Asking questions with ‘can’

(Rules for the formation of questions with ‘can’)

How are questions with ‘can’ formed?

Using questions with the modal auxiliary verb ‘can’ is very common use in the English language. In case there is no additional question word as for example ‘how, who, where, why’, etc., ‘can’ appears at the beginning of the question. However, there are two important points that need to be considered:

  • The English verb ‘can’ can only be used as an auxiliary verb and not as a main verb, which means that an additional verb always has to be employed in an interrogative sentence (question):
    • Can I have a coffee?”
    • Can I see your passport, please?”
    • Attention: In other languages the use of ‘can’ may be different and so a sentence like Can your sisters speak Italian?” may also be expressed without a main verb. However, in the English language this is not possible:
      • “Can your sisters Italian?”
        • This is considered to be incorrect English grammar.
  • As ‘can’ is a modal verb, even in the third person singular nos’ is added:
    • Can Sabrina help me with my computer problem?”
    • Can John take you to the airport?”

Now compare the use and the formation of questions with ‘can’ in the following table:

Verb forms of questions with ‘can’

Consider all the possible forms of questions with ‘can’ as an auxiliary verb in combination with ‘to speak’ as a main verb in the table below. The verb ‘can’ is invariable and maintains the same form in all persons (an ‘s’ is never added):

Pronoun Question Positive short answer Negative short answer
I Can I speak French? Yes, I can. No, I can’t.
you (singular) Can you speak Italian? Yes, you can. No, you can’t.
he Can he speak Russian? Yes, he can. No, he can’t.
she Can she speak German? Yes, she can. No, she can’t.
it Can it speak Spanish? Yes, it can. No, it can’t.
we Can we speak English? Yes, we can. No, we can’t.
you (plural) Can you speak Czech? Yes, you can. No, you can’t.
they Can they speak Dutch? Yes, they can. No, they can’t.

For detailed information, have a look at the article about the conjugation and verb forms of modal verbs in the present simple.

How are question words used in questions with ‘can’?

Whenever an interrogative sentence contains an additional question word (for example ‘where, why, how much’, etc.), ‘can’ changes its position and does not appear at the beginning of the sentence anymore. Compare the following possibilities:

  • The word order changes when an additional question word is used:
    • Where can I find a bank?”
    • Who can give me some advice?”
    • Why can’t we have a break now?”
    • How many days can he stay at home?”

Further explanations relating to the ‘Formation of questions with ‘can’

The following explanations relate to the topic ‘Asking questions with ‘can’’ and can be helpful: