Main definitions of can in English

: can1can2



  • 1Be able to.

    ‘they can run fast’
    ‘I could hear footsteps’
    ‘he can't afford it’
    • ‘Your best return is likely to be had by reducing the debt as fast as you can.’
    • ‘If you are not working but can still afford it, consider contributing to your pension.’
    • ‘Somehow the gap between what can be afforded and the price of houses must be bridged.’
    • ‘As well as losing her speech, Holly's eyesight is fading fast and she can no longer walk.’
    • ‘From the ridge he could see for miles in all directions as the horizon stretched away into the misty mountains.’
    • ‘They rip up old track quickly and lay new track much faster than can be completed by hand.’
    • ‘The gallery is full of extraordinary art with price tags people can actually afford.’
    • ‘I also work hard but because I am taxed to the hilt I can rarely afford to play hard.’
    • ‘In much the same way, the human brain can only operate as fast as its slowest brain cells.’
    • ‘Dedicating a room to formal dining and nothing else is a luxury most of us can ill afford.’
    • ‘His wife and family did what they could to make life bearable, but his loneliness remained.’
    • ‘The challenge for me is first to make the final and then to go as fast as I can.’
    • ‘The police are eager to speak to anyone who can help us to find and arrest the culprits.’
    • ‘At six or seven years old, if you can run fast you're a great player and everyone wants you in their team.’
    • ‘You travel four times faster than you can walk using the same amount of energy.’
    • ‘It turns out men and women can set the alarm clock or preset some radio stations with equal ease.’
    • ‘She has seen the effect council cuts and price increases have had on those who can least afford them.’
    • ‘Phil on the other hand drives fast and you can feel it when he changes the gears but it's not too bad.’
    • ‘Sometimes she could not get her car out of the garage because rubbish bags were against them.’
    • ‘Anyone can drive fast, what's more important is how good you car looks when it stops.’
    • ‘What they want is one or two books a week which sell in thousands, pretty much as fast as they can unpack them.’
    1. 1.1Be able to through acquired knowledge or skill.
      ‘I can speak Italian’
      • ‘You just know that as soon as he can speak, he's going to be asked what he thinks of Joe being his father.’
      • ‘I've been playing football since I could walk.’
      • ‘At times like these I wish I could drive.’
      • ‘He has great skills, can punch, has good hand-speed and he fought exceptionally well.’
      • ‘All the performers can dance, so what I was really observing was their personalities.’
      • ‘All you need to do is bring the child up in a group of other humans who can speak.’
      • ‘While she could play a few instruments and sing quite well, his daughter had no interest whatsoever in being a musician.’
      • ‘I don't know anyone who can paint like me.’
      • ‘I was raised around horses and could ride before I could walk.’
      • ‘Why does Paul use a translator to communicate with a man whose language he can speak?’
      • ‘They let me work for them because they need people who can speak lots of languages.’
      • ‘My belief is that voice recognition software is now so good that anyone can blog if they can speak.’
      • ‘Not only can he not read music, he cannot read at all.’
      • ‘His greatest skill is that he can cook a meal of four dishes and a soup in less than half an hour in the field.’
    2. 1.2Have the opportunity or possibility to.
      ‘there are many ways holidaymakers can take money abroad’
      • ‘The grant is not ring-fenced, so the money can be spent any way the council chooses.’
      • ‘Instead, they can vote by phone, internet or drop their postal ballots off in person.’
      • ‘Participants can choose to do one, two or three peaks depending upon how far they want to walk.’
      • ‘It means parents can save money by booking their annual holiday just outside the peak season.’
      • ‘You can choose a book from the full list on the library website and drop into your local library to borrow a copy.’
      • ‘Always opt for four individual shots if possible so that you can choose the best of the four.’
      • ‘Byng is excited by the new opportunities publishing can enjoy through the internet.’
      • ‘I am not on the phone but anyone interested can write to me at the address below.’
      • ‘Buyers can choose to take part for one day and visit the exhibition the next day, or for both days.’
      • ‘We also need your name and a phone number so we can contact you as you might be needed to be a witness.’
      • ‘She can even check the timetable on her mobile phone to find out if Darren's bus has left on time.’
