An investigation of learners’ use of CAN and COULD

Keywords: language acquisition, English modal auxiliaries, corpus analysis


CAN and COULD have multiple uses and multiple interpretations which can be difficult for learners of English to understand. For example, the difference of Can you help me? and Could you help me? may go unnoticed to an English language learner, but a native speaker of English would recognise a difference in politeness. The current paper reports on an investigation of learners’ use of the modal auxiliaries CAN and COULD, including their negative counterparts (cannot/can’t and could not/couldn’t), in an English Proficiency Program (EPP) classroom at a New Zealand University. Through first examining the learners’ use of CAN and COULD in spoken and written contexts, comparisons are made to their use in the British National Corpus, which results in the identification of areas in which learners’ use could be strengthened.    

Author Biography

Lauren Whitty, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

Lauren Whitty has a PhD in Applied Linguistics from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Lauren’s research interests include corpus-based research, grammar, pedagogy and learner input/output. Lauren has taught English for academic purposes in the United States and New Zealand for the past eleven years and recognizes the importance of research extending to the classroom. She is currently continuing her research on modals as post-doc fellow at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.