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 can Edmund 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

Example Sentences

Noun He ate the whole can of beans. the shelter stores huge cans of water for an emergency
Recent Examples on the Web
Noun
If the hornets’ nests are near the doors, deal with those first with a can of wasp and hornet spray, applied at night or early in the morning from a distance. Jeanne Huber, Washington Post, 28 Oct. 2022 This time, a Reddit user posted what appeared to be a photo of a man in the act of vandalizing one of the murals with a can of white spray paint. Grant Lancaster, Arkansas Online, 9 Oct. 2022 The cookbook includes recipes for Tex-Mex favorites such as nachos and chili con queso, specifically made with a can of Ro-Tel tomatoes and green chiles (real ones know). Emma Balter, Chron, 30 Sep. 2022 Earlier in the day prior to the killing, Bhasin entered a Four Seasons Hotel with a can of gasoline and demanded a room. Jason Newman, Rolling Stone, 15 Sep. 2022 Turn them into a soup, a curry, a stew with a can of beans added for heft, burritos, stuffed pita pockets. Sheryl Julian, BostonGlobe.com, 6 Sep. 2022 With a can of exterior paint priced at less than $100, painting your front door is a solid return on investment. Nafeesah Allen, Better Homes & Gardens, 4 Aug. 2022 The final product is then dressed in olive oil and lemon juice and topped with a whole can of chickpeas. Antonia Debianchi, PEOPLE.com, 15 June 2022 Tara Roberts, who has been the manager of the island for around 15 years, said by video link to the court in Fairfax, Virginia, that Heard appeared to injure Depp with a can during a fight in 2015. CBS News, 28 Apr. 2022 See More

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'can.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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 28 Nov. 2022.

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
canner noun

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