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I've heard the expression can be able to consistently from a couple of folks from India, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Here are a couple of paraphrased examples:

By signing up to our service, you can be able to access to our discount programs.

You need to learn the system so you can be able to navigate the guests to the correct menus.

Granted, these folks' English is kind of funny and often full of true grammatical errors, but when it comes to can be able, it doesn't feel like just a offhand mistake made by non-native speakers. The folks I've met or heard from seem to consistently use it as a stock expression: they noticeably never use just can, nor just be able to; they always say can be able to, though some of them do just use cannot without be able to. It's so noticeable that oftentimes I can't hear anything they say other than all the innumerable instances of can be able. I've never heard it from native speakers, or seen it in any texts written by native speakers. I don't recall ever learning in English classes, or seeing it in any English textbook. It's apparently redundant, too, and I can't figure out for the life of me what could possible make it a thing. Even if it was supposed to be for emphasis, why would you emphasize all the time?

The more I try to look into it, the less convincing it seems that it's an idiomatic expression among native speakers. It is vanishingly rare in whatever corpus Google Books has, with only 2 matches on the first page of the search results. The consensus among Quora answerers seems to be that it's probably grammatically correct, but not idiomatic, as in "you can technically say it, but why would you?" One Quora user named Ben Roffey proposed a context in which it can plausibly occur, but even then he still acknowledged how awkward it sounded, still. Some Reuters articles feature multiple occurrences of it, although they're all quoted from, additionally, speakers from Africa and Europe.

So, disregarding grammatical correctness, is can be able to idiomatic among native speakers? If not, what could possibly be the logic behind it, and how did it arise?

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    It might be an attempt at saying you have both the permission and the ability to do something. "Can" can refer to permission ("Can I go to the park?"), possibility ("You can win $1000 playing our lottery"), or ability ("I can ride a bike"). "You may be able to" is OK (possibility + ability), but "can be able to" is not. I doubt there's a comprehensive factual answer to "why do people write this?"
    – Stuart F
    Commented Nov 25, 2022 at 15:39
  • Maybe they figure that can can be used like all the other modal auxiliaries in front of be able to: may be able to, should be able to, might be able to, will be able to, etc. Commented Nov 25, 2022 at 17:01
  • @StuartF That was one of my hypotheses as well. Perhaps can originally meant "possibility" rather than "ability", but non-native speakers just misunderstood and ended up misusing it. But yeah, why would anyone say "can be able" if "may be able" was already idiomatic to begin with? Commented Nov 25, 2022 at 17:53
  • @StuartF "why people write this?" Actually I've never seen those same people write can be able to before. I think it's mostly a speech problem, which explains how rare it is in written corpora. Commented Nov 26, 2022 at 0:42

3 Answers 3

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No, it's not idiomatic, because can and is/are able to mean the same. If a native speaker did say it, it would be as a slip of the tongue.

Your example sentences should read ...you will be able to access our discount programs and ...you can/are able to access...

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    Whereas 'You could be able to ...' indicates that the speaker is unsure of the actual requirements. Commented Nov 25, 2022 at 16:43
  • Theoretically it is possible that the presence of both of these, essentially synonymous, expressions in the same sentence indicates that there are two superimposed layers of possibility in that particular case, but it is quite unlikely that this is what was intended in the real-life cases of such usage.
    – jsw29
    Commented Nov 25, 2022 at 17:20
  • They don't hafta mean the same. Can has three senses, of which able (the "dynamic" sense, neither epistemic nor deontic) is only one. Somebody may have decided to use one of the other senses of can before able, like 'allowed to'. It's not common in the US, though. Commented Nov 25, 2022 at 18:11
  • @JohnLawler, given that your comment seems to go against the two answers that have been posted so far, it would be very helpful if you could elaborate it and post as a formal answer.
    – jsw29
    Commented Nov 25, 2022 at 23:31
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    @JohnLawler I'm aware, but I think it's clear enough what I meant with the question, because I did include the words "native speakers" there for clarity. Unfortunately there's only one "idioms" tag and I had to make do with it. I've edited the title to make sure there's no confusion. Commented Nov 28, 2022 at 17:30
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It is certainly less popular than any other modal auxiliary verb in that construction. It produces just 21 hits in the HANSRARD corpus (British Parliament).

___ be able to

102586 will

36107 would

32835 should

27212 shall

18389 may

10093 might

4599 must

66 could

21 can

Can may be understood in its epistemic sense of have a/the possibility of or the deontic sense of be allowed to instead of the dynamic be able to. Then the senses would not be redundant.

It means that no trade union can be able to cause a man to transgress. (HANSARD)

has the possibility of being able

it would be an injury to moral values to say that a man can take an oath of allegiance, and having taken the oath, he can be able to break that oath at will or because he has a grievance (HANSARD)

is allowed to be able

It also seems quite popular in the Early English Books Online corpus, producing 327 hits - compare to should be able to's 1898, and could be able to's 176. Possibly hinting at it being historically more common than it is today.

___ be able to

3490 may

3317 shall

1898 should

1317 will

1187 might

500 would

328 can

313 must

176 could

they never can be able to arrive at any thing of a happy condition, unless the auditory take pity upon'em (1686 translation of Aristotle's Rhetoric)

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  • It is indeed true that there are contexts in which can and be able to can be combined without redundancy, but can the examples that appear in the question be read that way?
    – jsw29
    Commented Nov 26, 2022 at 16:14
  • That depends on the imagination of the reader. Like most of written English. Commented Nov 26, 2022 at 17:14
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There is one idiomatic regional usage of can be able to in South African and West African listed in OED. This modal phrase was also used in British English in the past (before 1850's) per the citations provided by OED. I believe it is mainly a dialectal usage also as some sources mention the usage of this modal phrase in Black South African English (BSAE), and South African English borrows heavily from Afrikaans and other African languages. However, we can safely say that can be able to is unidiomatic in general.

Here is the OED definition and the earliest citation from 1526:

can be able: can have the means, capacity, or qualifications, or sufficient power to do something; can be in such a position that it is possible to do something. Now chiefly South African and West African.
could with non-temporal function (esp. in senses 15, 19) sometimes occurs in this phrase in general use.

?1526 G. Hervet in tr. Erasmus De Immensa Dei Misericordia Ep. Ded. sig. A.ij I knowe ye tendernes of my wyt moche more sklender than yt I can be able to beare ye weyght of suche an enterprise.

Note: The citations between 1526-1877 in OED account for historical usage and they are from British publications except the 1877 citation taken from Pennsylvania Magazine Hist. & Biography. The last three citations from 1967, 1985 and 2012 account for current usage and they are from South African publications.

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