Magnificent Modals! Part 2: Permission (requests) and ability

“Please, sir, can I have some more?” is a very famous quotation from a character in English literature called Oliver Twist.  The modal verb in this sentence  is “can”.  and it is being used in this sentence to ask for something. Let’s look at how this works.

To start, here is  a short Youtube video lesson on modals of permission and ability in the present and past.

Asking for permission

The modal verbs which express permission are can, could, may  and might. There are also some other ways to ask for and give permission which we will look at.


Can  is the least formal of these verbs. We use it when we are asking a friend or someone we know for something in an informal situation; or if we are asking someone we don’t know for something which is small or unimportant. For example, Can I open the window? or Excuse me – can I just get past? 


Could is very similar to can and can be used in exactly the same way. It is a little more polite, so we can use it in more formal situations, or to ask for something more important, e.g. Could I borrow the car this afternoon? or Could I have some time off work please? 

(We can add possibly or Do you think… to be even more polite, e.g. Could I possibly borrow the car this afternoon? or Do you think I could have some time off work please? )

Could I borrow the car this afternoon?

May and might

May is similar to could but it is even more polite, and also a little old-fashioned, so it is not used as often. We can say May I use your phone? in a formal situation instead of Could I use your phone? but it is important to remember that it is not a good idea to be TOO formal as you could sound sarcastic to the person you’re talking to!

Giving and refusing permission

To give permission, we use can and may (but NOT could). The response is usually Yes, you can or Yes, of course / Yes, no problem. “Yes, you may” is very formal and not used very often.  To refuse permission responses include No, sorry, you can’t and I’m afraid not. Exclamation point. Again, using may not is very formal and a little old-fashioned, so “No, you may not” is quite unusual. (Remember, mayn’t is not used.)

Would you mind holding this, please?

Other ways to talk about permission

To talk about what a rule is, we can use (not) be allowed to. This can refer to the past, present and future, e.g.:

  • Past: We weren’t allowed to visit the prisoners
  • Present: We aren’t allowed to visit the prisoners
  • Future: We won’t be allowed to visit the prisoners

Could is not used for past permission for particular actions but only in general. So, we can say I could stay out until it was dark / I was allowed to stay out until it was dark, but I could leave work early yesterday is not correct. (However, could is used to report permission – e.g. My boss said I could leave work early yesterday).

Would you mind? can also be used to ask for permission, especially if you want to be polite and slightly formal, e.g. Would you mind if I opened the window? Exclamation point. Remember of course, that to give permission when you are asked this, the response is, “No, I don’t (mind).” This can feel as if you’re refusing because you’re saying no!


We use can, could and be able to when we talk about ability.

The children can swim like fish


We use can to say that someone has an ability in the present, e.g. Conor can play the piano. We also use can to talk about a future possibility, e.g. Let’s have lunch tomorrow. We can go to the new Italian restaurant.

The negative is can’t or cannot.

Can has the same meaning as be able to. I’m able to swim means the same as I can swim but it is a little more formal.

The past of can is could. We use this to talk about general past ability, e.g. I could swim when I was 5 years old. With verbs of seeing, hearing etc. and with verbs of thinking etc., we normally use could. E.g. We could see the village in the distance.

However, if the past ability resulted in a particular action, we use was/were able to but not could. So, “I could swim when I was 5″ andI was able to swim when I was 5″ are both correct but not I could swim across the flooded river. We must say I was able to swim across the flooded river because it was a particular action in the past.

Negative sentences and questions are actually much easier! We can use couldn’t or wasn’t/weren’t able to for all past abilities and when we ask. There was a storm, so the plane couldn’t / wasn’t able to land. Were you able to / could you cross the flooded river?

There is no future of can, so we also use be able to if we want to talk about ability in the future, e.g. Sean will be able to practise as a lawyer when he qualifies next year


So, that’s enough of the rules – now it’s your turn to practise!

Modals of permission explanation and exercises at

There is a “Modals basketball game” here which you can play alone or challenge your friend 🙂


Can, could, be able to exercises at

and also at

… and also at

And now to relax after all that work, here are some songs using modal verbs!


Here is a useful table of the uses of modal verbs which you can find here

English Modal Verbs – Situations Table

Situation Modal Verb Example
may May I sit down?
can Can I sit down?
could Could I sit down?
would Would you mind if I sit down?
may You may sit down.
can You can sit down.
must You must tell the
police the truth.
should You should tell
your friends the truth.
obligation (partial)
(less common)
ought to You ought to tell
your friends the truth.
logical conclusions
(stronger than “should”)
must He left an hour ago, so he must be there already.
logical conclusions
(weaker than “must”)
should He left half an hour ago,
I believe he should
be there already.
can It can rain sometimes.
(weaker than
“may” and “might”)
could It could rain, but it is
not very common in this
part of the country.
(weaker than “may”)
might It’s not very cloudy yet,
but it might rain.
(stronger than “might”)
may It’s starting to get cloudy –
it may rain soon.
future actions/states/intentions will Look at the sky!
It will rain soon.

Images: Some clipart provided by


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