Can I go on vacation next week? Could I go on vacation next week?

Although these sentences are very similar, they each have a unique meaning that can be easily misunderstood for English learners. If you can’t tell the difference between these two verbs and their meanings, don’t worry, because today we will be discussing these types of useful and very common verbs: Modal Verbs.

The good thing about these special type of verbs is that they are easy to learn and understand because they are used in the same way in Spanish.

These verbs have many possible uses, but today we will be discussing two of the main Modal Verbs- can and could, and how to use them in the workplace.


1. To express ability- to be able to do something physically or to know how to do something. Can is often used when someone like a boss or a co-worker asks you a question regarding your ability:

  • Can you operate a cash register? Yes I can.
  • Can you make an excel spreadsheet for our finances this quarter? I sure can, I learned how to operate excel a few years ago.

2. To offer to help someone or do something for someone

  • Can I help you find what you are looking for in our store?
  • I can carry your groceries to your car if you would like.
  • I can help you with your marketing project if you need it.

3. To ask for permission or give permission / to request something

  • Can I borrow your pen during my meeting?  Yes of course you can borrow my pen.
  • Can you forward me the email about the company event? I can send you the email as soon as I get back to my desk.
  • Can we take a quick break from the meeting? I need to return a client’s call.

4. Can’t (Cannot): Used for something that is prohibited or not possible

  • We can’t use the printer for personal purposes.
  • I can’t work past 6pm today because I have a doctor’s appointment.
  • We can’t use the company credit card for anything besides business purposes.
  • You can’t allow anyone besides yourself to use your company computer.

5. Can’t: when you are surprised about something, or are sure something is not true

  • I can’t believe that they fired Maria Jose! She was our best saleswoman.
  • It can’t be true that we have to work Monday because it is a holiday.


1. To express ability in the past

  • I could work longer hours without getting tired when I was younger.
  • We could have completed the whole project in one day if we didn’t have to go to all those meetings.

2. Permission in the past

  • I couldn’t go to work yesterday because I was sick.
  • She could have accepted the new job offer, but she didn’t want it.

3. When requesting something or asking for permission in a more formal/polite way

  • Could you please open the door for me?
  • Could you please cover my shift tomorrow?
  • Could I please go on my lunch break early today?
  • Could we all try to agree on a plan for the new marketing campaign?

4. A suggestion when asking what to do

  • You could try and talk to your boss about the problems you are having at work.
  • We could move the meeting to a later time to make sure you will be able to attend.
  • You could take the new job offer and put in your two weeks notice today.

As you can see, there are many different ways to use can and could in the work place. Because these two modal verbs are the some of the most common modal verbs, it is important to practice using each in the right context. Now that we have discussed the possible uses for each verb, now it is your turn to go out there and put these verbs to practice- you can do it!