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Can vs. Should: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Janet White || Published on December 14, 2023
"Can" refers to the ability or capacity to do something, while "should" implies an obligation, recommendation, or appropriateness in doing something.

Key Differences

"Can" is used to express ability, possibility, or permission, focusing on what is feasible or allowed. "Should" is employed to advise, recommend, or suggest what is considered right, proper, or advisable.
Both "can" and "should" are modal verbs in English. "Can" indicates potential or capability, while "should" conveys an expectation or recommendation.
Using "can" does not imply any moral or ethical judgment, it simply states a fact about capability or permission. "Should," however, often carries a moral or ethical weight, suggesting what is desirable or expected.
In various contexts, "can" is neutral, addressing the practicality or possibility of an action. "Should" is more subjective, dealing with what is considered appropriate or advisable in a given situation.
The meaning of "can" remains consistent, relating to ability or permission, whereas "should" can vary, sometimes indicating a probable event (e.g., "It should rain tomorrow").

Comparison Chart

Primary Usage

Ability, possibility, permission
Obligation, recommendation, advisability

Grammatical Role

Modal verb for capability/permission
Modal verb for advisability/expectation

Connotative Meaning

Neutral, factual
Often carries ethical or moral implications

Contextual Application

Practicality or possibility
Appropriateness or advisability

Variation in Meaning

Generally consistent
Can indicate likelihood or probability

Can and Should Definitions


Requesting or granting permission.
Can I leave early today?


Expressing expectation or likelihood.
He should arrive by noon.


Indicating possibility or occurrence.
Anything can happen in this city.


Suggesting a recommendation or advice.
You should try the new restaurant.


Signifying physical or mental capacity.
He can lift heavy weights easily.


Indicating obligation or duty.
You should apologize for your mistake.


Used in questions to offer or request.
Can I help you with that?


Used to consider a possible future action.
Should I start a new project?


Expressing the ability to do something.
I can speak three languages.


Indicating a condition for a possible outcome.
Should it rain, the event will be indoors.


A usually cylindrical metal container.


(auxiliary) Ought to; indicating opinion, advice, or instruction, about what is required or desirable.


An airtight container, usually made of tin-coated iron, in which foods or beverages are preserved.


Used to issue an instruction (traditionally seen as carrying less force of authority than alternatives such as 'shall' or 'must').
You should never drink and drive.
The law is clear that you should always wear a seat belt.
The manual says that this switch should be in the 'off' position.


Is 'should' a strong recommendation?

It often is, but can also be a mild suggestion.

Does 'can' require a specific context?

It depends on the situation but is generally versatile.

Does 'can' imply moral obligation?

No, it's neutral regarding morality or ethics.

What does 'should' imply?

Suggests obligation, advisability, or likelihood.

Can 'can' express certainty?

No, it typically indicates ability or possibility, not certainty.

Can 'should' indicate a probable event?

Yes, it can suggest something is likely to happen.

Can 'can' be used in questions?

Yes, especially for requests or offers.

Can 'can' indicate permission in the past tense?

'Could' is used for past permission.

What does 'can' imply?

Indicates ability, possibility, or permission.

Are 'can' and 'should' interchangeable?

No, they serve different grammatical and contextual purposes.

Is 'should' used in formal contexts?

Yes, it's common in both formal and informal contexts.

Is 'should' used for giving advice?

Yes, it's commonly used for recommendations or advice.

How does 'should' express expectation?

By indicating what is likely or anticipated to happen.

Does 'can' have a past tense form?

Yes, 'could' is the past tense of 'can.'

Is 'should' subjective or objective?

It's often subjective, depending on the speaker's perspective.

What's a common mistake with 'can' and 'should'?

Confusing their usage regarding ability vs. advisability.

Are there exceptions to using 'can'?

Usage may vary in idiomatic expressions or informal speech.

Can 'should' be used conditionally?

Yes, often in conditional sentences to imply a prerequisite.

Can 'can' be used to express future ability?

Yes, in contexts implying future capability.

How does context affect 'should'?

The context can change its degree of recommendation or expectation.
About Author
Written by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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