Results 1 to 8 of 8
  1. #1
    gchman is offline Junior Member
    Join Date
    Feb 2009
    Posts
    88
    Post Thanks / Like

    Exclamation could vs was able to

    Hello there.

    Which sentence is more natural?

    At last my sister could contact the woman.
    At last my sister was able to contact the woman.

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Jul 2009
    Posts
    2,036
    Post Thanks / Like

    Default Re: could vs was able to

    Quote Originally Posted by gchman View Post
    Hello there.

    Which sentence is more natural?

    At last my sister could contact the woman.
    At last my sister was able to contact the woman.
    They're both equally natural.

    Using "could" emphasizes possibility. Using "was able to" emphasizes ability. However, both ability and possibility are contained in the meanings of "could" and "was able to".

    At last my sister could contact the woman. - This would mean "it became possible for some reason".

    At last my sister was able to contact the woman. - She found out her new phone number. Or she got the woman's new email address.

    They're very similar, and, in fact, one might say there's really no practical difference as far as meaning and interpretation go in real-life communication. I would say, however, that "be able to" tends to add some formality, whereas using "can" and "could" tends to sound simpler and more direct.

    This is apparent in voicemail announcements:

    ... I am not able to take your call now. Please, leave a message, and ...

    ... I can't answer your call. Please, leave a message, and ...

    He called, but I couldn't get to the phone.
    He called. However, I wasn't able to speak to him.

    I think "be able to" can tend to sound a bit more on the formal side. This does not mean, however, that "can" and "could" are reserved for informal language. It's not practical to make such a general or broad assertion about this sort of language choice.
    Last edited by PROESL; 30-Sep-2009 at 22:04.

  3. #3
    philo2009 is offline Key Member
    • Member Info
      • Member Type:
      • Academic
      • Native Language:
      • British English
      • Home Country:
      • UK
      • Current Location:
      • Japan
    Join Date
    Jan 2009
    Posts
    1,507
    Post Thanks / Like

    Default Re: could vs was able to

    Quote Originally Posted by gchman View Post
    Hello there.

    Which sentence is more natural?

    At last my sister could contact the woman.
    At last my sister was able to contact the woman.
    In British English, #2. 'Could' is not used in BrE to refer to real past events, only to past potential (irrespective of actualization), as in e.g.

    When I was young I could run fast.

    (i.e. whenever I wanted to, but without asserting that I actually did so at any specific time).

    The negative form, however, is possible, since it does not, by definition, refer to an action that actually took place, e.g.

    Although she tried many times, my sister couldn't (OR: was unable to) contact the woman.

  4. #4
    Join Date
    Jul 2009
    Posts
    2,036
    Post Thanks / Like

    Default Re: could vs was able to

    Quote Originally Posted by philo2009 View Post
    In British English, #2. 'Could' is not used in BrE to refer to real past events, only to past potential (irrespective of actualization), as in e.g.

    When I was young I could run fast.

    (i.e. whenever I wanted to, but without asserting that I actually did so at any specific time).

    The negative form, however, is possible, since it does not, by definition, refer to an action that actually took place, e.g.

    Although she tried many times, my sister couldn't (OR: was unable to) contact the woman.
    I understand what you mean, and I think the same applies to American English. However, I wouldn't be so sure this example sentence should read as something that is a real past event. I'd say it could be read as an action that became possible, but has not necessarily been performed. If I hear as something that happened once, it does work. However, I can imagine that this statement is simply meant to inform the readers or listeners that the action became possible, not necessarily that it points to one specific action that actually took place, meaning that someone did it. In other words, I wouldn't be certain that this is actually an assertion that someone did this at any one specific time. Maybe it simply means that contacting the woman, at last, became a real possibility, but not something that someone actually did - someone being the speaker's sister - at one specific time.

    At last my sister could contact the woman.

    So in this isolated sentence, or clause, "could" does not work.

    I could attend the meeting yesterday.

    However, in this sentence, "couldn't" does work.

    I couldn't attend the meeting yesterday.

    An affirmative that recognizes past possibility requires "could have".

    I could have attended the meeting yesterday.

    However, an affirmative becomes possible with "could" if we understand that the the statement does not assert that the speaker could attend just one meeting.

    At last, I could attend the meetings. I was wondering when this was going to be possible.

