Languages › English as a Second Language How to Use Can / Be Able To Modal Verbs Share Flipboard Email Print Asking about Abiliities. Getty Images / Hero Images English as a Second Language Grammar Pronunciation & Conversation Vocabulary Writing Skills Reading Comprehension Business English Resources for Teachers By Kenneth Beare English as a Second Language (ESL) Expert TESOL Diploma, Trinity College London M.A., Music Performance, Cologne University of Music B.A., Vocal Performance, Eastman School of Music Kenneth Beare is an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher and course developer with over three decades of teaching experience. our editorial process Kenneth Beare Updated July 16, 2018 'Can' and 'Be able to' are both used to speak about abilities, and the possibility of doing something. 'Can' and 'Be able to' are known as modal verbs in English. Here are some examples of 'can' and 'be able to' used to speak about abilities. Can for Abilities She can play tennis.They could speak English at a very young age.Peter can type 100 words per minute. Be Able to for Abilities My sister is able to run a marathon.The students were able to get an A on the test.We will be able to attend the class next semester. Here are examples of the two forms to speak about possibilities. Can for Possibilities Can you come to the party next week?Do you think he can help with my homework?Peter told me he could pick you up at the airport. Be Able to for Possibilities We weren't able to get tickets to the concert.She'll be able to study for the test tomorrow.Jack won't be able to come for another three days. Listed below are examples and explanations for can/could/be able to for ability and permission in the past, present. and future. Examples Usage He can play tennis well.She is able to speak five languages.They can come on Friday.Jack will be able to come next week. Use 'can' or 'be able to' to express an ability or possibilityNOTE: The future of 'be able to' is 'will be able to He could swim when he was five. Could in the past means the general ability to do something. They were able to get tickets for the concert.I was able to finish before 6.I couldn't come last night, sorry. OR I wasn't able to come last night, sorry. IMPORTANT: If someone was in the position to do something, or managed to do something, we use 'was/were able to instead of 'could'In the negative,' wasn't able to' OR 'couldn't' are both correct. Note: 'Can' is also often used to ask for permission, as well as 'may': Can I come with you? = May I come with you? Practice Can/Be Able To Practice 'can' and 'be able to' with this role play. Once you've finished, make up some of your own dialogues and practice with a classmate or a friend. Peter: Hi Janet. Can you help me for a moment?Janet: Sure, what's up? Peter: I'm not able to understand this math problem. Janet: Really. I think I can help, but I'm not that good at math. Peter: You were able to all the problems last semester, weren't you?Janet: Yes, that's right, but I can't do everything. Let me see. Peter: Here you go.Janet: Interesting, are you sure you're not able to do this? Peter: Yes, that's why I'm asking for help!Janet: OK. After I explain this, you'll be able to do without any problems. Peter: Great. So what's the answer?!Janet: Don't be in a hurry. Can I have a few minutes to think? Peter: Of course you can. Sorry. Janet: No problem. Modal Verbs Grammar ESL: How to Ask for, Grant and Refuse Permission Modal Verb Basics - Explanation Telephone Business Conversation Role-Play Essential Basic English Lessons Absolute Beginner English Personal Information Syllabus for Beginner Business English Course - Part I: Lessons 1 - 9 Practice English Using This Dialogue With a Famous Actor How to Ask Polite Questions in English How to Speak to a Customer Service Representative Teaching Telephone English Teenage Problems Idioms and Expressions That Use Have Expressing Enthusiasm or Joy Interrupting in English Expressing the Future With 'Will' and 'Going to'