Meanings of the modal CAN in English | DailyStep English

Meanings of the modal CAN in English

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This is Jane Lawson's Audio Blog #125 at DailyStep English

Jane Lawson English teacher Hello, I'm Jane at DailyStep English and welcome to my Audio Blog!

This blog will teach you all the uses of the word CAN, both as a modal and as a noun.  Do you know them all? Also, check that your pronunciation of CAN is correct in its strong and weak forms. There are also some free audio summaries of all the topics in next week's DailyStep audio lessons.

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Here is Audio Word Study #122 from Jane Lawson at



Can is one of the most commonly used modals, but make sure you know all its meanings. A modal is a word that gives a special meaning to a verb. Examples of modals are CAN, COULD and MAY. You can learn how to use these other modal verbs in some of my other audio blogs.

Meaning 1: If you can do something, you are able to do it. This meaning expresses ability
Examples: 1. “Can you speak English?”   “Yes, I can.” (note: In the question, can is a weak sound, pronounced /kən/. In the answer, can is a strong sound, pronounced /kæn/. In the other examples, please notice whether the pronunciation of can is strong or weak.)
2. I will do all that I can to help you. (note: this means “I will do everything that I am able to do in order to help you.)

3. “Can you play the piano?”    “No, I can’t, but I can play the guitar.”

Meaning 2: We sometimes use ‘can’ when we are giving permission or asking for permission.
Examples: 1. “Can I use your pen, please?”   “Yes, you can. Please go ahead.”
2. You can’t park here because it is a ‘Residents Only’ zone. (note: this means ‘you are not allowed to park here.’)
Meaning 3: We sometimes use ‘can’ when we want to request something in an informal style.
Examples: 1. If you find my bag, can you please let me know?  (note: Another way to say this is If you find my bag, would you mind letting me know?” This is more formal than ‘can’.)
2. Can you call your sister? It’s time for dinner.


Meaning 4: We use ‘can’ to express possibility. 
Examples: 1. You can buy milk at the shop on the corner. (note: this means It is possible to buy milk at the shop on the corner.)
2. You can be very funny at times. (note: this means “It is possible for you to be very funny sometimes.”)
3. “Lack of exercise can make you fat.”  “Can it? I will go for a run, then!”

Meaning 5: We use ‘can’ when we are making a polite offer of help.
Examples: 1. Mr Robertson will be back soon. Can I help you at all?
2. Can I offer you some help with your bags? They look very heavy.

So these are the meanings of CAN as a modal, but the word CAN is also a noun! 
Meaning: A can is a closed metal container, often shaped like a cylinder, in which some kinds of drink and food are sold. We also call this a ‘tin’.
Examples: 1. I bought three cans of soup at the shop. (note: we can also say “I bought three tins of soup at the shop.”)
2. In this recipe, you need one can of tomatoes.


Now, try to write your own sentences using CAN. Try to make them true to your own life if possible as this will help you to remember them better.

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