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Can vs. Could: Understand the Difference

‘Could’ and ‘can’ are both auxiliary (helper) and modal verbs. They are used to communicate:

  • Possibility

  • Ability

  • Permission

People often use can and could in similar ways, even though the words have slightly different meanings. Read on to explore how to use these two words the right way.

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Can vs Could: What’s the difference?

IELTS Grammar Exercises Conditionals

There are two main differences to think about when you’re trying to work out whether ‘could’ or ‘can’ is the correct verb:

  • Tense (is this happening now, in the past or in the future?)

  • Likelihood (is there a high or low chance that this will happen?)


‘Can’ is a present tense verb which is used to discuss:

  • A person's ability to do something now 

  • A future action which is very likely to happen

  • A more informal permission request

  • Granting permission


‘Could’ is a past tense verb which is used to discuss:

  • A person's ability to do something in the past

  • A future action which is less likely (may or may not happen)

  • A more formal permission request

Can vs Could: How to use them in a sentence

Which of these verbs you should use in a sentence will depend on the idea or action you are talking about.

Can vs Could: Communicating possibility 

Use ‘can’ if there is a high possibility that something will happen: 

  • “Spilled water can damage your computer”

  • “A flipped coin can land on heads or tails”

Use ‘could’ if there is a chance that something may happen, but it is less likely:

  • “My team could win the championship next year” 

  • “It could be sunny next Saturday”

Can vs Could: Communicating ability

Use ‘can’ if you are talking about a person's ability to do something in the present:

  • “I can run very fast”

  • “She can speak Spanish very well”

Use ‘could’ if you are discussing someone’s ability to do something in the past:

  • “I could run very fast when I was a child”

  • “She could speak Spanish when she was ten”

Can vs Could: Communicating permission

You can ask for permission using both ‘can’ or ‘could’:

  • Can I borrow that book?

  • Could I borrow that book?

‘Could’ is considered more formal than ‘can’ when asking for permission and is more likely to be used in professional settings. 

You may also use ‘can’ to give permission:

  • Yes, you can borrow this book.

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Preparing for IELTS

Taking the IELTS is an important step in your migration journey and it’s important to be prepared. When you take the IELTS, you will be scored on four key English comprehension skills:

Your band score for each of these skills will be used to calculate your overall IELTS score.

What IELTS score do I need to achieve?

The minimum IELTS score you need to achieve will depend on the visa, university or job you are applying for, as they may each have different eligibility requirements. 

As a guide, the minimum overall IELTS score you need for most Australian Universities and permanent migration visas is 6.0.

What study materials are available for IELTS test-takers?

When you take the IELTS, you are not alone. There are many study resources available to help test-takers prepare for the big day. 

IELTS Prepare is home to a wide range of free and premium study materials such as:

IELTS Prepare also offers test-takers the opportunity to filter study resources by skill, cost, format and many other options. This allows you to personalise your results and make sure you are focusing on the skills you want to practise the most.

Access FREE official IELTS mock tests

Why take an IELTS practice test?

Female IELTS test taker practices for IELTS Writing Task 2

Practice tests allow you to experience the type of questions you may be asked during your official IELTS exam. A practice test can help you understand which skills you have a good understanding of and which skills you may need to study more. Being familiar with the test formats can also help you to feel more comfortable on test day. 

There are both free and premium practice tests available. Premium Progress Check mock tests have the added benefit of being marked by qualified IELTS experts who can provide personalised suggestions for how to improve. 

How can videos and webinars help me study?

The IELTS YouTube channel is home to hundreds of informative videos designed to help test-takers succeed. Explore webinars and short videos which provide study tips, testimonials, scoring information and more. 

Some videos are longer and provide lots of detailed information about each test category, while others are bite-sized and perfect for squeezing in around your busy schedule. Try watching these videos during your daily commute or listening to them while you do housework. 

What is an IELTS Masterclass?

For a more intensive learning experience, join a free IELTS Masterclass. These 90 minute seminars are available online and face to face, and are presented by an IELTS expert. Sign up today to learn about:

  • Common mistakes and how to avoid them

  • Assessment criteria and band scores

  • The four sections of the IELTS test

  • Tips on how to understand and answer test questions

Is there an IELTS app?

Give yourself a competitive edge by downloading the official IELTS by IDP app. This all-in-one solution allows you to book your test, access personalised preparation materials and view your test results in one helpful space. 

App users receive 14 days of free access to the app-exclusive IELTS Preparation Course developed by Macquarie University. This course includes:

  • 16 expert-guided tutorials

  • 11 practice questions (with model answers)

  • 3 interactive quizzes

  • An example Task 2 Writing essay prompt

Ready to book?

Take the first step on your IELTS journey and book your IELTS test today. Find a testing centre near you and receive free bonus access to an online IELTS course worth $80. This course offers a choice of two study packages: 

  • One skill package: Ideal for test-takers who want to focus on one IELTS skill. This package includes 30 days free access to all study materials for one skill.

  • All skills package: Ideal for test-takers who want to focus on a little of everything. This package includes 4 days of unlimited access to all study materials for all four skills