      • ‘I feel safer to know that my three older children can call me or I can call them on the mobile phone.’
      • ‘Breakfast could be eaten in the shade of the pines on the promontory while watching fishing boats putter across the waves.’
      • ‘You have a right to be offended by that, and if you are you can choose not to buy the records.’
      • ‘The fund can be used for any purpose determined by the Secretary of the Treasury.’
      • ‘In 1886, postcards gained the full authorization of the Congress of the Universal Postal Union and could be sent internationally.’
      • ‘If that's true for you, then take a look at the wide variety of accessories you can choose from.’
      • ‘Do you have a file on him I could take a look at?’
      • ‘You can usually choose the date for your operation, which is very rarely cancelled.’
      • ‘There are a number of practical considerations governing the kind of tree we can choose.’
      • ‘Now I don't have too big a problem with all this as I can choose to read as much or as little as I want too.’
      • ‘You simply get to choose a smaller portion of any of the main courses, or you can choose to share a main course.’
      • ‘Well, maybe it isn't fair that one very rich man can use his money to buy any player his club chooses.’
    3. 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?’
      • ‘How many Japanese mobile phone owners can want to know about North London happenings?’
      • ‘What can Blackburn offer these areas that their existing councils fail to provide?’
      • ‘If you live in New York City, you can't have missed the foundation's first set of ads.’
      • ‘How misguided can you be to choose to eat your lunch in a place that has always been noted for pigeons?’
      • ‘Who but the most resentful can seriously doubt that he, too, belongs on that list?’
      • ‘Now, if a telephone company can't even sort out their own phone lines, how can they sort out mine?’
      • ‘Surely he cannot be serious as to the farming out of such a serious subject as the future of the environment’
      • ‘How in that case, can the sky simply open and pour upon a whole big city hour after hour after hour of rain?’
      • ‘Where could she be?’
      • ‘If this was the pinnacle of what the the tour can offer, what can the lower reaches be like?’
      • ‘Players like that are few and far between and can we really afford to lose another of our goalscorers?’
      • ‘What could be more perverse than playing hard to get when looking for the one we can really open up to?’
    4. 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’
      • ‘Just as easily as she could be annoying, she could turn around and be cute the next second.’
      • ‘Make sure that the hole you put it into is wet as those little roots can dry out very fast.’
      • ‘Scotland have got some really useful forwards who can pose a threat to any side.’
      • ‘When group thinking manifests itself in the form of group knowledge, then it can be a good thing.’
      • ‘Even November in Florida could be hot, and that day was no exception.’
      • ‘In the early days after the birth, it can be useful to set aside some time to rest when the baby sleeps.’
      • ‘Previous research has already indicated that vitamin C can do harm as well as good.’
      • ‘A rugby career only lasts so long, but friends you make can be useful in later life.’
      • ‘In just six weeks he has learned that the internet can be an extremely useful tool for research.’
      • ‘A little adrenaline can be useful but stress is generally not healthy or helpful.’
      • ‘I think some knowledge can be highly destructive, and all too often in this game, it is.’
      • ‘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’
    • ‘It takes a couple of seconds to phone a team doctor and check if you can take something.’
    • ‘It argues that motorists are often confused as to how fast they can go on certain roads.’
    • ‘Some other places can stay open for longer because they have an entertainment licence.’
    • ‘Only law officers could legally bear arms.’
    • ‘Tell your child she can phone you at any time while away on a visit, if she's upset or worried in any way.’
    • ‘At this time, civilians could not buy and operate surplus military aircraft in Australia.’
    • ‘You are told that you can open the door at any time you wish, but only once, and only briefly.’
    • ‘Canada, however, can only take 11 players to the Olympics.’
    • ‘The men will also face restrictions on who they can meet and on access to mobile phones and the internet.’
    • ‘Signal controlled crossings mean pedestrians can only cross when permitted to do so.’
    • ‘Teenagers can't go into pubs and clubs without fake ID.’
    • ‘Secondly, the bigger casinos will need to get a regional licence before they can open.’
  • 3Used to request someone to do something.

