Can – be able to

‚Can‘ or ‚to be able to‘


In present tense we can use both for ability.


I can swim = I’m able to swim.

You can speak English = You’re able to speak English.

He can’t play tennis = He isn’t able to play tennis.

She can read Japanese = She is able to read Japanese.

We can’t meet you tonight = We are not able to meet you tonight.

They can call us if they want. = They are able to call us if they want.

Question form:

Can you speak Chinese? No, I can’t.

Are you able to swim across the English channel? Yes, I am.

Is he able to play golf? No, he isn’t

Is she able to get up? Yes, she is.

Are we able to make it to the meeting on time? Yes, we are.

Are they able to arrive on time? No, they aren’t.

When talking about past abilities, we use ‚could‘ or ‚ was/were able to‘.


I could run a mile in under 12 minutes = I was able to run a mile in under 12min.

You were able to play squash before your knee accident.

He wasn’t able to play the piano when he was 5 years old.

She wasn’t able to speak Italian before the course.

We weren’t able to ski when we were 7.

They were able to play the violin when they were young.

Question form:

Were you able to hold your breath for more than 2 minutes before you started smoking? Yes, I was.

Was he able to walk straight after drinking 8 pints of lager last night? No, he wasn’t.

Was she able to climb up the lamppost when she was a little girl? Yes, she was.

Were we able to go out and have fun when we were single? Yes, we were.

Were they able to work all night behind bar in their teens? No, they weren’t.

For future abilities we use ‚will be able to‘


I’ll be able to drive a car one day.

You’ll be able to play rugby well if you train hard.

He won’t be able to speak German if he doesn’t study.

She’ll be able to play the piano it she practises regularly.

We’ll be able to run a marathon after a long and hard training.

They won’t be able to remember anything when they’re old.

Question form:

Will I be able to run a marathon one day? No, you won’t

Will you be able to speak English well one day? Yes, you will.

Will he be able to play the violin next year. No, he won’t.

Will she be able to swim when we go on holiday? Yes, she will.

Will we be able to remember the memo from the meeting? No, you won’t.

Will they be able to call me tomorrow morning? Yes, they will.