Can

This English grammar lesson is about the verb can. The exercises for this topic are here. This lesson is part of a complete Elementary English Course.

Contents

Can is a really useful verb, we use it for ability, permission, possibility and suggestions.

Can for ability

We use can to say that we are able (or not able) to do things.

  • I can swim
  • I can ride a bicycle.
  • He can speak French.
  • She can’t sing very well.

Can for permission

We also use this verb to ask for and give permission.

  • You can’t eat in the library.
  • You can park here.
  • You can’t use a calculator in this is exam.
  • You can come any time you like.
  • Can I use this computer?

Can for Possibility & Suggestions

We also use can to say that something is a possibility or to suggest a possibility.

  • England can get very cold in the winter.
  • Exams can be stressful.
  • If we don’t have time to walk, we can take a taxi.
  • We can have a picnic tomorrow.
  • Can you wait a moment please?

Can is the same for all persons. This is because it is a modal verb. There are lots of modal verbs in English (must, should, would etc…) The good news is that you don’t need to change (conjugate) these verbs for different people like we do with most verbs.

The verb that we use after a modal verb is always in the bare infinitive form. The bare infinitive is like the infinitive (to be, to do, to go etc…) but without the to.

I can to speak English.

I can speak English.

This table has examples of the verb can used in sentences for different subject pronouns. They are always all the same for all persons for modal verbs.

IcanI can speak English.
YoucanYou can speak English.
He / She / ItcanHe can speak English. / She can speak English. / It can speak English.
WecanWe can speak English.
TheycanThey can speak English.
An illustration showing positive, negative and question (interrogative) uses of the verb "can". A woman singing with the caption "she can sing", a baby crawling with the caption "she can't walk" and a waitress talking to a woman with the caption "can I help you?".

Negative Forms

To use can in negative form, add not. This is the negative form of can which is most commonly used in formal English.

I can not understand him.

The words can and not are often combined into a single word; cannot. This form is often used for emphasis.

I cannot understand him.

They are also sometimes contracted into can’t. This is probably the commonest negative form in spoken and informal English.

I can’t understand him.

Can I ask a Question?

To use can in questions, just change the order of the verb (can) and the subject (the person or thing) . Look at these examples.

Statement: You can do it!

Question: Can you do it?

Here are some more examples of questions using can. Some of them use question words like who, where or what.

  • What can you do?
  • Where can we park?
  • Can we ask a question?
  • Who can we call?

For more examples of can, check out this entry in the Oxford learners’ dictionary.

Exercises

Check that you understand this topic with the interactive exercises below!

Lesson Content