When delving into the complexities of the English language, certain words might appear to be quite similar in usage. Among these are the modal verbs “can” and “could.” These two words, while related, serve distinct purposes, and can sometimes confuse learners.

This lesson aims to demystify the difference between these two words, providing clear explanations and illustrative examples.

Can vs Could: What’s the Difference?

Let’s now look at how we use “can” and “could” to see what the difference is between these two words.

How to use “can”

“Can” is primarily used to express:

  • Ability in the present.
  • Permission to do something.
  • The possibility that something might happen.
  • General truths.


  • Ability: “She can swim.” (She knows how to swim.)
  • Permission: “Can I go to the restroom?” (Am I allowed to go to the restroom?)
  • Possibility: “They can go on holiday now that they’ve saved enough money.” (Their financial position makes this possible.)
  • General truth: “Icy roads can be dangerous.” (They have the potential to be dangerous but you are not guaranteed to be in an accident.)

How to use “could”

“Could” is the past tense form of “can” but has multiple uses:

  • Past ability.
  • Polite requests or suggestions.
  • Conditional possibility in the future.


  • Past Ability: “When I was younger, I could run a mile in six minutes.” (I had the ability to run fast in the past.)
  • Polite Request: “Could you pass the salt, please?” (A more polite way to ask for the salt.)
  • Conditional Possibility: “If the weather clears up, we could go hiking tomorrow.” (There’s a possibility of going hiking if a certain condition is met.)

Additional Examples

  1. “I can solve this math problem.” (I have the ability to solve this problem right now.)
    • “I could solve these types of problems when I was in school.” (I had the ability to solve such problems in the past.)
  2. “She can dance beautifully.” (She possesses the skill to dance well at present.)
    • “She could dance at the professional event if she gets selected.” (There’s a possibility she might dance at the event, contingent on her selection.)
  3. “Can you lend me your book?” (Are you able to lend me your book now?)
    • “Could you lend me your book?” (The meaning is the same, but this is more polite.)
  4. “We can travel to Spain this summer.” (This shows it is a real possibility.)
    • “We could travel to Spain, or we could choose Italy instead.” (There are two possibilities for travel, and neither is confirmed yet.)
  5. “He can play the guitar.” (He knows how to play the guitar currently.)
    • “He could join our band if he’s interested.” (There’s a chance he might join, but it depends on his interest.)

The use of “can” often denotes a definite ability or possibility in the present, while “could” introduces a sense of uncertainty, condition, or reference to past abilities. Can and could also differ in that the latter is more informal.


In summary, the difference between “can” and “could” may seem slight, but it’s essential to understand their distinct meanings and uses. Recognising these nuances can significantly improve both comprehension and expression. Remember that “can” typically refers to present abilities or possibilities, while “could” denotes past abilities, polite requests, or conditional future events. Practising with real-world examples and conversations can help cement this knowledge. Keep listening, keep practising, and soon using “can” and “could” will become second nature!