    ‘can you open the window?’
    ‘can't you leave me alone?’
    • ‘Could you not stick to what I actually said?’
    • ‘Can't you be more reasonable?’
    • ‘Could you do me a favor?’
    • ‘Can you open that window?’
    • ‘Can't you go outside for a minute?’
    • ‘Alice, can't you please offer any advice or give me a hand to overcome these uncontrollable urges?’
    • ‘Could you please shed some light on this issue?’
    • ‘Could you get me some of that shampoo?’
    • ‘He emerged from the shop empty handed, and said: I'm sorry, can you lend me £6?’
    • ‘I have a problem with my computer, can you help me?’
    1. 3.1Used to make a suggestion or offer.
      ‘we can have another drink if you like’
      • ‘We could have another go if you like?’
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘You can try calling him if you want to.’
      • ‘‘We could stay another week,’ Trent suggested.’
      • ‘I can go a lot slower if you want.’
      • ‘Michael said he could take me and Christie home.’


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


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.




Main definitions of can in English

: can1can2



  • 1A cylindrical metal container.

    ‘a petrol can’
    ‘a can of paint’
    • ‘Mix them together and pour the paint back into the cans.’
    • ‘The number of paint cans was unbelievable, and there were many different chemical compounds from oven cleaner to fertilizers, all free for the taking.’
    • ‘It's not like a screwdriver, which you at least can use to pry a paint can open.’
    • ‘He looked at the two of them, then looked at all the metal cans on the floor of the opposite side of the room, as well as the burn marks along the wall.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘We could not afford to attend the local gyms, so we worked out in a garage with anything we could use as free weights, such as paint cans.’
    • ‘Plans are finalised, paint cans and brushes lined up, and the cheerful clatter of harmless domestic activities continues.’
    • ‘There was a small crowd at the gate, with metal cans, who had come to collect milk.’
    • ‘The emphasis on cans and metal containers has allowed the company to focus on more than just its information and manufacturing systems.’
    • ‘The burglars made off with two 20-litre petrol cans and a welding machine.’
    • ‘Rusty paint cans and twisted pieces of metal crunched underfoot as I carefully ran the rope over top of the junk and around the side of a huge misshapen refrigerator.’
    • ‘Use old coffee cans for storing paint brushes and crayons.’
    • ‘All kinds of plastic packaging, metal cans, and other rubbish entangle and strangle sea turtles, sea birds, sea lions and fish.’
    • ‘Because the oil-based paint comes in small cans and dries quickly, he can't mix or blend large amounts.’
    • ‘In the close confines, she tripped over some paint cans.’
    • ‘Each student needs two metal cans with lids (a 5-gallon can and l-gallon can).’
    • ‘Mr Hyndman showed the Bowles family that as well as paper, plastic, glass, metal cans and organic waste could also be recycled.’
    • ‘For example, one may think that recycling metal cans is important, but not recycle them because it takes too much time.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘Their prime customer, a manufacturer of metal cans, was delighted.’
    tin, canister
    jerrycan, oilcan
    container, receptacle, vessel
    View synonyms
    1. 1.1A small steel or aluminium container in which food or drink is hermetically sealed for storage over long periods.
      ‘a beer can’
      • ‘Aluminum foil, beer and soft drink cans, paint tubes, and containers for home products are all made of aluminum alloys.’
      • ‘A bottle bank for all types of glass and a can bank for food tins and aluminium drink cans is situated beside the Industrial Units on Church Road.’
      • ‘Organic soups come in all different packaging - steel cans, aseptic cartons, glass jars and dried-soup cups.’
      • ‘Empty bottles, cans and food containers are just chucked in the bushes and along the pavements, and while Belle Vue Gardens are being revamped the litter is thrown in there.’
      • ‘The litter, plastic bags, food wrappers and cold drink and beer cans in front of the post office are still there.’
      • ‘The waste matter for the blue bin includes papers, magazines, cardboard, food tins, aluminium drink cans, milk cartons and plastic bottles.’
      • ‘It is made entirely of aluminum beer and soda cans, their labels badly bleached over the years by the intense Texas sun.’
      • ‘Beer bottles, soft drink cans, confetti, paper, food and other unmentionables coated the floor in a thick layer of debris.’
      • ‘Epoxy-based coatings are frequently used as internal lacquer coatings of cans and storage vessels in the food industry.’
      • ‘Cut open the loops on plastic binding which holds beer and soft drinks cans together so wildlife cannot get tangled up in them’
      • ‘This bag will take clean cardboard, drink cans, food cans, tetra pak, plastic bottles, newspapers, magazines and other paper.’
      • ‘Similarly, beer and soft drink cans, booze bottles and empty jars can all be recycled.’
      • ‘Householders will not be expected to sort their aluminium and steel cans or different colours of glass.’
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘There are many recycling sites on supermarket car parks where you can recycle paper, steel cans, aluminium cans, clothes, and glass.’
      • ‘The relocating of the Bring Centre seems to have had the desired effect as much greater use is now being made of the containers to dispose of drink and food cans and clear brown and green glass.’
      • ‘All facilities consist of four banks where the public can deposit glass bottles and jars as well as aluminium drink cans for recycling.’
      • ‘Glass bottles and jars and aluminium drink cans should not be sent to landfill.’
      • ‘Recycling centre users are reminded that the facility is only to be used for glass and aluminium drink cans.’
      • ‘Green, clear and brown glass, steel food cans and aluminium cans may be recycled at this venue.’
      tin, canister
      jerrycan, oilcan
      container, receptacle, vessel
      View synonyms
    2. 1.2The quantity of food or drink held by a can.
      ‘he drank two cans of lager’
      • ‘We very rarely have aluminium cans at home and probably the only time we would have any would be if we bought cans of drink whilst out for the day.’
      • ‘Apart from the damage that drinks dispensing machines are doing to school pupils' teeth, cans of sugary drinks are also adding to their daily calorie intake, resulting in obesity.’
      • ‘When we arrived at the house, John took a good few pink tablets and drank whiskey and cans of cider.’
      • ‘Cole rummaged around in the drawer to find a spoon and peered under the sink to find the dry food and cans of food.’
      • ‘A long-time friend of Mark said he drank up to 20 cans of lager a day and had a tempestuous relationship with Claire.’
      • ‘The crazy guy, on a dare, drank five cans of Coke in under ten minutes.’
      • ‘I ran to my fridge and grabbed about four cans of food and a water bottle.’
      • ‘I remember the steel cabinet in our basement that my mother kept stocked with cans of food.’
      • ‘He strained his eyes in the poor light, trying to read the labels on the cans of food - bake beans, canned spaghetti, baby corn, pumpkin soup and beetroot.’
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘I wonder if I should go buy some extra cans of tinned food?’
      • ‘The visitors went through 1,880 filled rolls, 700 cans of soft drinks and more than 1,000 cups of tea or coffee.’
      • ‘The 122,000 cans of food collected by the teams were then donated to the Greater Vancouver Food Bank Society.’
      • ‘Once inside the premises he drank two cans and three bottles of beer, worth £11.92 in all.’
      • ‘Slamming and reopening the cupboards below the sink several times, he finally produced a large bag of dog food and several cans of soft puppy food.’
      • ‘When the chatty, high-energy nurse went to Haiti for the first time four years ago, she took boxes of medicine, cans of food and piles of clothes.’
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘Fill a basket with a water bottle, hair-holding accessories and cans of a high-energy drink.’
      • ‘Last night I did consume quite a few cans of soft drink.’
      • ‘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.’
  • 2North American informal Prison.