    In the original example sentence, this is not as clear, but I would say it could be read in the same way as the above example sentence. This may or may not be one event. It may simply be a statement of possibility.

    At last my sister could contact the woman. (consider that the speaker and listener understand additional information in a given context)

    At last my sister could contact the woman after two years of not knowing where she had gone and what she had been doing.

    Just as "could finally do it" (UK search) does not have to assert that the speaker actually did anything at one specific time, I would say that "at last my sister could contact the woman" does not have to assert that the speaker's sister actually contacted the woman at one specific time.

    Anyway, that's how I read the poster's example sentence, and it is why I said it sounded natural. I understood the sentence as simply referring to the possibility of contacting the woman, and that this had become possilbe (in the past, of course). I didn't read it as an assertion of one action being performed at one specific time in the past.

  5. #5
    philo2009 is offline Key Member
    • Member Info
      • Member Type:
      • Academic
      • Native Language:
      • British English
      • Home Country:
      • UK
      • Current Location:
      • Japan
    Join Date
    Jan 2009
    Posts
    1,507
    Post Thanks / Like

    Default Re: could vs was able to

    Agreed, on the assumption that reference is only to a potential. However, where specific times, places or adverbials such as 'finally' are used, this is relatively unlikely. I think we can safely assume that intended reference here is to an act actually performed. If not, however, as said, either sentence would be acceptable.

  6. #6
    Join Date
    Jul 2009
    Posts
    2,036
    Post Thanks / Like

    Default Re: could vs was able to

    Quote Originally Posted by philo2009 View Post
    Agreed, on the assumption that reference is only to a potential. However, where specific times, places or adverbials such as 'finally' are used, this is relatively unlikely. I think we can safely assume that intended reference here is to an act actually performed. If not, however, as said, either sentence would be acceptable.

    Therefore, to you, these sentences indicate that the action was carried out one time and refer to one time that is was carried?

    At last, my sister could contact the woman.
    Finally, my sister could contact the woman.

    I'm searching, but I can't see how an assumption could be made that either of these sentences could refer to a single phone call. It's possible that the action was carried out at least one time, but I don't think these sentences communicate this. It still sounds like "it became possible" to me.

    Background information:

    She found her phone number online. Finally, my sister could contact the woman. - I don't think that this means that she did. Maybe she did and maybe she didn't.

  7. #7
    philo2009 is offline Key Member
    • Member Info
      • Member Type:
      • Academic
      • Native Language:
      • British English
      • Home Country:
      • UK
      • Current Location:
      • Japan
    Join Date
    Jan 2009
    Posts
    1,507
    Post Thanks / Like

    Default Re: could vs was able to

    Let's be clear: no one is calling either sentence ungrammatical. The issue is purely one of appropriateness in relation to intended meaning. There are certain (relatively more plausible) circumstances in which the one will be more appropriate, and others in which the other will be.

    The questioner should now be in possession of the requisite facts to make up his/her own mind on the matter and select accordingly, without any further debate between us!

    EOC

  8. #8
    Join Date
    Jul 2009
    Posts
    2,036
    Post Thanks / Like

    Default Re: could vs was able to

    Quote Originally Posted by philo2009 View Post
    Let's be clear: no one is calling either sentence ungrammatical. The issue is purely one of appropriateness in relation to intended meaning. There are certain (relatively more plausible) circumstances in which the one will be more appropriate, and others in which the other will be.

    The questioner should now be in possession of the requisite facts to make up his/her own mind on the matter and select accordingly, without any further debate between us!

    EOC
    That's reasonable. I can go along with that.

    I'm not sure I would call this a debate, as this seems to imply something unfriendly. I don't see anything unfriendly or impolite about the posts here. I thought we were just exchanging and stating ideas. However, if stating contrary views is not advisable in polite company, then I guess I won't do that. I'll wait until I'm around those that are something just a little bit less than polite. I'm not good at being tight-lipped, and I don't think it's good to stifle discussion. Further discussion of this topic could be helpful to questioner, and if not, the questioner can just take the first couple posts and stop reading here.

    I just took a quick look. I don't see anything offensive here. I see that we've both stated our viewpoints on the topic.

    Anyway, I've posted all that I would like to on this topic. So that's about it for me.

Posting Permissions

  • You may not post new threads
  • You may not post replies
  • You may not post attachments
  • You may not edit your posts
  •