Definition of can modal verb from the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary



     modal verb
    modal verb
    BrE BrE//kən//
    ; NAmE NAmE//kən//
    ; BrE strong form BrE//kæn//
    ; NAmE strong form NAmE//kæn//
    Verb Formscannot
    BrE BrE//ˈkænɒt//
    ; NAmE NAmE//ˈkænɑːt//
    BrE BrE//kɑːnt//
    ; NAmE NAmE//kænt//
    past simple could
    BrE BrE//kəd//
    ; NAmE NAmE//kəd//
    ; BrE strong form BrE//kʊd//
    ; NAmE strong form NAmE//kʊd//
    could notcouldn’t
    BrE BrE//ˈkʊdnt//
    ; NAmE NAmE//ˈkʊdnt//
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  1. 1  used to say that it is possible for somebody/something to do something, or for something to happen I can run fast. Can you call back tomorrow? He couldn't answer the question. The stadium can be emptied in four minutes. I can't promise anything, but I'll do what I can. Please let us know if you cannot attend the meeting.
  2. 2  used to say that somebody knows how to do something She can speak Spanish. Can he cook? I could drive a car before I left school.
  3. 3  used with the verbs ‘feel’, ‘hear’, ‘see’, ‘smell’, ‘taste’ She could feel a lump in her breast. I can hear music. Grammar Pointcan / could / be able to / manage Can is used to say that somebody knows how to do something:Can you play the piano? It is also used with verbs of seeing, noticing, etc:I can hear someone calling, and with passive infinitives:The podcast can be downloaded here. Can or be able to are used to say that something is possible or that somebody has the opportunity to do something:Can you/​are you able to come on Saturday? You use be able to to form the future and perfect tenses and the infinitive:You’ll be able to get a taxi outside the station. I haven’t been able to get much work done today. She’d love to be able to play the piano. Could is used to talk about what someone was generally able to do in the past:Our daughter could walk when she was nine months old. You use was/​were able to or manage (but not could) when you are saying that something was possible on a particular occasion in the past:I was able to/​managed to find some useful books in the library. I could find some useful books in the library. In negative sentences, could not can also be used:We weren’t able to/​didn’t manage to/​couldn’t get there in time. Could is also used with this meaning with verbs of seeing, noticing, understanding, etc:I could see there was something wrong. Could have is used when you are saying that it was possible for somebody to do something in the past but they did not try:I could have won the game but decided to let her win.
  4. 4  used to show that somebody is allowed to do something You can take the car, if you want. We can't wear jeans at work.
  5. 5  (informal) used to ask permission to do something Can I read your newspaper? Can I take you home? Which Word?can / may Can and cannot (or can’t) are the most common words used for asking for, giving or refusing permission:Can I borrow your calculator? You can come with us if you want to. You can’t park your car there. May (negative may not) is used as a polite and fairly formal way to ask for or give permission:May I borrow your newspaper? You may come if you wish. It is often used in official signs and rules:Visitors may use the swimming pool between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Students may not use the college car park. The form mayn’t is hardly ever used in modern English.
  6. 6  (informal) used to ask somebody to help you Can you help me with this box? Can you feed the cat, please?
  7. 7  used in the negative for saying that you are sure something is not true That can't be Mary—she's in New York. He can't have slept through all that noise.
  8. 8  used to express doubt or surprise What can they be doing? Can he be serious? Where can she have put it?
  9. 9  used to say what somebody/something is often like He can be very tactless sometimes. It can be quite cold here in winter.
  10. 10  used to make suggestions We can eat in a restaurant, if you like. I can take the car if necessary.
  11. 11(informal) used to say that somebody must do something, usually when you are angry You can shut up or get out! Grammar Pointmodal verbs The modal verbs are can, could, may, might, must, ought to, shall, should, will and would. Dare, need, have to and used to also share some of the features of modal verbs. Modal verbs have only one form. They have no -ing or -ed forms and do not add -s to the 3rd person singular form:He can speak three languages. She will try and visit tomorrow. Modal verbs are followed by the infinitive of another verb without to. The exceptions are ought to, have to and used to:You must find a job. You ought to stop smoking. I used to smoke but I gave up two years ago. Questions are formed without do/does in the present, or did in the past:Can I invite Mary? Should I have invited Mary? Negative sentences are formed with not or the short form -n’t and do not use do/does or did.You will find more help with how to use modal verbs at the dictionary entries for each verb.
  12. Word OriginOld English cunnan ‘know’ (in Middle English ‘know how to’), related to Dutch kunnen and German können; from an Indo-European root shared by Latin gnoscere ‘know’ and Greek gignōskein ‘know’. Idioms
    as happy, simple, sweet, etc. as can be
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    as happy, etc. as possible
    can’t be doing with somebody/something/somebody doing something
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    (informal) used to say that you do not like something and are unwilling to accept it I can't be doing with people who complain all the time. I can’t be doing with you moaning all the time.
    (informal) used to say that you are not able or willing to do something Sorry, no can do. I just don't have the time.
See the Oxford Advanced American Dictionary entry: can