Could vs Can – Ability

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“Could” is a Modal Verb. In fact, it acts as the past tense of the Modal Verb can. This Modal Verb refers to the ability to have done something, Don’t worry, this is not as confusing as it seems, here’s a simple dialogue:

Can you pass the test tomorrow? 

I don’t think so.

Could you have passed yesterday’s test? 

Definitely not.

Alternatively, the speaker could’ve said, “Can you pass the test now?”. If they wanted to use the Modal Verb “can” in the present tense. 

Image representation: A boy giving the test

Interestingly, “can” doesn’t change form with tense. Again, the Verb is used to speak of present or future actions. We use “could” to speak of the past. Here is another way to think of these verbs and tense:

I could play the guitar yesterday. 

I can play the guitar now.

I can play the guitar tomorrow.

Modal Verbs

What do I need to know about Modal Verbs

Most languages have Modal Verbs, they are used to state feelings of certainty, possibility, impossibility, ability, make requests, and offers. The list of Modal Verbs includes: 




and many other words. These words often proceed in the simple form of the Verb. For example, “The train might be late”. In the previous sentence, “be” has no Gerund, it’s the Verbs base. Additionally, Modal Verbs may be used in conjunction with Verbs of Frequency in sentences like, “He may never arrive”.

Examples of the Modal Verbs “Can vs Could”

Sasuke can dance and sing really well. 

Olivia could run a mile in just under 6 minutes when she was younger.

Let’s practice 

Q1: Try and make your own sentence.

Q2: What are some things that you can and can’t do? 

Q3: What could you do when you were younger that you can’t do now? 

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