Lesson Summary 

Are you able to use English modal verbs?
It’s time to ‘get your head around’ English modal verbs! This lesson is the SECOND in a series about modal verbs – about expressing ABILITY with modal verbs.
Practice makes perfect, so that’s what we’ll do together!

Watch more mmmEnglish lessons about English Modal Verbs:
PART 1 (Possibility & Probability): https://youtu.be/skqj4jOSQU4
PART 3: (Pronunciation): https://youtu.be/x-RQuIX8uI0

CLICK HERE to read the full lesson transcript.

More English lessons recommended for you: 

Video Transcript
Section 1
Hello, I’m Emma from mmmEnglish! Last week, my lesson was about using modal verbs to express possibility and probability. If you haven’t seen it, make sure you check it out after this lesson. I’ll link to it at the end of this video.

So, we’ll continue talking about modal verbs today, but this time modal verbs that express ability. Now, it’s important to know that one modal verb can be used to express different things in English. So, for example, the modal verb ‘can‘ is used to express possibility but in this lesson today, I’ll explain how it expresses ability. And then later, you’ll learn that ‘can‘ can also be used to ask permission, make requests and offer help. So, it’s a pretty useful modal verb!

To express ability in English, you need to use these verbs:

  • can
  • can’t
  • could
  • couldn’t
  • (be) able to

Now, ‘can‘ and ‘can’t‘ are pretty simple. They’re both used to express ability in the present tense.

You can speak English.
My mum can pick us up.
I can ask my brother for help.

We also use ‘(be) able to‘ to express the same thing.

You are able to speak English.
My mum is able to pick us up.
I am able to ask my brother for help.

But notice that the ‘be‘ verb conjugates to the subject when we’re using ‘(be) able to’. But, when you’re using the modal verb ‘can’ it doesn’t matter what the subject is. The modal verb is always the same. And this is true for all modal verbs. They have just one form.

Now, the present tense is simple. But, when we talk about ability in the past, we need to pay closer attention to the rules. Because we use ‘could‘ to talk about general ability and we use ‘was/were able to‘ to talk about specific ability in the past. To express yourself correctly, you need to understand what is general ability and what is specific ability?

If someone had the ability to do something, at all times and in many different situations, then this is a general ability.

She could read by the time she was five. She could read anything! Books, newspapers, letters, anything!

This is a general ability so ‘could‘ is the correct choice here. Now, if someone had the ability to do something at a specific time, in a specific situation, well, this is specific ability.

She was able to read Little Red Riding Hood in front of the class.

This is a specific situation. So when you’re talking about a specific ability ‘to be able to‘ is the correct choice.

So, in these examples, we used different words to express ability in the past. It’s a little trickier, isn’t it? But fortunately, the negative form is the same in general and specific situations in the past. It’s just ‘couldn’t‘.

She couldn’t read by the time she was five.
She couldn’t read Little Red Riding Hood in front of the class.

Note that when someone had the ability in the past, but they didn’t use it, we use a different structure. We use ‘could’ with ‘have’ and the past participle form.

I could have helped you, but you didn’t ask me!
We could have invited more people. There’s spare seats at the back!

Okay, let’s just pause for a moment and think about all of this new information that you’ve taken in. I think we should probably practise expressing ability in the past tense just for a moment before we move on.

So, what you need to do is choose the correct word to complete the sentence. Okay, choose the correct word.

When my neighbour slipped down the stairs this morning, I ……. help her.

So, think about this situation. Is it general, or is it specific?

This is a specific situation in the past, isn’t it? We know when and exactly what was happening.

So, ‘I was able to help her’ is the correct choice.

She ……. speak a little Japanese when she was younger.

Is it general? Or, is it specific?

It’s general. So, ‘could‘ is the right choice. She could speak.

My brother …… not start the car last night.

Well, this is a negative sentence, isn’t it? We can see ‘not‘ so, it must be ‘couldn’t‘.

My brother couldn’t start the car last night. Or he could not the car last night.

He ……. offered to drop her home, but he was too tired.

Now, notice the form of the main verb here, that’s a clue because it’s not in the bare infinitive form. So, it must be ‘could have‘.

He could have offered to drop her home,

My boss’ phone was switched of all day today! Finally, I got through at around and I …… speak to her.

This is quite a specific situation, isn’t it? So, ‘was able to‘ is the right answer.

Okay the last step now. We need to talk ability in the future, don’t we? We still need to pay attention to those rules about general ability and specific ability. And it’s a little trickier because the rules are completely the opposite to the past tense. Thanks English.

So in the future, we use ‘will’ and ‘won’t be able to‘ to talk about general abilities. So we’re using ‘will‘ as the future tense and following ‘will‘, as with all modal verbs is the bare infinitive form every time. We don’t conjugate the verb following ‘will‘ here. It’s ‘will be‘ or ‘won’t be‘.

If you arrive before 6 o’ clock, you’ll be able to see the sunset. 
Women who become members will be able to practise their English speaking skills.

We use ‘can‘ and ‘can’t‘ to talk about specific abilities in the future.

I can look after your kids tomorrow night. But I can’t collect them from school because I don’t finish work until 5 o’clock.

So these are specific situations.

Okay a couple of questions to practise with just before we finish.

I ……. help you with your homework this afternoon.

That’s a specific situation, at a specific time. So in the future we you use ‘can‘.

If you complete this course, you ……. apply for a new job.

So this is quite general, really. So ‘will be able to‘ is the correct choice.

Well, that’s it! But who would have thought that talking about ability in English could be so tricky. I hope this lesson made it a little clearer for you and I really recommend that you write down a few of your own sentences on paper or in the comments under this video. Then, go back to the start of this lesson and watch it again to check your answers and to make sure that the information sinks in.

Remember to practise using what you’ve learnt today. Don’t just watch these lessons, use the English that I teach you. Now if you want to keep practising, then check out this lesson up here. Oh and the modal verbs lesson that talks about probability and possibility is right here.

So thanks for watching and I’ll see you again next week for a new lesson. Bye for now!

mmmEnglish Video Lessons are a series of video lessons created to build confidence in English learners and focus on English in daily life. Download them and watch them anywhere! Subscribe to my YouTube Channel to be the first to get my new videos, and come and say hi on my Facebook page!!

mmmEnglish Video Lessons are a series of video lessons created to build confidence in English learners and focus on English in daily life. Download them and watch them anywhere! Subscribe to my YouTube Channel to be the first to get my new videos, and come and say hi on my Facebook page!!