There are 2 main definitions of can in English:


Syllabification: can

verb (3rd singular present can; past could /ko͝od/)

1Be able to: they can run fast I could hear footsteps he can’t afford it
More example sentences
  • What they want is one or two books a week which sell in thousands, pretty much as fast as they can unpack them.
  • It turns out men and women can set the alarm clock or preset some radio stations with equal ease.
  • From the ridge he could see for miles in all directions as the horizon stretched away into the misty mountains.
1.1Be able to through acquired knowledge or skill: I can speak Italian
More example sentences
  • You just know that as soon as he can speak, he's going to be asked what he thinks of Joe being his father.
  • Not only can he not read music, he cannot read at all.
  • At times like these I wish I could drive.
1.2Have the opportunity or possibility to: there are many ways vacationers can take money abroad
More example sentences
  • Well, maybe it isn't fair that one very rich man can use his money to buy any player his club chooses.
  • Byng is excited by the new opportunities publishing can enjoy through the internet.
  • She can even check the timetable on her mobile phone to find out if Darren's bus has left on time.
1.3 [with negative or in questions] Used to express doubt or surprise about the possibility of something’s being the case: he can’t have finished where can she have gone?
More example sentences
  • Who but the most resentful can seriously doubt that he, too, belongs on that list?
  • How many Japanese mobile phone owners can want to know about North London happenings?
  • Now, if a telephone company can't even sort out their own phone lines, how can they sort out mine?
2Be permitted to: you can use the phone if you want to nobody could legally drink on the premises
More example sentences
  • You are told that you can open the door at any time you wish, but only once, and only briefly.
  • Only law officers could legally bear arms.
  • It takes a couple of seconds to phone a team doctor and check if you can take something.
2.1Used to ask someone to do something: can you open the window? can’t you leave me alone?
More example sentences
  • He emerged from the shop empty handed, and said: I'm sorry, can you lend me £6?
  • Can you open that window?
  • Can't you be more reasonable?
2.2Used to make a suggestion or offer: we can have another drink if you like
More example sentences
  • We could eat out somewhere and get to know each other if you want.
  • Once again, can I reiterate my offer to Mrs Fell to go through any problems she has.
  • We could have another go if you like?
3Used to indicate that something is typically the case: antique clocks can seem out of place in modern homes he could be very moody
More example sentences
  • In just six weeks he has learned that the internet can be an extremely useful tool for research.
  • Even November in Florida could be hot, and that day was no exception.
  • Inscriptions in public places can also indicate the social status of the artist.


Old English cunnan 'know' (in Middle English 'know how to'), related to Dutch kunnen and German können; from an Indo-European root shared by Latin gnoscere 'know' and Greek gignōskein 'know'.


Is there any difference between can and may when used to request or express permission, as in may I ask you a few questions? or can I ask you a few questions? Many people feel that can should be reserved for expressions denoting capability, as in can you swim?, rather than for those relating to permission. May is, generally speaking, a politer and more formal way of asking for something, and is the better choice in more formal contexts. See also may1 (usage).

Definition of can in:

There are 2 main definitions of can in English:


Syllabification: can


1A cylindrical metal container: a garbage can a can of paint
More example sentences
  • The emphasis on cans and metal containers has allowed the company to focus on more than just its information and manufacturing systems.
  • On the safety side of the issue, rust damage could occur to the bottoms of stored metal containers such as cans of thinner and other combustible fluids.
  • The company, which has had to ship coffee in retro metal cans, is now telling retailers supplies will be back to normal by early December.
1.1A small steel or aluminum container in which food or drink is hermetically sealed for storage over long periods: soup cans
More example sentences
  • Green, clear and brown glass, steel food cans and aluminium cans may be recycled at this venue.
  • The waste matter for the blue bin includes papers, magazines, cardboard, food tins, aluminium drink cans, milk cartons and plastic bottles.
  • Each eligible household is given a black box to put in newspapers, magazines, glass bottles, steel and aluminium cans, textiles and foil to be recycled.
1.2The quantity of food or drink held by a can: he drank two cans of beer
More example sentences
  • Mr Barton said he and Mr Whitelock, who had been friends since they were 12, had drunk cans of lager and alcopops earlier that evening in a field behind Mr Whitelock's house.
  • It was not just the larger stores who experienced an upsurge in sales as town centre shops became a hive of activity with people stocking up on everything from cans of cold drinks to fans.
  • I suppose you could invite a gang of male friends around, drink cans of lager, turn it up loud and all bounce around in a huddle - but that stopped being my idea of fun quite a while ago.
2 (the can) North American informal Prison.
More example sentences
  • Robert faces a year in the can for drug money laundering despite claiming that he never realized his cousin was a drug-dealer.
  • While he may not have a violent crime on record, he's spent plenty of time in the can for other offenses.
  • I do hope that she straightens out, but her actions merit real charges, and time in the can.
3 (the can) North American informal The toilet.

verb (cans, canning, canned)

[with object] Back to top  
1Preserve (food) in a can.
More example sentences
  • Some food companies now are canning vegetables with no salt added.
  • By the 1880s canned foods had an important place in popular diet.
  • Disregarding the value of your labor, canning homegrown food may save you half the cost of buying commercially canned food.
2North American informal Dismiss (someone) from their job: he was canned because of a fight over promotion
More example sentences
  • Smarty-pants David gets canned for being smug and superior.
  • Now, compare that treatment with the fate of conservative talk show hosts punished or canned for controversial speech.
  • If we're suspending officials for game-changing calls, someone needs to get canned for one of the worst calls we've seen.
2.1Reject (something) as inadequate: the editorial team was so disappointed that they canned the project
More example sentences
  • Mr Boman said although the June quarter was traditionally slower than the March quarter, the sales slowdown could result in some projects being canned.
  • A $3.5-million cleanup project was canned in May 2000 for feasibility problems.
  • However, six months after commencement of my portion of the project, my industry sponsors canned their end of the deal.


Old English canne, related to Dutch kan and German Kanne; either of Germanic origin or from late Latin canna.


a can of worms

A complicated matter likely to prove awkward or embarrassing: to question the traditional model of education opens up a can of worms
More example sentences
  • I was told by one of his officials that delving into such matters would merely open a can of worms!
  • Unfortunately, by making a company liable for a crime that its technology is used to commit, they're opening up a can of worms that is likely to become quite messy.
  • Telling the truth will open a can of worms, and cause huge embarrassment to certain establishments.

in the can

informal On tape or film and ready to be broadcast or released.
More example sentences
  • A director needs a decent film in the can to make another film.
  • He worked on the set for quite a while, and even got 48 hours of film in the can.
  • Having two sequels in the can before the first film even opens is risky, though.



More example sentences
  • We really had no other choices but to join a cooperative, as no independent canners would buy our peaches.
  • Tomato canners love viscous, or nonwatery, tomatoes because less cooking is needed to produce thick sauce.
  • In 1908 a San Antonio company canned chili and other canners followed.

Definition of can in: