Modal Verbs of Ability

Learn and practice using modal verbs to talk about different types of abilities (past and present).

Describing Abilities

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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 .





Present Tense

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?


Past

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.


For example,


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.



Future

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.


Practice using modals of ability