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'A' or 'the' with ability (can)

When I was writing the lesson on ability (can) there were lots of example sentences with difference determiners (a / the). Hopefully this answers any questions you may have.

First, we'll look at some verbs we'll be using.


  • Make

  • Play

  • Speak

  • Sing


I can make pizza.

In this sentence there is no determiner. It is used to say we have the general ability.

I can make a pizza.

We have used 'a' as the determiner. This sentence means the subject (I) can make one pizza.

I can make the pizza.

We now have 'the' as the determiner. This sentence means the subject (I) can make one specific pizza


Let's look at this conversation between friends organising a party.

A: We need food for the party. Can anyone make pizza?

B: Yes, I could make a pizza for the party.

C: Oh, I wanted to make the pizza for the party.

A: Okay, C, you can make the pizza.

A asks about the general ability of B and C.

B says they can make one (non-specific) pizza for the party.

C says they are going to make one specific pizza for the party.

Let's change the food to 'cake'.

I can make cakes.

There is no determiner because we are talking about a general ability. There is an 's' because 'cake' is being used in the countable form.

I can make a cake.

Here we have the determiner 'a' because you are talking generally about one cake.

I can make the cake.

Here we have the determiner 'the' because you are talking specifically about one cake.


We can play lots of things: games, instruments, sports and lots more.

With games and sports, you do not need a determiner.

I can play football.
I can play chess.

You are talking about your general ability. With these you would never add a determiner.

Instruments are harder. In British English we use the determiner 'the'. I believe in American English the determiner is no used.

I can play the piano.
I can play the guitar.
I can play the drums.

The reason (I think) is because you are playing one instrument and so the ability is to play 'the' one instrument.


I can speak French.

For languages we do not use a determiner because they are proper nouns.

Proper nouns are any nouns of which there is only one. Countries, places and names are proper nouns. These never have a determiner. For example:

  • I went to France.

  • I went to France with David.

  • I went to France with David because I can speak French.

Other examples with ability:

  • I can read Shakespeare.

  • I can drink Jack Daniels whiskey.

  • I can understand Morse Code.


With 'sing' we can simply say:

I can sing.

This is because it implies a general ability to sing all songs.


  • General ability = no determiner (unless it's an instrument) and use the plural form if countable

  • Ability for one general item = a

  • Ability for one specific item = the

  • Ability for with a proper noun = no determiner


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