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What Can the English Word "Can" Mean and How to Get it Right in Spanish

written by: Eric W. Vogt • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 2/14/2012

Are you trying to say 'Can' in Spanish? Maybe you mean a tin can, but probably not... This article is about the ways in which the idea of "can" is expressed in Spanish.The story isn't limited to the verb "poder" either!

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    Can, Could and More

    I'll start with a funny story.

    Once, after teaching a review lesson about helping verbs plus infinitives, I assigned only one sentence for the following day (they were struggling). The sentence was I can go. They were to translate it into Spanish. At least half the class (of 25) got it right: Puedo ir. I also accepted Yo puedo ir. However, the range and types of wrong answers revealed a number of conceptual deficits, or perhaps attention problems. Imagine my surprise when I saw Yo lata ir and Yo lata voy or lato ir... and so forth. The word lata means a can, as in a tin can.

    There is a moral to this story, for teachers and students. At the most basic level, that of knowing parts of speech and how to use a dictionary correctly, several freshmen had been sorely left behind. Some of the other errors also revealed no knowledge of conjugation or no recollection that only the helping verb is to be conjugated. One decided that lata (the noun) could be made into a verb (hypothetically latar!)... So, be careful when classifying the function of a word. Dictionaries always will indicate the part of speech, so be familiar with their abbreviations.

    As for how to deal with can -- a helping or modal verb which in English refers to an ability or capacity to do something, the verb poder is usually the solution, but remember that in the present tense (indicative or subjunctive) it means, simply can or, as in asking permission, may.

    Mi amigo puede acompañarnos esta tarde (My friend can go with us this afternoon).

    No puedo ver bien desde aquí (I can't see well from here).

    Mamá, ¿podemos ir a la playa mañana? (Mom, may we go to the beach tomorrow?)

    In the conditional, it means could. It is the form to be used when expressing the consequence of a hypothetical statement (the imperfect subjunctive is used in the if-clause).

    Podría hacerlo si tuviera las herramientas (I could do it if I had the tools).

    When used in questions, the use of the conditional instead of the present indicative makes the request more polite.

    ¿Podrías ayudarme con la tarea? (Could you [please] help me with my homework?)

    Using the imperfect subjunctive makes a question even more polite. This feature of the language is shared by poder, querer and deber and is known as degrees of politeness.

    ¿Pudieran invitar a mi amigo Jorge? (Might you all be so kind as to invite my friend George?)

    Finally, the idea of can is often expressed with another verb: saber. This is because when saber is followed by an infinitive, it means to know how to do something.

    Mis amigos saben tocar la guitarra (My friends can/know how to play the guitar).

    ¿Sabes nadar? (Can you/Do you know how to swim?)

References

  • Author's more than 20 years experience teaching and translating Spanish.

Spanish Usage

The articles in this series deal with various questions about the right choice of word or phrase when English may have one or two structures but Spanish has more. They often deal with prepositional issues.
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  2. Using "Actual" and "Actually" in Spanish
  3. A Problem Preposition: The Ways "About" is Expressed in Spanish
  4. The Many Spanish Faces of the English Verb "to Agree"
  5. Spanish Usage Questions: Ways to say "Again"
  6. Expressing the Many Meanings of After
  7. Spanish Usage Questions: How to Say "Ahead"
  8. Spanish Usage Questions: "Anyone" and "Anybody"
  9. Using "Anyway..." in Spanish
  10. Let's Learn About How to Talk About Appointments & Dating
  11. What Do You Use for "Around" in Spanish
  12. The Spanish Verbs Meaning "to Ask" are Many!
  13. Beware of False Cognates! How to Express "Attend," "Assist," and "Help"
  14. Are You "Cool" or "Cold"? Explore the Nuances in Spanish
  15. The Difference Between "Why" and "Because" in Spanish
  16. The Temporal and Spacial Meanings of "Before": How to Get it Right in Spanish
  17. Don't Be Left in the Dust! Learn to Express the Meanings of "Behind" in Spanish
  18. Get the Low Down on the Preposition "Below" and Say it Right in Spanish!
  19. Understand Saying "Help" in Spanish
  20. Translating "Beside" & "Besides" into Spanish: Interesting Solutions!
  21. Not all Meanings of "But" Are Equal!
  22. Expressing the Various Meanings of the Preposition "By" in Spanish
  23. What Can the English Word "Can" Mean and How to Get it Right in Spanish
  24. Spanish Usage Questions: "Corner"
  25. The Word "Country" in Spanish
  26. The Various Meanings of "Outweigh" in English and How to Express Them in Spanish
  27. Expressing the Idea of "Ownership" in Spanish
  28. How to Express "Time & Distance" in Spanish
  29. Treat, Try, Attempt, Deal with... In Spanish, You Probably Need "Tratar"
  30. Spanish Usage Questions: "Having Fun"
  31. Even a Word Like "Even" Has Many Counterparts in Spanish
  32. Don't Go Wrong When You Look for Ways to Express "to fail"
  33. Do You Mean "Fair" Weather, a "Fair" Game or a "Fair" Complexion? Learn How to Say Them in Spanish!
  34. Love, Desire and Wanting -- Spanish Style!
  35. Discover the Right Spanish Verbs for Taking, Holding, Grabbing... and More
  36. You Have Nothing to Fear Except Not Knowing How to Say "Fear" in Spanish!
  37. Spanish Equivalents of the Common English Word "Find"
  38. Discover the Various Meanings of "Middle" and How to Say Them in Spanish
  39. Not All Spanish Words Meaning "Worker" Are Created Equal

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