can

1 of 5

verb (1)

kən,
ˈkan How to pronounce can (audio)
 also  ˈken;
 dialectal  ˈkin
past could
kəd,
ˈku̇d How to pronounce can (audio)
; present singular & plural can

auxiliary verb

1
a
: be physically or mentally able to
He can lift 200 pounds.
b
: know how to
She can read.
c
used to indicate possibility
Do you think he can still be alive?
Those things can happen.
sometimes used interchangeably with may
d
: be inherently able or designed to
everything that money can buy
e
: be enabled by law, agreement, or custom to
Congress can declare war.
f
: be permitted by conscience or feeling to
can hardly blame her
g
: be made possible or probable by circumstances to
He can hardly have meant that.
h
: be logically or axiologically able to
2 + 2 can also be written 3 + 1.
2
: have permission to
used interchangeably with may
You can go now if you like.

transitive verb

1
archaic : to be able to do, make, or accomplish
2
obsolete : know, understand

intransitive verb

archaic : to have knowledge or skill
Can vs. May: Usage Guide

Can and may are most frequently interchangeable in uses denoting possibility; because the possibility of one's doing something may depend on another's acquiescence, they have also become interchangeable in the sense denoting permission. The use of can to ask or grant permission has been common since the 19th century and is well established, although some commentators feel may is more appropriate in formal contexts. May is relatively rare in negative constructions (mayn't is not common); cannot and can't are usual in such contexts.

can

2 of 5

noun

plural cans
1
: a usually cylindrical receptacle:
a
: a container (as of tinplate) in which products (such as perishable foods) are hermetically sealed for preservation until use
a can of beans
b
: a usually metal typically cylindrical receptacle usually with an open top, often with a removable cover, and sometimes with a spout or side handles (as for holding liquid or trash)
c
: a jar for packing or preserving fruit or vegetables
d
: a vessel for holding liquids
specifically : a drinking vessel
… in his hand did bear a boozing canEdmund Spenser
e
: a recessed lighting fixture
Augment natural light with recessed cans in the ceiling, sconces on side walls, or a table lamp on a shelf …Jill Connors
2
informal : buttocks
He needs a kick in the can.
3
informal
a
: toilet
sitting on the can
b
: bathroom sense 1
He locked himself in the can and wouldn't come out.
4
informal : jail
The cops threw him in the can.
5
slang : destroyer sense 2
served on a can during the battle
6
informal : headphone
usually plural
You don't realize just how noisy it is inside a plane until you put on a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones … . I generally leave the noise-cancelling cans on even when I'm not listening to anything at all—the relative quiet makes a long trip less stressful.Steven Morgenstern
canful noun

can

3 of 5

verb (2)

canned; canning

transitive verb

1
a
: to put in a can : preserve by sealing in airtight cans or jars
can tomatoes
b
: to hit (a golf shot) into the cup
c
: to hit (a shot) in basketball
2
: to discharge from employment
got canned for being late so often
3
slang : to put a stop or end to
were told to can the chatter
canner noun

can

4 of 5

abbreviation (1)

1
canceled; cancellation
2
cannon
3
canto

Can

5 of 5

abbreviation (2)

variants or Canad
Canada; Canadian
Phrases
in the can
of a film or videotape : completed and ready for release

Examples of can in a Sentence

Noun He ate the whole can of beans. the shelter stores huge cans of water for an emergency Verb (2) can the chatter, or I'm kicking you out of this library the cashier was summarily canned for stealing from the registers
Recent Examples on the Web
Noun
Simply layer in a can of blueberry pie filling, a box of cake mix, and butter. Katlyn Moncada, Better Homes & Gardens, 9 May 2024 Then the industrial compressor flattens a row of paint cans, buckles a piano and levels what appears to be a marble bust. Tripp Mickle, New York Times, 8 May 2024 See all Example Sentences for can 

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'can.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History

Etymology

Verb (1)

Middle English (1st & 3rd singular present indicative), from Old English; akin to Old High German kan (1st & 3rd singular present indicative) know, am able, Old English cnāwan to know — more at know

Noun

Middle English canne, from Old English; akin to Old High German channa

First Known Use

Verb (1)

before the 12th century, in the meaning defined at transitive sense 2

Noun

before the 12th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Verb (2)

1855, in the meaning defined at sense 1a

Time Traveler
The first known use of can was before the 12th century

Dictionary Entries Near can

Cite this Entry

“Can.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/can. Accessed 21 May. 2024.

Kids Definition

can

1 of 3 helping verb
kən How to pronounce can (audio)
(ˈ)kan
past could kəd How to pronounce can (audio)
(ˈ)ku̇d
; present singular & plural can
1
a
: know how to
we can read
b
: be able to
I can hear you
c
: be permitted by conscience or feeling to
they can hardly blame you
d
: have the power or right to
2
: have permission to : may
you can go now

can

2 of 3 noun
1
: a metal container usually shaped like a cylinder
a soda can
2
: the contents of a can
ate the whole can of beans

can

3 of 3 verb
canned; canning
1
: to prepare for future use by sealing in an airtight can or jar
can tomatoes
2
: to dismiss from a job : fire
3
slang : to put a stop or end to
told to can the chatter
canner noun
Etymology

Helping verb

Old English can "to know, know how to"

Noun

Old English canne "container"

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