Advanced English Grammar



Modal Verbs of Ability

The modal verbs of ability show just that -- ability. Ability can be expressed in the past, present, or future.

It can be an ability that was used over and over again, or something that was done just once, on a special, or rare, occasion.

The modal verbs of ability are can, could, and be able to.

   Can is used to talk about ability in the present or future.
      He can read well.

   Could is used to talk about ability in the past.
      He could read well when he was younger.

   Be able to is used to talk about a certain, or particular, ability.
      He was able to read when he was 4 years old.

** While could might be used in the last example, be able to emphasizes the early age at which he could read.

   Could have, followed by a past participle indicates an ability NOT used and often shows disapproval.
      He could have called me! (He didn't)

   Could not have followed by a past participle indicates that an ability didn't exist in the past.
      I couldn't have phoned you yesterday, because I lost my phone last week.

   Be able to is used with other modals or when forming the 'ing' or 'to' infinitive forms.
      You will have the satisfaction of being able to read my report.
      Nobody will be able to read what you have written.

   We use can or could with the senses verbs; see, hear, smell, etc., to say that someone is aware of something through their senses.
      I can smell gas downstairs.
      I could see a few stars in the sky last night.
      I couldn't hear what she said because of the noise.

Modal Verbs of Ability Exercise

1. The boy ____ been hit by the car, if it hadn't stopped in time.
2. She ____ say her abc's when she was only 3 years old.
3. I ____ go with you tomorrow, I have an appointment.
4. They ____ sell their car for more than what they paid for it.
5. You will ____ read it when I'm through.
6. I ____ stay out late when I was young.
7. She ___ remember the name of the tavern we went to last week.
8. "I ____ drive until I was 21," she said.
9. You have the good fortune to ____ sing well.
10. "Get your coat." "I ____ take you to school this morning."

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For more information concerning the modal verbs of ability click on the preceding link.