Talking About Ability In English

Present ability

We use can to talk about present or general ability.

  • can swim.
  • She can read Italian, but she can’t speak it.

Past ability

We use could to talk about general ability in the past.

  • She could read when she was four.

Note that was/were able is also possible with this meaning.

  • She was able to read when she was four.

Future ability

We normally use will be able to talk about future ability.

  • will be able to speak good French in a few months.

Unrealized past ability

We use could have + past participle to talk about unrealized past ability – to say that somebody was able to do something, but did not try to do it.

  • I was so angry I could have killed her.
  • could have married anybody I wanted to.

Couldn’t have + past participle means that somebody would not have been able to do something even if they had wanted or tried to.

  • couldn’t have won, so I didn’t go in for the race.

Manjusha Nambiar

Hi, I am Manjusha. This is my blog where I give English grammar lessons and worksheets.

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