Past simple of modal verb “can”

Hey everybody!

How are you all? Good, we hope! So, we’ve previously looked at the modal verb “can” in the present tense and “cannot” or “can’t” in negative form in the present tense and it was relatively simple, right? Well, today we are going to look at how to use “can” in the past simple.

How to use “can” in the past simple

Like in the present tense where “can” is the conjugation used for all subjects, we can all rejoice once again as in the past simple “could” is the conjugation for all subjects too with not one subject having an exception. In the negative in past simple we would say “could not” or with contraction “couldn’t”.


I could ski ten years ago.

I couldn’t sleep last night.

Questions with “could”

Like when we form questions in the present tense with “can” by inverting the verb and the subject, you’ll be very happy to know that it is that simple in the past with “could” as well.


Could you understand her?

Could he get the TV to work?

Furthermore, like in the present tense with “can”, we can also do the same in the past simple with “could”


Could you understand what he said?

Yes, I could

Could she understand the question?

Yes, she could.

Could he pay the bill?

Yes, he could

Could they solve the problem?

Yes they could.

Impossibility with “couldn’t”

Like in the present tense when we use “can’t” to express impossibility, “couldn’t” is used in the past to express the same.


We couldn’t park in front of the entrance.

He couldn’t enter the country. He didn’t have a visa.

We couldn’t take the children to see the film. It was for adults only.

They couldn’t take photos in the museum. It was forbidden.

If you couldn’t practise this grammar point before…

If you were not able to express inability or impossibility in the past before reading this, then now is your chance to practise this grammar point as much as you can until you have it mastered. What are you waiting for? It’s time to practise!

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