[ kan; unstressed kuhn ]
See synonyms for can on
auxiliary verb,present singular 1st person can,2nd can or (Archaic) canst,3rd can,present plural can;past singular 1st person could,2nd could or (Archaic) couldst,3rd could,past plural could.
  1. to be able to; have the ability, power, or skill to: She can solve the problem easily, I'm sure.

  2. to know how to: He can play chess, although he's not particularly good at it.

  1. to have the power or means to: A dictator can impose his will on the people.

  2. to have the right or qualifications to: He can change whatever he wishes in the script.

  3. may; have permission to: Can I speak to you for a moment?

  4. to have the possibility: A coin can land on either side.

verb (used with or without object),present singular 1st person can,2nd can or (Archaic) canst,3rd can,present plural can;past singular 1st person could,2nd could or (Archaic) couldst,3rd could,past plural could;imperative can;infinitive can;past participle could;present participle cun·ning.
  1. Obsolete. to know.

Origin of can

First recorded before 900; Middle English, Old English, present indicative singular 1st, 3rd person of cunnan “to know, know how”; cognate with German, Old Norse, Gothic kann; see ken, know1

usage note For can

Can but and cannot but are formal and now somewhat old-fashioned expressions suggesting that there is no possible alternative to doing something. Can but is equivalent to can only: We can but do our best. Cannot but is the equivalent of cannot help but: We cannot but protest against these injustices. See also help.

confusables note For can

Can1 and may1 are frequently but not always interchangeable in senses indicating possibility: A power failure can (or may ) occur at any time. Despite the insistence by some, that can means only “to be able” and may means “to be permitted,” both are regularly used in seeking or granting permission: Can (or May ) I borrow your glue gun? You can (or may ) use it tomorrow. Sentences using can occur chiefly in spoken English. May in this sense occurs more frequently in formal contexts: May I address the court, Your Honor? In negative constructions, can't or cannot is more common than may not : You can't have it today. I need it myself. The contraction mayn't is rare.

Words that may be confused with can

  • 1. can , could
  • 2. can , may (see confusables note at the current entry)

Words Nearby can

Other definitions for can (2 of 4)

[ kan ]

  1. a sealed container for food, beverages, etc., as of aluminum, sheet iron coated with tin, or other metal: a can of soup.

  2. a receptacle for garbage, ashes, etc.: a trash can.

  1. a bucket, pail, or other container for holding or carrying liquids: water can.

  2. a drinking cup; tankard.

  3. a metal or plastic container for holding film on cores or reels.

  4. Slang: Usually Vulgar. toilet; bathroom.

  5. Slang. jail (def. 1): He's been in the can for a week.

  6. Slang: Sometimes Vulgar. buttocks.

  7. cans, Slang. a set of headphones designed to cover the ears. : Compare earbuds.

  8. Military Slang.

    • a depth charge.

    • a destroyer.

verb (used with object),canned, can·ning.
  1. to preserve by sealing in a can, jar, etc.

  2. Slang. to dismiss; fire.

  1. Slang. to throw (something) away.

  2. Slang. to put a stop to: Can that noise!

  3. to record, as on film or tape.

Origin of can

First recorded before 1000; Middle English canne, can(e), Old English canne, cognate with German Kanne, Old Norse kanna, all perhaps from West Germanic; compare Late Latin canna “small vessel”

Other definitions for can. (3 of 4)


  1. canceled.

  2. canon.

  1. canto.

Other definitions for Can. (4 of 4)


  1. Canada.

  2. Canadian. Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2024

How to use can in a sentence

  • From Bungay in Suffolk comes the news that a water-wagtail has built its nest in a milk-can.

  • When he waded past Captain can-dage he heard the old skipper trying to comfort the girl, his voice low and broken by sobs.

    Blow The Man Down | Holman Day
  • He kept his worms there, between his cap lining and his hair; it saved the trouble of a bait-can.

  • "Mind old Jerry's ghost doesn't catch hold of you," cried her waggish brother Jack, as she crossed the threshold, tea-can in hand.

  • Bob, Bob, massa him want can-noo go see great big ship mighty quick.

    Duffels | Edward Eggleston

British Dictionary definitions for can (1 of 3)


/ (kæn, unstressed kən) /

verbpast could (takes an infinitive without to or an implied infinitive) (intr)
  1. used as an auxiliary to indicate ability, skill, or fitness to perform a task: I can run a mile in under four minutes

  2. used as an auxiliary to indicate permission or the right to something: can I have a drink?

  1. used as an auxiliary to indicate knowledge of how to do something: he can speak three languages fluently

  2. used as an auxiliary to indicate the possibility, opportunity, or likelihood: my trainer says I can win the race if I really work hard

Origin of can

Old English cunnan; related to Old Norse kunna, Old High German kunnan, Latin cognōscere to know, Sanskrit jānāti he knows; see ken, uncouth


See may 1

British Dictionary definitions for can (2 of 3)


/ (kæn) /

  1. a container, esp for liquids, usually of thin sheet metal: a petrol can; beer can

  2. another name (esp US) for tin (def. 2)

  1. Also called: canful the contents of a can or the amount a can will hold

  2. a slang word for prison

  3. US and Canadian a slang word for toilet or buttocks: See toilet

  4. US navy a slang word for destroyer

  5. navy slang a depth charge

  6. a shallow cylindrical metal container of varying size used for storing and handling film

  7. can of worms informal a complicated problem

  8. carry the can See carry (def. 37)

  9. in the can

    • (of a film, piece of music, etc) having been recorded, processed, edited, etc

    • informal arranged or agreed: the contract is almost in the can

verbcans, canning or canned
  1. to put (food, etc) into a can or cans; preserve in a can

  2. (tr) US slang to dismiss from a job

  1. (tr) US informal to stop (doing something annoying or making an annoying noise) (esp in the phrase can it!)

  2. (tr) informal to reject or discard

Origin of can

Old English canne; related to Old Norse, Old High German kanna, Irish gann, Swedish kana sled

British Dictionary definitions for Can. (3 of 3)


abbreviation for
  1. Canada

  2. Canadian

Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Other Idioms and Phrases with can


In addition to the idioms beginning with can

  • can do with
  • canned laughter
  • can of worms

also see:

  • as best one can
  • before you can say Jack Robinson
  • bite off more than one can chew
  • carry the can
  • catch as catch can
  • game that two can play
  • get the ax (can)
  • in the can
  • more than one can shake a stick at
  • no can do
  • you can bet your ass
  • you can lead a horse to water
  • you can say that again
  • you never can tell

Also see undercan't.

The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.