Can you do a handstand? Talking about ability

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by Liz Walter

We often need to talk about things we can do and ask other people questions about their own abilities. This post looks in some detail at the common modal verb can and also suggests some other ways to express the same idea.

We use can extremely often to make statements and questions. Remember that can is always followed by an infinitive verb without to.

Laura can play the piano.

Laura can to play the piano.

Can you see the stage from here?

Can you seeing the stage from here?

The negative form is can’t or, for formal writing, cannot. Remember that cannot is written as one word:

We can’t open the door.

The past form of can is could, and the negative past form is couldn’t or, for formal writing, could not. Be careful to spell these words correctly!

We could hear what he was saying.

These people could not leave their homes.

Another very common way of saying can is the phrase be able to:

Is everyone able to use a computer?

She was able to save enough money to buy a new car.

When we are talking about the past, we usually use could for general ability and was/were able to when we are talking about specific events:

I could run much faster when I was young.

Our car broke down but we were able to hire another quite easily.

However, in negative sentences, couldn’t can be used in either situation:

I couldn’t run very fast.

Our car broke down and we couldn’t hire another one.

Here are some other ways of expressing the idea of being able to do something:

I’m not sure if he is capable of looking after himself yet.

We are now in a position to buy an apartment.

Is Rick up to taking on this job? (informal)

We could also use one of a range of adjectives such as adept, competent, expert, masterly, proficient or skilful:

She’s adept at dealing with difficult customers.

He’s proficient in several languages.

To return to can and could, I will finish with the way we use them to talk about the future. We use can for things we are sure are possible:

Don’t worry about my dinner – I can buy a sandwich later.

We use could for things that are less certain:

He doesn’t have to have dinner. He could buy a sandwich later.

Interestingly, we also use could in sentences where we are exaggerating to emphasize a point, and where the thing we say is not possible in real life:

I love cheese. I could eat it for every meal.

For more information about modal verbs, see my post from last November.

9 thoughts on “Can you do a handstand? Talking about ability

  1. Ary Pelegrino

    I couldn’t agree more! The post can be considered a masterpiece about ways to express abilities. For now on, everybody will be able to use correctly modal can and similar expressions, if they read it carefully. It’s undeniable that the author was capable of reaching her goal. As I cannot take up much space in here…, I would say well done, Ms Walter!

  2. Akbar Safi

    Hi Liz. Thank you for such a nice post again. All your posts are so informative and I’m always waiting for your new post. I’ve a question. Can I use ‘wish’ with ‘Could’ to show a future event like ” I wish I could go to London and meet Liz”. And more is this sentence correct grammatically?

    1. Liz Walter

      Thank you for your comments. Yes, that is a perfect sentence. (Although you’d have to come to Cambridge, of course 😉 )

      1. Akbar Safi

        Yeah, I’m a regular visitor of the Cambridge dictionary for words’ meanings and blog. Thank you so much Madam.

  3. mwagala robert m

    Is this sentence correctly indicating past perfect future tense-if I would have a pen I could write a letter

  4. Cristy

    Hi Liz, I wonder whether I would be able to do a successful CPE exam by studying by myself, or I really have to enroll a course….. I cant afford now. Greetings. Cristy

    1. Liz Walter

      As you know, CPE is an advanced exam. There are lots of good books available, but it’s always useful to have a teacher who is experienced in the exam. Sorry, I can’t really give you a definitive answer on this.

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