Is it ok or common to use "are you able" to make a request instead of using "can you" or "could you" when you know that the person is able to do the task and you are just requesting something? I suspect that "are you able" may sound as if the ability of the other person is in doubt. If the intention is just to request politely that the other person do a routinary task, is it ok/common to say "are you able"?

  • I have heard people ask "Are you able to hear me...(while speaking on phone), or "Are you able to read the board...(when the legibility of the written part is in doubt), etc. However, using "Are you able..." to request needs to be contextually related.
    – Ram Pillai
    Dec 18, 2020 at 15:26
  • The conventionally polite way to make a request that is really an order is to use would, for example “Would you make a copy of this document, please.”
    – Xanne
    Dec 19, 2020 at 1:59
  • It needs to be emphasized that it's "are you able to". You can say "Can you read this?", but "Are you able read this?" is just wrong.
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 19, 2020 at 21:09

1 Answer 1


"Are you able" is much less used than "can you": ngram; however, in the domain of plain possibility no distinction is made between the two in OALD, Grammar Point can / could / be able to / manage.

"Can" or "be able to" are used to say that something is possible or that somebody has the opportunity to do something: Can you/​are you able to come on Saturday?

It can't be used at all for requests.

  • Can you feed the canaries while we're gone ? ≠ Are you able to feed the canaries while we're gone?

  • Will you be able to feed the canaries while we're gone? (That is not a request, but the plain asking of whether it is possible to do the little task.)

Addition prompted by this comment (user gyerena)

This feeling that the ability of the person is in question when using "able" can become more of a certitude after taking in the more penetrating definition in the SOED, which I should have included. It indicates clearly that "able" goes beyond "can" and in what way.

II actively. 4 Having the qualification for, and means of, doing something; having sufficient power (to do); (pred. followed by to do esp. used with parts of be to supply the deficiencies of can)

No, it is not as common to say "when you are able", in fact it is comparatively rare, and this ngram shows that; however, this rarety is not to be imputed to the would be fact that it is not proper but rather to the fact that it is more suited to another context which happens not to have as great an incidence as those for which "can" is proper. Whereas the OALD definition speaks of possibility and opportunity the SOED mentions (correspondingly) "means"; time, for instance can be viewed as a means and so using "able" in such a context where time is the determining factor is not wrong but it is much less usual.

  • What about the use of "when you are able" instead of "when you can". For example at work someone says "Please do that (an activity) when you are able". This also sounds to me as if it may imply a doubt about the ability of the person. Or it may just mean "when it is possible for you" Is it common/ok to say "when you are able" if the intention is just to say "when you have the possibility"?
    – gyerena
    Dec 29, 2020 at 14:52
  • 1
    @gyerena I made an addition to the answer so as to insist on the point you mention (I rather agreed with that right away before looking further into the question).
    – LPH
    Dec 29, 2020 at 16:02

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