Learn to Use "Can" for Permission and Requests in English

We use "can" in these ways:
- to ask for something
- to ask to do something
- to ask other people to do things for us.

Here are some examples.

"Can I open the window in here?"
"Can we sit here?"
"Can I have two coffees and a coke, please?"
"Can you help me?"

To be polite in English, you can add "please" at the end of a question asking someone to do something for you:

"Can you get me the menu, please?"
"Can you tell me the time, please?"

How to reply to a request

Here are some positive replies:

"Can I open the window in here?"
- Sure, go ahead.
- No problem.
- No worries.
- Yes, sure.
- Yes, of course you can.

"Can you help me?"
- Of course!
- Sure!
- Certainly!

Here are some negative replies (when you refuse a request):

Can I open the window in here?
- Actually, I'd prefer it closed.
- I'm sorry, but I'm cold.

Can we sit here?
- Sorry, the seat's taken.
- I'm sorry, but you can't. Someone else is sitting here.

("Sorry" or "I'm sorry" makes a negative reply more polite.)

Grammar rules

Can is a modal auxiliary verb. This means:

1. There is no "s" with he / she / it

"Can" doesn't change:

Can I have the menu?
Can you pass me the newspaper?
Can she sit next to me?
Can we pay you now?
Can they use the VIP lounge?

2. After "can" use the infinitive form of the verb without "to"

Can I pay by credit card? (Not "Can I to pay by credit card?")
Can you post this letter for me? (Not "Can you to post this letter for me?")

3. You don't need "do" or "does" in the question form

This is because "can" is already an auxiliary verb (like the verb to be).

"Can I sit here?" (Not "Do I can sit here?".)
"Can the doctor see me in the morning?" (Not: Can the doctor to see me in the morning?")

See our page on Modal auxiliary verbs in English for more explanations and examples of modal auxiliaries like "can".

The short form answers are:

Yes, you can / No you can't
Yes s/he can / No s/he can't
Yes they can / No they can't

Learn other uses of can

We also use "can" to talk about ability ("I can play the guitar), and to talk about possibility ("It can sometimes rain in summer in the UK").

In these situations, use "not" or "n't" to form the negative.

"I can't play the piano."
"He can't sing very well."
"They cannot use HTML programming code."

Pronunciation

When we use "can" in questions, the /a/ is pronounced the same way as the /a/ in "hat".

But the /a/ in the short form answer "can't" is pronounced the same way as the /a/ in "father".

Can Exercise

Choose the correct answer.

1. Can I __ this chair please?
2. Yes, you __
3. __ my friend stay for dinner tonight?
4. No, he __
5. Can she __ the exam next month, and not next week?
6. I'm afraid she __
7. __ pass me the newspaper please?
8. Can you __ the door for me please?
9. __ leave early?
10. No, you __

Now go on to the next page where you learn house vocabulary: English Vocabulary for Rooms and Furniture


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