What is the difference between "can" and "could" in English?

Can you explain the usage and meaning of “can” and “could” in English? How are they used in different contexts and what are some examples of sentences with these modals?

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“Can” and “could” are both modal verbs in English, and they are used to express ability, possibility, permission, and make requests. However, there are some differences in their usage and meaning.

Usage and Meaning of “Can”:

  1. Ability: “Can” is used to talk about general ability or capability in the present. It indicates that someone has the skill or knowledge to do something.

    • Example: I can speak three languages.
  2. Possibility: “Can” is also used to express possibility or likelihood in the present.

    • Example: It can rain tomorrow.
  3. Permission: “Can” can be used to ask for and give permission in a formal or informal way.

    • Example (asking for permission): Can I use the restroom?
    • Example (giving permission): You can play outside after you finish your homework.
  4. Making requests: “Can” is often used to make requests in a polite manner.

    • Example: Can you please pass me the salt?

Usage and Meaning of “Could”:

  1. Ability in the Past: “Could” is used to talk about past ability or capability. It indicates that someone had the skill or knowledge to do something in the past.

    • Example: When I was younger, I could run very fast.
  2. Polite Requests: “Could” is often used to make polite requests.

    • Example: Could you please help me with this?
  3. Conditional or Hypothetical Situations: “Could” is used to express hypothetical or conditional situations.

    • Example: If I had more time, I could finish the project.
  4. Indirect Speech or Reported Speech: “Could” is used to report indirect speech or someone’s statements, thoughts, or opinions.

    • Example: She said she could come to the party.

Differences between “Can” and “Could”:

  1. Time: “Can” refers to present ability or possibility, while “could” refers to past ability or hypothetical situations.

  2. Formality: “Can” is relatively more informal, whereas “could” is considered more polite and formal, especially when making requests or seeking permission.

  3. Level of Certainty: “Can” indicates a higher level of certainty or stronger possibility, while “could” suggests a lower level of certainty or weaker possibility.

  4. Reported Speech: “Could” is used to report someone’s statement or indirect speech, while “can” is not typically used in reported speech.


  1. Ability:

    • I can swim. (present ability)
    • When she was younger, she could play the piano. (past ability)
  2. Possibility:

    • It can be challenging to learn a new language. (present possibility)
    • He said he could come to the party. (reported speech)
  3. Permission:

    • Can I use your phone, please? (asking for permission)
    • You can borrow my car if you need to. (giving permission)
  4. Making Requests:

    • Can you help me carry these boxes?
    • Could you please pass me the butter?


  • Modal Verbs: Auxiliary verbs that express various attitudes and moods like ability, possibility, permission, etc.
  • Formal: Polite and suitable for official or serious situations.
  • Informal: Casual and suitable for relaxed or familiar situations.
  • Reported Speech: Reporting or paraphrasing what someone said without using their exact words.