I'm not an expert at grammar, but I'm a native English speaker. I'm trying to help a Spanish speaker learn English. She confuses when to use "to" with "want" or "can". For example, she will say, "I can to use..." and "I want use...". I instinctively know that the word "can" does not use "to" before a verb, while "want" does.

I want find rules governing this. If you can to help me, I'd appreciate it. (Please excuse the illustrative pun).

  • 2
    This is actually a very hard question. "Can/could" is one of a short list of special verbs called modals (such as "will/would" or "may/might"). They have special rules, one relating to their use with the infinitive. Here is a good article (although I disagree with it in one minor respect.) According to the article, Spanish does not have modal verbs so she will simply have to learn the list (it is short) and the special rules. Jan 4, 2020 at 17:43
  • 1
    Does this answer your question? to-infinitives against bare infinitives. Where the answer says Some verbs of perception (feel, hear, notice, observe, overhear, see, watch) can be followed by ... a bare infinitive. But it also applies to some verbs of "ability", such as can, might, would. Jan 4, 2020 at 18:08
  • This is very simple: can cannot be followed by to. End of story.
    – Lambie
    Oct 22, 2020 at 18:37

2 Answers 2


Want and querer in Spanish work similarly.

Quiero hablar con ella = I want to talk to her.

Spanish infinitives end in -ar, -er, or -ir. English ones begin with to with a few exceptions. Using want like this is not one of them.

Can is a modal verb. Here's all the common English modals:

can could will would shall should may might

English likes to use an additional word in front of the verb to change verbs (whereas Spanish would rather use a different type of conjugation or ending). The above words are examples of those.

Modals are special (versus auxillaries like have or be) in that they don't change at all according to plurality (you don't say He cans go to the park).

I can talk to her.

In English, you can replace can with be able to, which is not a modal verb.

I am able to talk to her.

This directly maps to Spanish poder

Puedo hablar con ella.

but if you're going to use the infinitive with can then you have to say be able to.


The rule is: want takes a "to"-infinitive clause; can takes a bare infinitive (clause).

These are properties of those particular words, as arbitrary as their pronunciation and meaning: they simply have to be learnt along with those other arbitrary properties.

It might help to note that can is a modal, (like could, will, would, should, may, might, must). But that it not saying much more than "can takes a bare infinitive".

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