Sunday, February 20, 2011

Modals plus - talking about ability (can, could, be able to etc.)


This lesson includes:
  • talking about ability in the present and future.
  • talking about general ability in the past and ability on specific occasions in the past.
  • the different uses of can, could and be able to
  • the difference between could never and never could
  • using the verbs manage and succeed for past ability


1. Ability in the present and future

Do the two exercises and then check the summary of rules.

Ex 1a - Complete these sentences about present and future ability using the words in the box. ?

can   be able   not able   able to   can't  
1.She speak four foreign languages.
2.The candidate should to speak fluent English.
3.They've been come to an agreement at last.
4.He's run 100 metres in 10 seconds.
5.He will to see you tomorrow afternoon.
6.I do it tomorrow afternoon, if you like.
7.We might not to do that.
8.She make it to the wedding.
9.She won't to do it until next week.
10.I've never been understand her.
11.I'm afraid we are to fulfill your request.
12.They do it before next Thursday.
Ex 1b - See instructions belowcancan'table tonot able to
1.present positive ability
2.present negative ability
3.ability after a modal (+ and -)
4.ability with perfect aspect (+ and -)
5.ability with a future tense (+ and -)
6.a decision made now about the future (+ and -)

Ex 1b - Look at the sentences in Ex 1a and decide which words or expressions you can use to express the functions above. There may be more than one answer to each usage.

Note - not able to can be expressed in several ways:
  • not able to
  • unable to
  • no longer able to

Summary of the rules for 'ability in the present'

  1. We use can / can't (cannot) to speak about ability or possibility in the present.
    She can speak four foreign languages.
    She can't make it to the wedding.
  2. We can also use be able to / not be able to, but usually prefer can
    He's able to run 100 metres in 10 seconds. (He can run ...)
    I'm afraid we are not able to fulfill your request. (We can't ...)
  3. But with Perfect tenses we have to use be able to and not can.
    They've been able to come to an agreement at last.
    I've never been able to understand her.
  4. Similarly with other modal verbs (eg: should, might), we can't use can but have to use be able to instead.
    The candidate should be able to speak fluent English.
    We might not be able to do that.
  5. The same is true when we use will for the future.
    He'll be able to see you tomorrow afternoon.
    She won't be able to do it until next week.
  6. But we use can (or be able to) when we decide now about something in the future.
    I can do it tomorrow afternoon, if you like. (I'll be able to do it ...)
    They can't do it before next Thursday. (They won't be able to do it ...)

2. Ability in the past

Do the two exercises and read the notes that follow them, then check the summary of rules.

Ex 2a - Complete these sentences about past ability using the words in the box. ?

1.At the age of eight she already speak three languages.
2.And when she was ten she was speak another two languages.
3.When I was 15 I ride a motorbike.
4.Nor was I drive a car.
5.Unfortunately I find my keys last night.
6.But I was unlock the door with a spare key.
7.Although I wasn't find the original keys.
8.They were contact the trapped miners several times.
9.She smell gas coming from the cooker.
10.But she distinctly remember turning off the gas.
11.I understand a word of what he was saying.
12.We see any food shops anywhere.
Ex 2b - See instructions belowcouldcouldn'table tonot able to
1.positive general ability in the past
2.positive ability on a particular occasion
3.negative general ability in the past
4.negative ability on a particular occasion
5.ability with the verbs remember, understand, see, hear, feel etc (+ and -)
6.ability on more than one occasion (+ive)

Ex 2b - Look at the sentences above and decide which words or expressions you can use to express the following. There may be more than one answer to each usage:

Note 1 - manage and succeed

When talking about being able to do something on a particular occasion in the past we sometimes use the verbs manage and succeed instead of be able to, especially if there was some difficulty involved.

Ex 2c - Complete the sentences using one small word plus the verb in brackets in the correct form.

1.He managed from the burning vehicle. (escape)
2.They succeeded the spread of the wildfires. (control)

