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Michael IELTS Band 9
Professional Teacher
Correct but strange (5) : a tricky use of "can"

Can” is used in a number of ways, most commonly to indicate possibility and ability.  Today, I want to outline a common situation when the word “can” is sometimes used incorrectly by students.

Firstly, I will give you a correct sentence with “can” which is not about possibility or ability.

White tigers can often be found in the Himalayas

This is very close in meaning to: “White tigers are often found in the Himalayas”.

can” is sometimes used to indicate that something is generally true. This usage is more common in writing and in more formal or academic contexts where it is important to be careful and tentative when making factual statements.

However, I sometimes see sentences from students like this:

“Every summer holiday, I can spend a lot of time on the beach.”

This sentence is grammatically correct, however it may not express clearly to the reader the writer’s meaning.  The writer may well have been thinking of the more formal use of “can” which I illustrated above in the “tiger” sentence.  But of course, the beach context is informal, and “can” is also used to indicate possibility and ability.  The writer said “Every summer holiday”, which would suggest to me that a present simple statement is coming.  So I am now confused. There may be other context which clarifies my doubt immediately.  However, if not, my internal reaction would probably be something like:

“I’m sure it’s possible for you to spend every summer holiday on the beach, but do you or don’t you?”

The student probably meant:

“Every summer holiday, I spend a lot of time on the beach.”

This is a fact, and we are now clearly not talking about the possibility of doing it.  There is no confusion.

In some languages, words which are close in meaning to “can” are used to express facts and everyday situations politely and less strongly.  Unfortunately, doing this in English can lead to confusion.  A present simple statement is usually the best option in spoken English and everyday contexts when you want to state a fact:

a) which is always true, or

b) which is true according to a certain frequency (e.g. never, sometimes, often, every summer). 

Is the word “can” used differently in your native language to English?  Do you know of any other modal verb confusions that arise? (There are plenty!) Thanks for reading.  


14 Eyl 2016 07:58
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Michael IELTS Band 9
Language Skills
English, French, German, Italian, Spanish
Learning Language
German, Italian