    ‘our friends will get a year or two in the can’
    • ‘Robert faces a year in the can for drug money laundering despite claiming that he never realized his cousin was a drug-dealer.’
    • ‘Monty appears to have changed, but what will he be like after seven years in the can?’
    • ‘I felt badly about not telling her about the stretch of time I spent in the can, but she was probably better off not knowing.’
    • ‘I do hope that she straightens out, but her actions merit real charges, and time in the can.’
    • ‘While he may not have a violent crime on record, he's spent plenty of time in the can for other offenses.’
  • 3North American informal The toilet.

    ‘she walks in and has to use the can’
  • 4informal Headphones.


  • 1Preserve (food) in a can.

    ‘sardines and anchovies are worth the extra money if canned in olive oil’
    • ‘The Oneida Cannery helps members preserve food by canning, drying, pickling or cooking traditional foods for special meals or celebrations.’
    • ‘While canning vegetables and making fishcakes may be regarded as industrial processes there are many processes that may not be treated as industrial.’
    • ‘Excess berries, should you ever reach that point, can be frozen, canned or made into jam.’
    • ‘Often, coho are either sold frozen or canned by commercial fisherman.’
    • ‘Picked while young and tender, and canned in pint or quart jars depending on the size of the family, lima beans will be the piece de resistance of your winter stores.’
    • ‘Gooseberries make delicious pies, jams and jellies as well as chutneys, sauces, fruit vinegars and wine, and can be preserved easily by canning or freezing.’
    • ‘By the 1880s canned foods had an important place in popular diet.’
    • ‘Some food companies now are canning vegetables with no salt added.’
    • ‘You can preserve your sauce by canning it in sterilized pint jars in a hot water bath for 35 minutes.’
    • ‘The fruit is to be canned in chunks, slices, titbits and juice.’
    • ‘Sometimes when I'd drive by late at night, I'd see him up canning tomatoes or making everyone's lunch for the next day.’
    • ‘High acid foods such as fruit should be canned in a hot water bath.’
    • ‘Corn, tomatoes, and green beans could all be easily canned as could sweet potatoes when packed in syrup.’
    • ‘After ripening, pears should be canned or preserved.’
    • ‘Disregarding the value of your labor, canning homegrown food may save you half the cost of buying commercially canned food.’
    • ‘The meat is usually canned and sold in supermarkets.’
    • ‘Although fresh tuna is a good source of omega 3 fatty acids, when tuna is canned the levels of these fats are reduced to a much lower level.’
    • ‘Eat dried fruits or those that are canned in their own juices.’
    • ‘Some low-sugar and low-salt foods may be easily and safely canned at home.’
  • 2North American informal Dismiss from a job.

