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Can & Co. 1
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Modals & Language Functions: Can - Be able to, Be allowed to, Could, May, Might
by michelle – 10-31-07 version - Printer-friendly version worddoc (1 page)

CAN

First persons

Second persons

Third persons

1st p sing

1st p pl

3rd p sing

3rd p pl

Ability

 

S+

I can drive

We can help out

(You can do it!)
(encouraging)

She can speak 14 languages!

They can take Jane’s kid to school
(cf.  permission)

S-

I can’t cook

We can’t make it before six

(You cannot drive!)

He cannot get here before six

They cannot do it properly!

?

(Can I actually do it?)

(Can we actually do it?)

Can you speak English?

Can she cook?

Can they drive?

Altern.

be able to…

I am (not) able to do sth

know how to…

I know how to do sth

Past

General ability

When I was little, I could ride a bike.
When we were in Paris, we realized we couldn’t/(weren’t able to) speak French!

Comments for CAN for ABILITY:
Expressing ability is mostly connected to first persons, because we know what we can do! However, as you can see, it’s possible for other cases.
In the present, the distinction between general ability or specific ability is blurred, and it depends on your choices.
In the past, it’s more distinct. It’s better to use the “be able” phrase for non-general ability, though you’ll hear the “could” version, too.

Ability in a specific moment

Eventually, I was able to /(could) find my keys!
We were able to/(could) get the train, in the end.

Permission

S+

I can go
(allowed to)

We can go, yes!
(allowed to)

You can go now
(I/We grant you permission)

She/They can come
(allowed to)

S-

I cannot go
(not allowed)

We cannot leave this area
(not allowed)

You cannot park here, sir(s)

?

(see Requests)

Can we park here?
(allowed to?)

Can you park here?

Can she/they stay?
(cf. Request)

Altern.

Be allowed to
(If you need to indicate there are rules)

You are not allowed to… - typically, when clarifying “cannot”
 
We’re allowed to park here
We’re not allowed to smoke here
Are we allowed to park here? – Better: Can? (Can we park here?)

May

May I…? (Total strangers, max. politeness)
May we…? (Maximum politeness, or *)

I may* go (authority over you)
We may* go (authority over you)
May* she…? (you are putting the listener in the position of authority over you and her!)

Could
cf. Requests

ONLY in interrogatives & with First persons - Could I have an extra copy? (asking for permission)
With second and third persons, interrogative, it indicates ability: Could she get there?

Past

Could(n’t) – cf. ability
Was/were allowed to,
if could is ambiguous

Comments for CAN for PERMISSION:
Cf. with ABILITY – if you need to avoid ambiguity and make the point there was a rule involved, you need to use the “be allowed to” phrase, so that it is not taken as an ability phrase.
Cf. with REQUEST – the interrogative forms

Request

? (Only intrrg)

Can I borrow your pen, please?

Can we have two tickets, please?

Can you call her?
cf. asking sb to do you a favor

Can you bring your cars?
cf. asking sb to do you a favor

Can she stay, mum, please?
cf. permission

Can they come, mum?
cf. ability
cf. permission

Altern.

Could…?

More polite. No “please” necessary, consequently.

May…?

Only for total strangers you need sth from!

Proposal

S+ (Only + Statements)

I can bring the CDs

We can bring the drinks

You can buy the tickets and I’ll/we’ll…

She can bring her car and we can…

They can pick him at the airport and we’ll…

Altern.

could

I could bring…

We could go to the Prado

You could buy that and we could go to the airport

Possibility

could
may
might

S+

I/We may go
I/We could go (if not ambiguous)
I/We might go (more tentative or less likely)

(Unlikely)

It could/may rain
It might rain
He could/may/ might be upstairs

They may / could be over there
They might be at Helen’s

S-

I/We may not get there on time
I/We might not get there on time
(Only 2 forms, because “could not” = impossibility = ability)

The neg. is not necessary!

Altern.

Perhaps
Maybe

It may rain = Perhaps it rains
We may get there on time = Maybe we get there on time

Comments for POSSIBILITY MODALS
”May” and “Could” are the same. “May” is preferred if there could be ambiguity!
”Might” is not only for the most unlikely situations. It’s also for when we mean “may/could” but we don’t want to be so straightforward, to avoid the person feeling exposed/overwhelmed.