How do you talk about ability in English? How do you talk about things you are able to do, like read, jump, play, or speak a language? This is where the words can, could, and be able to come into play. They’re the perfect way to help you talk about ability.

All three of these are very important to the English language, and we use them in everyday conversation very often. Make sure you know the difference between them to help improve (make better) your language ability!

Uses of can, could, and be able to


Can is a modal verb, which can be used to:

  • talk about possibility
  • talk about ability
  • make requests
  • ask for permission

The basic structure of a sentence with can looks like this:

  • Subject + can + main verb

And for questions:

  • Can + subject + main verb ?

For example:

  • I can dance well. (ability)
  • I can read very quickly. (ability)
  • He can meet us later. (possibility)
  • She can’t go on the trip. (possibility)
  • Can you come here, please? (request)
  • Can I smoke in here? (permission)

When you use can to talk about ability or possibility, it can be used in either the present tense, or in the future tense to talk about future ability.

For example:

  • I can come on Saturday.
  • Can you come on Saturday?
  • I can do that now.
  • Can you do that now, please?

Using the word can is quite straightforward (clear) and simple, so don’t be afraid to add it into your vocabulary!


Could is another modal verb that is used in a similar way to can. Could is used to:

  • talk about past ability
  • talk about past possibility
  • make requests (more formal)

The basic structure looks like this:

  • Subject + could + main verb

In questions:

  • Could + subject + main verb ?

For example, this is how some sentences with could look like:

  • My uncle could swim really fast when he was younger. (past ability)
  • Our friend could not walk without crutches. (past ability)
  • I could have gone last night, but I was too busy with work.  (past possibility)
  • Could you please help me? (request)

One important aspect (thing, nuance) to keep in mind when using could to make requests is that could is more formal than using can to make a request. This is good to use if you don’t know someone well or want to keep things a little higher end (formal, distanced).

Be able to

To be able to is not a modal verb, but it can be used instead of (in place of) can or could in a sentence.

The basic structure looks like this:

  • Subject + be + able + to-infinitive

In questions:

  • Be + subject + able + to-infinitive ?

To be able to is used to talk about ability, just like can and could.

For example:

  • I am able to drive.
  • She used to be able to sing.
  • He is able to cook well.

One of the great things about to be able to, is that it can be used in past, present, and future tenses!

Such as:

  • I was able to read.
  • I am able to read.
  • I will be able to read.

To be able to is a great way to talk about ability in English! Why not try it out for yourself?

Can, could, and be able to for specific occasions

While we use could to talk about past ability, when we talk about someone’s past ability to do something on a specific occasion, was or were is used with to be able to.

For example:

  • My grandmother was able to swim when she was younger.
  • We were not able to reach that high up when we were kids.
  • He was able to rescue the dog.
  • She was able to sing well in her youth.

Note: You can’t use could in those cases!

Why don’t you test your new knowledge with this short quiz about can, could, and be able to?

  1. I ________ come to the movies on Wednesday.
  2. ________ you pass the salt please, Mr. Smith?
  3. Is she ____________ do that?
  4. He ______ sing well.
  5. They ________________ read more before they had kids.
  6. She _______ go to the movies later this week.
  7. _______ I have a glass of water, Mom?
  8. I ____________ hear him better once we left the party.
  9. She _____________ run before she broke her leg.
  10. The firefighters _______ not rescue the cat.

What are some things you can do? What are some things you could do? What would you like to be able to do? Share your abilities to navigate through can, could, and be able to with us in the comments below!

Quiz key:

1) can

2) Could

3) able to

4) can/could

5) were able to

6) can

7) Can

8) could

9) was able to

10) could

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Check out these other popular blogs: TV English Vocabulary, Banking English Vocabulary, English Comma: Basic Rules, or these Commonly Confused Words used in English!

Erin Duffin lives in Hamburg, is an English teacher, blogger, yoga instructor, and knows you CAN learn the differences between can, could, and be able to. You have the ability and the motivation!! Good luck! 

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