Can and Be able to
Can and be able to are modal verbs that support the main verb in the sentence by giving the meaning of ability.
We use can when we talk about ability in the present.
- I can skip rope.
- She can play the piano.
- Dennis can sing very well.
be able to has the same meaning as can.
- I am able to speak Spanish. = I can speak Spanish.
- Lana is able to ride a horse. = Lana can ride a horse.
But in spoken English, can is more common and more natural than be able to.
Is There a Difference Between Can and Be able to?
Yes, there is a difference between can and be able to. We can use both can and be able to when we talk about ability in the present.
The difference is; we use can for present, future and past (could) ability.
- I can swim.
- I can help you after I finish my homework.
- He could memorize dictionaries when he was only 10.
We use be able to with different tenses and modals when talking about ability.
- I am able to play the guitar. – Present Simple
- I will be able to play the guitar when I complete the guitar classes. – Future
- I was able to play the guitar when I was 14. – Past Simple
- You should be able to play the guitar in three months. – modals
Could vs. Was/Were able to
We know that we use could to talk about ability in the past, we also use the past form of be able to (was/were able to) to talk about ability in the past. What is the difference?
We talk about the difference between could and was/were able to when there is a particular situation.
1.Ability in a Particular Situation in the Past
When we had the ability to do something in the past and we achieved something in a particular situation, we use only was/were able to.
BE CAREFUL! We do not use could for achievement in a particular situation in the past.
- I was able to /
could submit the assignment even though I was really sick.
- Liverpool was able to /
could win the match 5-2 despite two red cards.
- He was able to /
could fix the printer after two hours.
- I was able to /
could get a refund for my cancelled flight after 8 months!
- The old woman didn’t speak English but we were able to /
could communicate through body language.
- He was able to /
could open the locked door with a bobby pin.
2.Inability in a Particular Situation in the Past
When we did not have ability to do something in the past in a particular situation, we use couldn’t or wasn’t / weren’t able to.
- I wasn’t able to /couldn’t call anyone because there was no signal on my phone in the village.
- He wasn’t able to / couldn’t sleep because of the construction noise next to his apartment.
- I wasn’t able to /couldn’t drive her to the airport because I had an important meeting.
- She wasn’t able to /couldn’t focus and she didn’t understand anything in her Math class.
- They weren’t able to /couldn’t find the car keys, we had to wait for them for 35 minutes.
- We weren’t able to /couldn’t calm her down after she broke up with her boyfriend, she cried for hours.
3.Could in a Particular Sitution in the Past
When can we use could for a particular situation in the past?
Normally we use was / were able to to talk about achievement in a particular situation in the past, but with some verbs we use could to talk about achievement in a particular situation in the past.
We can use could with the verbs see, hear, smell, taste, feel, understand, remember, believe to say that we achieved to the something in a particular situation in the past.
These verbs are state verbs. What is a state verb? A state verb is a verb that describes a state not an action.
For example, 'jump' is a state verb it describes and action, but 'understand' is a state verb and it does not describe an action.
- He was climbing the stairs, I could hear his footsteps and opened the door.
- I could feel his disappointment and decided to help him.
- I was shocked that she could remember my name after ten years.
- Fortunately, I could smell the burnt food and I ran to the kitchen quickly.
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can and be able to