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Present and past modal verbs

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    Teacher: Chris
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    Ability in the present and past (1)

    When we want to describe the ability to do something in the present we often use can. When we want to describe the ability to do something in the past we use could, the past form of can.

     

     

     

     

    Sentence (present)

    Explanation

    Sentence (past)  Explanation

    +

    I can swim

    When we have the ability in the present

    I could swim

     
    When we have the ability in the past 

    -

    I can't swim



    When we do not have the ability in the present

    I couldn't swim  When we do not have the ability in the past

    ?

    Can you swim?

     

     

    When we want to know about someone/something else's ability in the present

    Could you swim when you were younger?

     

     

    When we want to know about someone/something else's ability in the past

     

     

    Ability in the present and past (2)

    An alternative to both can and could is be able to. The form be able to can be used in both the present and the past and functions in exactly the same way as can and could

     

     

     

    Present form

    Past form

    +

    He is able to play the piano

    Aged three, he was able to ride a bike

    -

    She isn't able to sing well

    Aged two, I wasn't able to use a computer

    ?

    Is he able to speak German?

    Were you able to get a job?

     

    Although can/could and be able to in the present and past are the same in many situations, it is important to remember that can/could can be used for general abilities but be able to can be used for specific abilities or specific moments when abilities are used.

     

     

    Modal verbs: expressing difficulty

    When we want to describe the ability to do, or not do, something that is difficult for us we can use manage to in both the present and the past:

     

     

     

    Sentence (present)

    Explanation

    Sentence (past)  Explanation

    +

    I manage to finish my work on time

    It is difficult for me but I can finish my work without doing extra work later

    We managed to get tickets for the concert

     
    We succeeded in doing something that is difficult in the past

    -

    I don't manage to speak to my Mum every day



    It is not possible for me to have the ability to call my Mum every day

    I didn't manage to pass the exam It was difficult so I did not have the ability to do something

    ?

    Do you manage to exercise regularly?

     

     

    When we want to know if someone has the ability to do something that is difficult

    Did you manage to find the car keys?

     

     

    When we want to know if someone had the ability to do something in the past

     

     

     

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