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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?


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.


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

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