Can Vs Be Able To: What’s the Difference?


What is the difference between be able to and can?

In this post, you’ll learn the meaning of can vs be able to. You will also learn how to use can vs be able to in sentences.

Can Vs Be Able To

First of all, both ‘can’ and ‘be able to’ can be used to express ability. Here are some examples:

  • I can speak English very well.
  • She can speak Spanish fluently.
  • I am able to speak English very well.
  • Lisa is able to swim.

Can is a modal verb. It has only one form with all subject pronouns. ( I/you/he/ she/ it /we/ you/ they can swim.)

However, be able to is a modal in meaning, but not in form. That is, ‘be able to’ has different forms depending on the tense and the subject pronouns.

As we said before, we use ‘can’ and ‘be able to’ to talk about ability. The table below displays can vs be able to in different tenses and in the affirmative and negative forms.

Can Vs Able to Grammar

can vs be able to grammar
Can vs be able to Past Present Future
was/were able to
used to be able to
am/is/ are able to
will be able to
wasn’t/weren’t able to
didn’t use to be able to
am not/ isn’t/ aren’t able to
won’t be able to
Can vs able to grammar
We use can for ability in the present tense.
  • Jack can cook.
  • My kid can count up to twenty in Spanish, but can’t count up to ten in Chinese.
  • He can dance, but he can’t sing.
We use will be able to in the future.
  • Our baby will be able to stand up by itself in a few weeks.
  • I think he will be able to fix my car.
  • This government won’t be able to rule the country in the coming years.
For ability in the past, we use could or was/were able to or used to be able to
  • Fortunately, the pilot was able to land the airplane safely.
  • She read my message, but she couldn’t understand it.
  • They weren’t able to finish the exam on time.
  • He used to be able to run fast.

Can Vs Be Able to in Yes-No Questions

PastCould you climb trees when you were young?
Were you able to find a cheaper hotel near the beach?
PresentCan you swim?
Is he able to climb the stairs?
FutureWill we be able to see you when we arrive?

Can Vs Be Able to in Wh-Questions

  • Where were you able to stay?
  • When could you ride a horse?
  • When could you ski?
  • How fast can Peter run?
  • When will you be able to visit the National Gallery?

Could Vs Was Able to Difference

Was able to and could are both used to talk about ability in the past, but there is a slight difference between them.

To express ability in the past, we normally use was/were able to (not could) when talking about a specific situation. Look at the following examples:

  • The pilot was able to land the plane safely. ( on that specific occasion)
  • I could climb tall trees when I was still a child. (general ability at any time in that period)
  • He could ride a horse when he was young. (general ability at any time in that period)
What Is the Present Perfect Tense of Be Able To?

The present perfect tense for be able to is: have/has been able to.

What Is the Past Perfect Tense of Be Able To?

The past perfect tense of be able to is: had been able to.

Is it grammatically correct to say I can be able to?

It’s not grammatically correct to say I can be able to, but we can say might be able to.

Related posts:

Their vs There

Their vs There Worksheet pdf with Answers

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