    ‘he was canned because of a tiff over promotion’
    • ‘Needless to say he was canned along with his boss and dismissed from government work’
    • ‘Some three dozen instances have been documented of companies canning employees for what they write in blogs, including a case in Massachusetts.’
    • ‘Thomson does not know why he was canned from the company but he was growing increasingly dissatisfied with Price's management style, and should have just left on his own accord.’
    • ‘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.’
    1. 2.1Reject as inadequate.
      ‘they canned the project’
      • ‘Mr Boman said although the June quarter was traditionally slower than the March quarter, the sales slowdown could result in some projects being canned.’
      • ‘However, six months after commencement of my portion of the project, my industry sponsors canned their end of the deal.’
      • ‘A $3.5-million cleanup project was canned in May 2000 for feasibility problems.’


  • can it

    • 1informal Stop talking; be quiet.

      ‘“Can it!” I growled’
      • ‘"Can it, Rambo," cut in Mosely-Braun.’
      • ‘"Geez, Jack, can it, okay?"’
      be quiet, keep quiet, stay quiet, be silent, keep silent, stay silent, hold one's tongue, keep one's lips sealed
      View synonyms
    • 2informal Stop doing something.

      ‘I told him to can it, ’cause he was getting to be annoying’
      • ‘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’
      • ‘This is certainly opening up quite a can of worms.’
      • ‘I think it's a very difficult subject for me to get into because it would just open such a can of worms, and I really don't feel that it would be right for her memory.’
      • ‘He said: ‘We seem to have opened a can of worms, but it needed opening.’’
      • ‘Telling the truth will open a can of worms, and cause huge embarrassment to certain establishments.’
      • ‘The team have opened a can of worms with their antics of the past couple of days.’
      • ‘The chief executive said: ‘This is opening a can of worms and I think there would be a risk to patients.’’
      • ‘It can be less risky to ignore suspicions than open a can of worms that might end in a disastrous confrontation.’
      • ‘As one can imagine, this retreat opens a can of worms among its members for various reasons.’
      • ‘Amid some rancour and jostling, her supporters shouted ‘kangaroo court’ and predicted that ousting her from the party would open a can of worms.’
      • ‘Now I'm very aware that I could be opening a can of worms which would be better left closed, but I'm actually remarkably eager to hear a few other opinions on this issue.’
      • ‘Matters aren't helped when the investigation opens up a can of worms including blackmail, secrets, and adulterous affairs.’
      • ‘I frankly think the reason neither side has called Barbara is because she could open up a can of worms that neither wants to explore.’
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘This latest investigation has opened up a can of worms for officers.’
      • ‘The case, using the American Digital Millennium Act, has opened a can of worms for privacy advocates.’
      • ‘I always believed that we had opened a can of worms.’
      • ‘By questioning the validity of the scientific method, the new approach to science education opens up a can of worms.’
      • ‘King says she isn't trying to open a can of worms, just bring the city up to date.’
      • ‘If you open a can of worms, you can't shut them up again.’
  • in the can

    • informal On tape or film and ready to be broadcast or released.

      ‘all went well, the film was in the can’
      • ‘A director needs a decent film in the can to make another film.’
      • ‘I find it hard to believe that with all that potential footage in the can, all they found useable was 91 minutes worth.’
      • ‘Johnny has probably over 100 songs in the can that have never been released.’
      • ‘There is one project in the can that Anderson is determined to see through.’
      • ‘Produced for about the price of a cup of coffee, the film is proof that you don't need Hollywood's backing to get a good movie in the can.’
      • ‘The word is that this Chinese shoot-'em-up crime drama has caught the attention of Martin Scorsese and is in the can for an American remake.’
      • ‘Animation requires a lot of lead time and most of the first season is effectively in the can.’
      • ‘Six half-hour programmes should be in the can soon and ready for broadcast by the autumn; the remaining six programmes will be broadcast in the spring next year.’
      • ‘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.’


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