There are 2 definitions of can in English:


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

  • 1Be able to: they can run fast I could hear footsteps he can’t afford it
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    • 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
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    • 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 holidaymakers can take money abroad
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    • 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?
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    • 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?
  • 1.4Used to indicate that something is typically the case: antique clocks can seem out of place in modern homes he could be very moody
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    • 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.
  • 2Be permitted to: you can use the phone if you want to nobody could legally drink on the premises
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    • 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.
  • 3Used to request someone to do something: can you open the window? can’t you leave me alone?
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    • 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?
  • 3.1Used to make a suggestion or offer: we can have another drink if you like
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    • 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?


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 may and can when used to request or express permission, as in may/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.

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Word of the day kerf
Pronunciation: kəːf
a slit made by cutting with a saw

There are 2 definitions of can in English:


Line breaks: can


  • 1A cylindrical metal container: a petrol can a can of paint
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    • 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 aluminium container in which food or drink is hermetically sealed for storage over long periods: a beer can
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    • 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 lager
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    • 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: our friends will get a year or two in the can
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    • 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: she walks in and has to use the can
  • 4 (cans) • informal Headphones.

verb (cans, canning, canned)

[with object] Back to top  
  • 1Preserve (food) in a can: sardines and anchovies are worth the extra money if canned in olive oil
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    • 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 from a job: he was canned because of a tiff over promotion
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    • A county wastewater employee says he was canned for speaking out against a private company.
    • I watched a district and regional manager fire an employee for a more than acceptable reason, and end up getting canned themselves when the employee sued for wrongful termination.
    • Needless to say he was canned along with his boss and dismissed from government work
  • 2.1Reject as inadequate: they canned the project
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    • 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.


can it

North American informal
  • 1Stop talking; be quiet: “Can it!” I growled
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    • "Geez, Jack, can it, okay?"
    • "Can it, Rambo," cut in Mosely-Braun.
  • 2Stop doing something: I told him to can it, 'cause he was getting to be annoying
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    • In response, The CEO told the ham radio guys to " can it ".
    • I wish you had told them to can it, or at least walked away.

a can of worms

A complicated matter likely to prove awkward or embarrassing: to question the traditional model of education opens up too big 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: all went well, the film was in the can
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.


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

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