I am a English learner from Poland. One thing confuses me often while reading in English. It is the sentence "can never". Does that sentence mean that one will never be/do something 100 percent? Or it means it is possible that one will not do something but it is not 100 percent (can never do this, but also can always do this)?

  • Note that can never isn't a "sentence". It's just an [auxiliary] verb + adverb word-pair, which requires a subject and main verb to be a full sentence - Pigs can never fly, for example. Commented Jan 15, 2021 at 17:44

3 Answers 3


The meaning of “can never” depends on the context. There is a very similar question like yours that goes into great detail right here.

From Karl

This means that 'they' are not capable of performing 'X'. They have no legs, so they can never walk. They have no way of earning money, so they can never have expensive things. 'X' is impossible for 'them', so it will never happen.

  • I think Karl is mistaken. In his examples, "can never" doesn't mean "will never happen" (it's closer to "it never happens"). Circumstances could change - the person could obtain a way of earning money, or could be given some money. They could be given an artificial walking aid. "They can never walk" expresses the fact that currently they are unable to work, and "can never" implies that the inability is ongoing and repetitive, not that it is permanent. To express permanency, we'd probably say "...they will never be able to...".
    – rjpond
    Commented Jan 15, 2021 at 12:19
  • @rjpond: I don't agree with any of that. If I say This problem can never be solved, I'm not leaving the door open for the possibility that things might change in the future, such that it can be solved. It's true that idiomatically people sometimes use never when they mean not often, but that's a quirk of colloquial speech not reflective of the more normal literal use of the words can and never. Commented Jan 15, 2021 at 17:52
  • @FumbleFingersReinstateMonica You're right that sometimes "can never" can mean "will never be able to", but I'm not convinced this is the shade of meaning it carries in the sentences cited by Karl. Not because "never" is being used non-literally, but because "can" is being used in a manner typical of the present tense to refer to a recurring situation. "They can never buy expensive things" does not necessarily mean the same as "they will never be able to buy expensive things". NB you can say "every time we go to Paris, he can never afford anything"; it doesn't imply he'll never be able to.
    – rjpond
    Commented Jan 15, 2021 at 18:16
  • I think that's just clutching at straws. Can means be able to, and never means at no time (past, present, and/or future, depending on context). Just because people tend to exaggerate sometimes doesn't mean learners should assume these words don't actually "mean" what the dictionary says. Commented Jan 15, 2021 at 18:29
  • I don't believe what I am describing is a question of exaggeration but a separate matter of interpretation/scope.
    – rjpond
    Commented Jan 15, 2021 at 18:31

"Can never" isn't a sentence. The meaning depends on context. It is not necessarily an expression of certainty.
Indeed, colloquially "can never" means "often can't":

  • "I can never understand what he's talking about."
  • "I can never find my keys!"
  • "I can never find a parking space."

"I can never" often refers to habitual, repetitive experiences.

When talking about the future, we tend to say "I'll never be able to" or "I'm never going to be able to" (though these doesn't express certainty either - just as often, they are an expression of despair: "I'll never be able to finish the essay in time"). So "I can never ride a bike" suggests "I never get the opportunity to ride a bike" (habitual/present), whereas "I'll never be able to ride a bike" is a prediction that I'll never be able to (whether in terms of ability or opportunity).


At first you need to understand the differences between "can vs could" "Could" means possibility depend on context "Can" means It's certain or you can say 100% according to context.

  • That's not quite true. If someone says "I can give you a lift tomorrow", they believe currently that they are able to offer you a lift, but they aren't expressing certainty that nothing will get in the way of it. And if someone says "Sorry, I can't tell you my secret", there is no guarantee that they won't change their mind, nor even that they felt complete certainty at the time they made the statement.
    – rjpond
    Commented Jan 15, 2021 at 12:17

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