Modal Verbs of Ability
Learn and practice using modal verbs to talk about different types of abilities (past and present).
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You can talk about abilities in two ways; general abilities and situation-specific abilities. Depending on the situation and tense, you can use can, could, be able to, and could have + past participle .
Use can / can’t to talk about general and specific abilities that are current.
I can cook really delicious Japanese food.
My sister can’t cook at all.
My best friend can speak 5 languages!
Can you drive a tractor?
could /couldn’t (general ability)
When I lived in Korea, I could speak the language but now, I can’t - I’ve forgotten everything!
I could run really fast when I was a teenager.
was able to/ wasn’t able to (specific ability)
I was able to find you because of your bright shirt. (not could find).
The IT officer was able to fix the software on my computer. (not could fix)
She was able to finish her work in less than an hour! (not could finish)
could + have + past participle
You can also talk about past abilities that you didn’t use with could + have + past participle.
I could have been a great soccer player but I didn’t practice enough. = I had the ability to become a great soccer player but I didn’t do enough, or didn’t use the ability.
We could have come to your dinner party but we were too tried. = you had the ability to come to the party but choose not to because you were tired.
I could’ve bought a horse last year. = you had the ability (maybe the money etc.) to do this but you choose not to.
will/ won’t be able to (general ability)
You will be able to run 5 km in 20 minutes after this training.
She won’t be able to understand me because I don’t speak Chinese.
DON’T use ‘can’ for future abilities:
I can will to fix the car later. ❌
I will be able to fix the car later. ✅
I can will to go to the party this weekend. ❌
I will be able to go to the party this weekend. ✅
Review how to form modal verbs in a sentence here.