clothes

  • I think your truck can be repaired easily

3. To ask for or give permission or to request something


  • Can I drive that car, please?

  • Melissa, you can play outside if you like!

4. To offer to do something for others


  • I can drive you there if you like.

  • Can I finish the task for you?

Uses of modal verbs ‘Could’

The use of ‘Could’ is similar to’ Can’ and it often replaces ‘Can’ in the past tense. Below are the uses-

1. To express ability in the past

  • e.g.: I could run four miles when I was younger but now I can't

2. To express general permission in the past

  • e.g.: She couldn't go to the movie because his parents wouldn't let her.

3. To ask for permission or to request something (in the present)

  • e.g.: Could I please use your bathroom?

4. It is used for a suggestion when asked what to do (choices and opportunities)

  • e.g.: He could try and do it himself.

5. To express a possibility in the past-Could + have + past participle

  • e.g.: Why did you climb the ladder, you could have broken your leg.

6. For Unrealized past ability-Could, + have + past participle

  • e.g.: She could have gotten any university she wanted to

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