Can, could, be able to, manage to

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Can, could, be able to, manage to

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Neil and Catherine take a look at the meaning and use of some key words and phrases that English speakers use to talk about ability in the present and the past.

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Catherine Hello and welcome to 6 Minute Grammar with me Catherine…

Neil And me, Neil. Hello.

Catherine In this programme we’re talking about modal verbs of ability.

Neil Yes, we are. We’ll explain what they are…

Catherine We’ll give you some useful tips on using them…

Neil There’ll be lots examples…

Catherine And of course we’ll finish with a quiz.

Neil So here we go. First of all, what are modals of ability?

Catherine Well, there are lots of different modal verbs like must, might and have to . And we use them together with main verbs, to add meaning to what we say.

Neil So in this programme we’re talking about the modal verbs can and could. We’re looking at how we can use these modals with main verbs to add meaning related to ability. Here’s Mike with an example.

Mike Humans can only live without water for three to five days.

Catherine So that’s can with the verb live to express ability. And in this example, the ability to live without water. And in this programme we’re also going to talk about ability with the phrase be able to plus a verb. It ‘s similar to can , but it’s particularly useful when we’re suggesting that something is a bit surprising like this from Mike.

Mike Humans can only live without water for three to five days. However, they are able to live without food for up to three weeks.

Neil Okay. In those examples we’re talking about ability in the present. Now for the past.

Catherine Yeah, the past. And the past of can is could . We also use be able to in the past but of course it becomes was able to or were able to . Listen.

Mike People in Asia could write before people in Europe.

Catherine Or…

Mike People in Asia were able to write before people in Europe.

Neil But sometimes you have to use be able to and not could .

Catherine And that happens when we’re talking about a single event in the past, not general ability.

Neil Exactly. Another example please, Mike.

Mike After climbing for six hours, they were able to reach the top of the mountain.

Catherine You can’t use could in that example because could is for general ability, not a single occasion like climbing one mountain.

Neil But there is another verb that you can use in that last sentence. Have a listen.

Mike After climbing for six hours, they managed to reach the top of the mountain.

Neil Thank you Mike. We often use manage to with a verb for ability if something is very difficult to do or if something is very successful.

Catherine Exactly. Remember that can and could are always followed by the infinitive without to . And they are the same for all subject pronouns.

Neil Right. But be able to changes for different persons. It ‘s am/is/are able to for the present and was/were able to for the past.

IDENT 6 Minute Grammar, from bbclearningenglish.com.

Catherine And we’re looking at modal verbs of ability.

Neil Yes, we are. And we’ve got a few extra tips for you today.

Catherine We have. And the first tip is, you know sense verbs like see, hear and smell ? And verbs of thinking like believe, understand and remember ? Well, we usually use can and not be able to with those. Examples please, Mike.

Mike I can ‘t understand this question.

Catherine Good. Second tip. When we have two main verbs together, we can’t put can or could between them. For example, with the sentence I ‘d like to swim. It’s okay to say…

Mike I ‘d like to be able to swim.

Catherine But it’s not okay to say…

Mike I ‘d like to can swim .

Neil Oh no, you can’t say that! It sounds a bit strange.

Catherine Yes, horrible.

Neil Next tip: There is also no present perfect form of can . If we need the present perfect for ability, we use be able to . An example, please?

Mike He hasn ‘t been able to walk since the accident.

Catherine Thank you, Mike. And now a tip about manage to in the negative form. We say can ‘t manage to in the present, but it’s couldn ‘t manage to or didn ‘t manage to in the past.

Mike I can ‘t manage to swim that far! Fifty-five pies?! I can ‘t manage to eat all those. The men couldn ‘t manage to lift the piano. He didn ‘t manage to get the grades he needed for university.

Catherine Okay, thank you, Mike. And now - it’s quiz time. Will you manage to get three correct answers?

Neil Let’s see. Are these sentences correct or incorrect? Number one: The villagers were good hunters, but they couldn ‘t grow crops.

Catherine And that’s correct.

Neil Well done! Number two: My phone wasn’t working but the receptionist could phone for a taxi.

Catherine And that’s not correct. The correct sentence is the receptionist was able to phone for a taxi.

Neil And number three: I want to can do this.

Catherine And that’s not correct. Between two main verbs, we have to use be able to . So the correct sentence is I want to be able to do this .

Neil And that is the end of the quiz. Congratulations if you managed to get them all right!

Catherine Yes. Well done! There’s more about this on our website at bbclearningenglish.com. Join us again for more 6 Minute Grammar.

Both Bye.

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