Modal Verbs To Express Ability | Modals of Ability

Learn how to use Modals of Ability in English with examples.

Ability can be expressed using modal verbs and phrases. English learners often prefer to use be able to because it is the easiest to form. As learners progress, they begin to use can, could, and managed to.

While the present forms are simple, the past forms have particular rules which must be followed. The most important rules relate to general ability and specific ability.

  • General ability means that a person had the ability to do something at all times and in all situations.
  • Specific ability means that the person had the ability to do something in a specific situation or at a specific time.

How to Use Modal Verbs To Express Ability

Present Forms | Modals of Ability

Be able to

  • Form:

Is/am/are(not) able to + main verb

  • Usage:

This form may be used in positive or negative, for general or specific ability.

  • Examples:

John is able to play the piano.

Richard is not able to play the piano.

Can/Can’t

  • Form:

Can/Can’t + main verb

  • Usage:

This form may be used in positive or negative, for general or specific ability.

  • Examples:

Richard can play the flute.

John can’t play the flute.

Past Forms | Modals of Ability

Be able to

  • Form:

Was/were(not) able to + main verb

  • Usage:

This form may be used, in positive or negative, for general or specific ability.

  • Examples:

John was able to play the piano when he was a boy.

Richard was not able to play saxophone when she was a girl.

Could/Couldn’t

  • Form:

Could/Couldn’t + verb

  • Usage:

Could, in positive, is only used for general ability.

Couldn’t is used for general or specific.

  • Examples:

I could swim when I was six.

When Jane was very young, she couldn’t speak French.

Managed to

  • Form:

Managed to + verb

  • Usage:

This form is only used for specific ability: one time, one situation.

  • Example:

Police finally managed to catch the culprit.

Future Forms | Modals of Ability

Be able to

  • Form:

Will/won’t able to + main verb

  • Usage:

This form is only used for general ability.

  • Example:

Journalists will be able to preview the exhibition tomorrow.

Can/can’t

  • Form:

Can/Can’t + verb

  • Usage:

This form may be used, in positive or negative, for general or specific ability.

  • Examples:

I can help you tomorrow.

I can’t come to her birthday party.

Modals of Ability | Picture

Modal Verbs To Express Ability | Modals of Ability

Typical Mistakes | Modal Verbs To Express Ability

The typical mistakes learners make are to use could for past positive specific ability.

Example:

My friend’s phone was engaged all day yesterday. Finally, late in the evening, I could speak to him.

In this sentence, we should use I was able to speak to or I managed to speak to him.

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