can - definition and synonyms

modal verb strong

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Can is usually followed by an infinitive without ‘to’: I can speak French. Sometimes it is used without a following infinitive: Come and help us, if you can.
Can does not change its form, so the third person singular form does not end in ‘-s’: She can speak Japanese.
Questions and negatives are formed without ‘do’: Can you swim?
The negative form of can is cannot: We cannot allow this behaviour to continue. Cannot is often shortened in conversation or informal writing to can’t: I can’t find my brown jacket.
Can is often used in question tags: They can’t hear us, can they?
Can has no participles and no infinitive form. Be able to is used as the infinitive to show ability or possibility: I want to be able to choose my own career.
Could is used as the past tense of can when it means that someone had the ability to do something, or that something was possible: New York was a place where anyone could start a business. But was/were able to is used for saying that someone actually succeeded in doing something: By climbing on the table he was able to reach the window.
There is no future tense of can, but will be able to is used for saying that someone will have the ability to do something or that something will be possible in the future, especially after a long time: She’ll be able to walk soon.A hundred years from now people will be able to visit Mars. Can is usually used when planning or deciding about the near future: We can go shopping tomorrow.
There is no perfect tense of can, so has/have been able to is used: I haven’t been able to phone my parents yet.
  1. 1
    have the ability or means to do something
    1. a.
      to have the necessary ability, knowledge, money, or equipment to do something

      ‘Can you swim?’ ‘No I can’t.’

      Ingrid could play the violin by the time she was six.

      They couldn’t afford to pay for a proper funeral.

      The UN has promised to help as much as it can.

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    2. b.
      used for saying that you see, hear, feel, taste, smell, understand, or remember something

      Paul could hear someone calling his name.

      There have been May Day celebrations here for as long as anyone can remember.

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  2. 2
    used for saying what is possible
    1. a.
      used for saying whether the situation makes it possible for you to do something at a particular time

      I’m sorry, Dr Brown can’t speak to you now – she’s got someone with her.

      If it’s fine tomorrow, we can go fishing.

      How can I work with all this noise going on?

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    2. b.
      used for saying that it is possible to do something

      You can travel from London to New York in under 6 hours these days.

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  3. 3
    used when only one opinion, meaning, or decision is possible

    Can there be any doubt about his intentions?

    When he slams the door like that, it can mean only one thing – trouble.

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  4. 4
    used for saying that something sometimes happens or is sometimes possible or true

    Temperatures can reach 40 degrees C in the summer.

    Even minor head injuries can be serious.

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  5. 5
    [always in negatives] used for saying that you feel sure something is not possible or true

    The hotel can’t be far from here.

    Surely he can’t have forgotten about the wedding!

  6. 6
    to be allowed to do something, or to have the right or power to do it

    You can borrow my calculator if you want.

    Anyone aged 18 or over can vote in a general election.

    You can’t sit there. Those seats are reserved.

    Only the President could order the armed forces into battle.

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  7. 7
    spoken used in requests, or when offering or suggesting something

    Can you tell me where Mr Lawson’s office is?

    Can I have another piece of that delicious cake?

    Can I offer you something to drink?

    Can I make a suggestion?

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  8. 8
    [always in negatives] used for emphasizing that something should not happen or continue

    We can’t go on borrowing money when there’s no hope of ever paying it back.

    These men cannot be allowed to profit from their criminal activities.

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  9. 9
    [usually in negatives or questions] mainly spoken used when you want to emphasize how surprised or shocked you are

    He can’t be here already! I haven’t even started getting dressed.

    Of course I’m not deceiving you. How can you say such a thing!

  10. 10
    [usually in negatives or questions] spoken used with verbs such as ‘say’, ‘imagine’, or ‘believe’ when you are telling someone about a situation and you want to emphasize how strongly you feel about it

    I can’t tell you how relieved I am to know that everyone is safe.

    You can guess how I felt when he said I was too old.

    I can’t believe she told him that.

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  11. 11
    spoken used for saying what someone will have to do, when you are annoyed with them or do not approve of them

    If he doesn’t want to come to work on time, he can go and look for another job.

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