1.A As a child, I was allowed to watch as much television on Saturday and Sunday mornings as I pleased.

1.B As a child, I could watch as much television on Saturday and Sunday mornings as I pleased.

2.A As a child, I wasn't allowed to watch as much television on Saturday and Sunday mornings as I pleased.

2.B As a child, I couldn't watch as much television on Saturday and Sunday mornings as I pleased.

"1.A" sentence is quoted from The Guardian, and is presumably grammatical, while the others are modified in order to ask this question.

Due to the not clear correspondence between English and Italian in using "could" and "potevo", I would like to know whether "1.B" and "2.B" sentences are grammatical and, if yes, whether they have the same meaning, respectively, of "1.A" and "2.A".

In other words, how are "could" and "couldn't" used to express permission in the past?

2 Answers 2


Two generations ago can for permission was not permitted in formal discourse; when I was a child I was taught to use can for capability and may for permission.

This has never been true in ordinary speech, however, and today can is generally acceptable in both senses. May is more and more restricted to 'epistemic' uses, expressing possibility rather than permission.

Furthermore, the construction be able to is more and more used instead of can = capability, in part because be able to supports much greater flexibility in tense and aspect construction, in part because the double sense of could creates ambiguities.

The language is in fact in the middle of a far-reaching shift in the use of all modal verbs. The rules are changing, albeit very slowly.

It doesn't matter much in speech, but in formal discourse where precision is essential, I recommend that you use unambiguous lexical verbs like allow or permit and be able to rather than the modals may and can.

  • My 8th grade German teacher called those the "Potty Words". Students would say "Can I go to the bathroom?" My teacher would respond with "I don't know; can you?" He wouldn't grant permission until the student would ask using a form of "may" as in "May I go to the bathroom?" I've never forgotten that lesson, and I've never forgotten that teacher either.
    – Eric S
    Commented Mar 11, 2013 at 0:14
  • @EricS The proper response to that is to say "Ah. Then I require clarification; for to say that I may go implies equally that I may not. Please, sir,am I to go to the bathroom?" Unfortunately, it won't work in German. Commented Mar 11, 2013 at 0:47

All sentences are grammatically correct, but 1B and 2B are not equivalent to 1A and 1B respectively.

I could watch does not imply I was allowed to watch. Likewise, I could not watch not imply I was not allowed to watch. For example, as a child, I could watch adult movies, but clearly I was not allowed to. Likewise, I was allowed to spend the whole day painting, but I could not (because I had other things to do).

Could and could not describes capability of doing something. To describe permission, you have to state it more explicitly, such as, "allowed to" or "permitted to".

  • This is true in a formal sense. However, in an informal sense, could implies allowed to all the time. "Mom said that I couldn't watch TV until I finished my homework" is very common usage.
    – BobRodes
    Commented Jun 29, 2013 at 7:26

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