Modal Verbs To Express Ability | Modals of Ability

How to use Modals of Ability in English with examples.

Learn Modal Verbs To Express Ability

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:

James is able to cook steak.

David is not able to cook steak.

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 speak French fluently.

Gabriella can’t speak French fluently.

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:

Max was able to swim fast when he was a young boy.

Jennifer was not able to dance when she was eight.

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.

My sister couldn’t play the piano when she was five.

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 | Image

Modal Verbs To Express Ability | Modals of Ability

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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