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The Verb - Can

The Verb - Can

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Can

Hello! In this lesson we will learn how to use the modal verb "can"." In previous lessons, we have learned the verbs "to be" and other verbs which change their form according to the actor, or subject. The modal verbs are different from other verbs.

The modal verbs do not change their forms in the present tense. The modal verb "can" means: to be able to. It is used in combination with the base form of another verb.

For example, we say "I can swim.", "You can swim.", "We can swim," "They can swim.", "He can swim." "She can swim." "David can swim.", "Jennifer and David can swim.". Notice that the conjugation of modal verb "can" always stays the same in every sentence.

To form a question with the modal verb "can", we simply invert the subject and modal verb "can". "Can I swim?", "Can you swim?", "Can we swim?", "Can they swim?", "Can he swim?", "Can she swim?", "Can David swim?", "Can Jennifer and David swim?".

To form a negative with the modal verb "can", we use the word "not" to form a new word  -- "cannot".

For example, we say "I cannot swim.", "You cannot swim." "We cannot swim.", "They cannot swim.", "He cannot swim.", "She cannot swim.", "David cannot swim.", "Jennifer and David cannot swim.".   

We can use the modal verb "can" with the verb "to be" in the same way as we form sentences with other verbs. We might say "I can be happy.". We can ask "Can I be happy?".

Now that you have a good idea of the modal verb "can", listen to the dialog. In this dialog, David and Jennifer are discussing dinner guests.

David: Who can come to dinner?

Jennifer:  Mr. and Mrs. Jones can.

David: Can Mr. and Mrs. Smith come?

Jennifer.  No, they cannot.

David:  What can we cook?

Jennifer:  We can cook vegetables and rice.

David: Can we cook beef too?

Jennifer:  Yes, we can.

Now that you know how to work with the modal verb "can", let us take a closer look at the sentences in the dialog.

In David's first question, "Who can come to dinner?" notice that the modal verb "can" stays the same, even when the question word "who" comes before it. We use the base form of the verb "to come" – "come" with it.

Jennifer answers "Mr. and Mrs. Jones can.".  Jennifer might have answered "Mr. and Mrs. Jones can come.", but since David has already asked "Who can come to dinner?", Jennifer can use a short answer.

When David asks "Can Mr. and Mrs. Smith come?", the form of the modal verb "can" remains the same, although there is a plural subject – "Mr. and Mrs. Smith". Since Jennifer and David are discussing who can come to dinner and the topic has not changed, David might have asked "Can Mr. and Mrs. Smith?". Although this phrase is not technically a complete sentence, this sort of phrase is used commonly, and Jennifer would have easily understood it to mean "Can Mr. and Mrs. Smith also come to dinner?".

Jennifer responds "No, they cannot." She might also have said "No, Mr. and Mrs. Smith cannot come to dinner." or "No, they cannot come to dinner." or "No, they cannot come.".  But since the topic has not changed, David understands her short answer to mean "No, Mr. and Mrs. Smith cannot come to dinner.".

David's next question, "What can we cook?", includes the question word "what". Notice that the inclusion of the question word "what" does not affect the structure of the modal verb "can".

Jennifer responds "We can cook vegetables and rice.".The form of the modal verb "can" stays the same.

After David asks "Can we cook beef too?", Jennifer answers "Yes, we can.". She might also have said "Yes, we can cook beef too.", but the short answer is perfectly understandable.

Now that we have learned how to use the modal verb "can", let us listen to the dialog again. Notice that the form of the modal verb "can" does not change, regardless of the subject.

David:  Who can come to dinner?

Jennifer:  Mr. and Mrs. Jones can.

David: Can Mr. and Mrs. Smith come?

Jennifer.  No, they cannot.

David:  What can we cook?

Jennifer:  We can cook vegetables and rice.

David:  Can we cook beef too?

Jennifer:  Yes, we can.

Great work! The modal verb "can" is a helpful addition to your growing command of English. Use it to express your abilities and the abilities of others. Incorporate it into your conversations in English.