English Grammar Lesson: Can, Could, Be Able To, & Was Able To

Michael Grammar 2 Comments

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People who visit New York City can see some pretty amazing sights. They are able to see some of the tallest skyscrapers in the world, dine at fine restaurants, and enjoy the best of Broadway. When I was younger I was able to see a musical for just $25, and a hot dog was just $1. Ah, the good old days.

Today I want to show you how we talk about ability in the present and the past. We use can, could, be able to, & was able to when we talk about ability in English. I think for most people, the present tense is easy to use and understand. I think we tend to use can when we talk about ability that we have because we have experienced, learned, practiced, or studied something

  • I can play the guitar.
  • Jack said he can cook.
  • Can you ride a motorcycle?
  • Danny can talk about history on and on. He’s an expert in it.

We also use can or be able to when we talk about our ability to do something when the conditions for doing so are favorable, and nothing is preventing us from doing that. Of course, we use the negative form when something is preventing us from doing something.

  • I am able to see Madison Ave from the window in my office.
  • I can see Madison Ave from the window in my office.
  • Jack said he’s not able to come to the party on Friday.
  • Jack said he can’t come to the party on Friday.

In a past sentence, we generally do not use could in a positive past tense sentence or question. It is more common to use was able to.

  • Luckily, I was able to find my wallet. Not, I could find my wallet.
  • Even thought I was tired, I was able to enjoy the party. Not, ~I could enjoy the party.
  • Were you able to help her with her homework? Not, Could you help her ~

However, in a negative past sentence, we use either couldn’t or wasn’t able to:

  • I looked, but I couldn’t find anything I liked at the store.
  • I looked, but I wasn’t able to find anything I liked at the store.
  • We couldn’t see David when we went to St. Louis.
  • We weren’t able to see David when we went to St. Louis.

If you know anyone who might be interested in this English language point, why not help them out! Just share this lesson with them. Thanks for studying today!

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