Note 2 - Adverbs of frequency

Look at this sentence
When I was young, I was never able to ride a bicycle 'hands free', at least not for more than a few seconds.
Are we talking here about a general ability, or an ability on a particular occasion?
Now look at this little story:
There was a particular computer game he used to play when he was a teenager. He always managed to get to Level 2, he was often able to get to Level 3, but only sometimes succeeded in getting to Level 4. However, he never managed to get to Level 5.
Adverbs of frequency describe how often or the number of occasions something happens. The sentence about riding a bicycle looks as though it's about general ability, but the word never here really means: not once, on no occasion, so can take verb forms appropriate for ability on a specific occasion. So we could equally well say:
... I never managed to ride a bicycle 'hands free' ...
or
... I never succeeded in riding a bicycle 'hands free' ...
Note 3 - Restrictive expressions with could
These can be used in a similar way to couldn't with ability on specific occasions.
Because of the strike, I could only get home last night by walking the whole way.
She could hardly walk, she was so drunk.
Note 4 - could have done
This refers to something that was possible in the past, but didn't happen. It is perhaps therefore really more about possiblity than ability.
I could have walked, but I decided to take a taxi.
You could have phoned me!
Note 5 - could never and never could - what is the difference?
There are several songs with never could in the title
  • Never could toe the mark - Waylon Jennings
  • Never could have been worse - Trigun
  • Never could believe - The Damned
I have seen suggestions in a couple of forums that could never is about the present / future, and never could is about the past. But it's not quite that easy. It's all about context. Look at these sentences, which are indeed about the present / future:
I could never do what you do.
Bungee jumping? I could never do that!
In fact could never in those sentences could be replaced by would never be able to. But now look at these sentences, which are all equally clearly about the past, and try saying them out loud. Which words would you stress?
I could never understand what she saw in him.
I never could understand what she saw in him.
We could never agree about anything.
We never could agree about anything.
The difference here is not one of time but one of emphasis. Look how the stress changes in these two sentences (make out = understand, getting at = trying to say):
I could never make out what she was getting at.
I never could make out what she was getting at.
The first uses normal word order and is almost a neutral statement of fact, whereas the second, by changing the expected word order and stress, really emphasises the fact that I was never able to understand her, and perhaps says something about my attitude. While this structure: never could do something is, I think, only used about the past, there is, however, at least one way we can use never could ( = never be able to) like this for the future:
Of course I don't hate you. I never could (and I never would).

Summary of the rules for 'ability in the past'

  1. We use could / could't to speak about a general ability in the past or at a particular period in the past.
    My aunt could speak four foreign languages. (She died a few years ago)
    My wife, who's Belgian, could speak four foreign languages by the time she was five.
    He couldn't drive until he was 35.
  2. We can also use be able to / not be able to to describe general past ability.
    She was able to speak four foreign languages by the time she was five.
    He wasn't able to drive until he was 35.
  3. But for positive ability on a specific occasion (or occasions) in the past we use be able to and not could.
    We were able to get a last minute deal on a holiday to Egypt.
  4. For negative ability on a specific occasion (or occasions), however, we can use couldn't as well as not able to.
    He couldn't unlock the door that evening.
    She wasn't able to think up a suitable excuse for being late.
  5. Sometimes we use manage to do or succeed in doing for ability on a particular past occasion, especially if there was some difficulty involved. These can be used in both positive and negative.
    I finally managed to beat him at tennis last week.
    She succeeded in finding a job straight after leaving university.
    He didn't manage to get his essay finished on time.
    We never succeded in our attempts to catch him out.
  6. We tend to use could rather than be able to (depending on context) after certain verbs, especially:
    • Verbs of sensation: see, hear, smell, taste, feel
    • Certain verbs of perception: remember, understand
    I could see someone trying to get into the house next door.
    She could clearly remember locking the door.
    but when it is more about ability than sensation or perception, we have a choice:
    I could / was able to see the door of the house from where I was sitting.
    She could / was able to remember every card that had been played.

If in doubt when talking about ability, present or past, use a suitable form of be able to. It will nearly always be correct. But if you want to sound more colloquial, try and practise the different forms.

3. Practice exercises

Ex 3a - Complete the sentences using can or can't where possible (the context should tell you which). Where this is not possible use a suitable form of (not) be able to.

1.He cook really well.
2.As for me, I've never cook.
3.Unfortunately I'm busy tomorrow, but I meet you on Wednesday.
4.Have you asked David. He might help you.
5.He'll practise as a lawyer when he passes these exams.
6.We deliver your new cooker tomorrow.
7.Good news! I've get that book you were after.
8.I'm afraid I do it tomorrow, I'm busy.
9.She to get a job until she gets some experience.
10.Pete sing for all the world, I think he's tone deaf.

Ex 3b - Complete the sentences using could or couldn't where possible (the context should tell you which). Where this is not possible use a suitable form of (not) be able to.

1.She ride a pony almost before she walk.
2.Luckily we get tickets for the show.
3.We went to the sales and find lots of bargains.
4.We find a restaurant open anywhere.
5.Jenny wasn't at home but I contact her on her mobile.
6.They hear footsteps behind them in the dark.
7.I ski until I was in my twenties, when I took lessons.
8.He distinctly remember asking for black coffee, not white.
9.She didn't want to come, but finally I persuade her.
10.Even as a small child, David play the piano really well.

Ex 3c - Complete the sentences using the word in brackets and a word from the box in a suitable form. You may also have to add a word or two.

everything   remember   dance   make   meet
pick   get   understand   find   open  
1.We up a real bargain in the sales. (manage)
2.They only the problem worse. (succeed)
3.He used to like Fred Astaire. (able)
4.I couldn't that attachment you sent me. (manage)
5.She always she did. (succeed)
6.He was busy and wasn't me at the station. (able)
7.We've finally just the right present for her. (manage)
8.It was so embarrassing, I could his name. (never)
9.I never the theory of relativity. (could )
10.Great news! She's into Oxford after all. (succeed)

Answers to the exercises.

No comments: