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  1. Bennevis's Avatar
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    #1

    "could" vs "was able to"

    Dear forumers,

    I've been putting together a lesson on modal verbs. I was wondering whether there is a difference between could and was able to in the following sentence:

    I ______ play tennis when I was younger.

    (could, was able to)

    Even if there is a slight difference, please point it out.


    Thank you.

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    #2

    Re: "could" vs "was able to"

    Quote Originally Posted by Bennevis View Post
    Dear forumers,

    I've been putting together a lesson on modal verbs. I was wondering whether there is a difference between could and was able to in the following sentence:

    I ______ play tennis when I was younger.

    (could, was able to)

    Even if there is a slight difference, please point it out.


    Thank you.
    Yes, there could be (no pun intended) a slight difference depending on the surrounding conversation/context. "Was able to" could be understood to mean "to have the opportunity" and not necessarily the ability. Whereas when I hear/read "could play", I think "ability". But again, I think context would make it clear.
    Last edited by billmcd; 30-Sep-2011 at 14:55. Reason: typo

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    #3

    Re: "could" vs "was able to"

    [QUOTE=Bennevis;806121]Dear forumers,

    I've been putting together a lesson on modal verbs.


    ONLY A NON-TEACHER'S OPINION


    (1) I cannot answer your question.

    (2) You probably already know this, but just in case that you do not, I wish to remind

    you of what Raymond Murphy reminds us in his Grammar in Use:


    We use could for general ability. But if we are talking about what happened in a

    particular situation [my emphasis], we use was/were able to or managed to (not

    could):

    The fire spread through the building quickly, but everybody was able to escape/ managed to escape. (not could escape)

    BUT he reassures us that the negative couldn't is fine in all situations:

    Ted played well, but he couldn't beat Jack.

  2. emsr2d2's Avatar
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    #4

    Re: "could" vs "was able to"

    Quote Originally Posted by Bennevis View Post
    Dear forumers,

    I've been putting together a lesson on modal verbs. I was wondering whether there is a difference between could and was able to in the following sentence:

    I ______ play tennis when I was younger.

    (could, was able to)

    Even if there is a slight difference, please point it out.


    Thank you.
    I agree with Billmcd.

    If I heard "I could play tennis when I was younger..." I would expect it to be followed by something like "...but then I broke my leg in three places and couldn't play any more".

    If I heard "I was able to play tennis when I was younger..." I would expect something like "because there were plenty of courts near my house. However, I never got around to playing".

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    #5

    Question Re: "could" vs "was able to"

    Quote Originally Posted by TheParser View Post
    We use could for general ability. But if we are talking about what happened in a

    particular situation [my emphasis], we use was/were able to or managed to (not

    could)...
    I am aware of this rule (and I happen to have that excellent book on hand ), but I wonder then why we say (by "we", I mean that it seems to be rather common), "I'm glad that I could help you", when we usually mean that I was able to help you in a particular situation. Wouldn't it be "more correct" (Yes, I DO know that something is either correct or not, but please, allow me to stick to this phrase.) to say, (#1) "I'm glad/happy/etc. that I was able to help you." Or, how about, (#2) "I'm glad to have been able to help you/ (#3) to be of help to you."? Is the latter correct? Is it stilted?
    Thank you for your answer(s) in advance.


    PS: I've numbered my questions in order to make them easy to refer to. (But the main question is, why do we say, "...that I could help you", when referring to a particular situation. Or is it just a rule of thumb to use "to be able to"/"managed to" when referring to a particular situation?

  3. 5jj's Avatar
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    #6

    Re: "could" vs "was able to"

    Quote Originally Posted by ~Mav~ View Post
    I am aware of this rule (and I happen to have that excellent book on hand ), but I wonder then why we say (by "we", I mean that it seems to be rather common), "I'm glad that I could help you", when we usually mean that I was able to help you in a particular situation.
    This does seem to work only in a 'that' clause. I think we are unlikely to say:

    ?I could help Mary yesterday.

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    #7

    Question Re: "could" vs "was able to"

    Quote Originally Posted by fivejedjon View Post
    This does seem to work only in a 'that' clause.
    So, is this sentence, "I'm glad(/happy/overjoyed/etc.) that I could help you." grammatically impeccable to express that "I'm glad that I was able to help you"? (If I understand your point correctly, its being a 'that' clause justifies the use of "could" instead of "was able to", even though it refers to a particular situation.) If so, just like Bennevis, I would also like to know whether there is any kind of difference between "I'm glad that I could help you." and "I'm glad that I was able to help you".

    Mav: Thank you, dear Jed, for your excellent and instructive answers. Now it's all clear.
    fivejedjon: You're welcome. I'm glad that... ??? (...I could help you. OR ...I was able to help you. ) What would you say in a situation like this? (Assuming you were glad and were willing to express that. )

    As for my other sentence (and sorry for being slightly off-topic), I THINK that "I'm glad to have been able to help you." is absolutely correct (It must be correct. ), but is it natural in an everyday conversation? And finally, what about, "I'm glad to have been able to be of help to you."? I don't much like it, but still, I think it's correct.
    Last edited by ~Mav~; 01-Oct-2011 at 07:33.

  4. 5jj's Avatar
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    #8

    Re: "could" vs "was able to"

    Quote Originally Posted by ~Mav~ View Post
    So, is this sentence, "I'm glad(/happy/overjoyed/etc.) that I could help you." grammatically impeccable to express that "I'm glad that I was able to help you"?
    I think it is.
    (If I understand your point correctly, its being a 'that' clause justifies the use of "could" instead of "was able to", even though it refers to a particular situation.) If so, just like Bennevis, I would also like to know whether there is any kind of difference between "I'm glad that I could help you." and "I'm glad that I was able to help you".
    I don't think there is.

    As for my other sentence (and sorry for being slightly off-topic), I THINK that "I'm glad to have been able to help you." is absolutely correct (It must be correct. ), I agree but is it natural in an everyday conversation? I don't think that it's common. And finally, what about, "I'm glad to have been able to be of help to you."? I don't much like it, but still, I think it's correct. I agree, though I think 'of assistance' is slightly more natural.
    Note the liberal use of 'I think'.

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    #9

    Thumbs up Re: "could" vs "was able to"

    Quote Originally Posted by fivejedjon View Post
    Note the liberal use of 'I think'.
    Noticed. What is good enough for you, what you can settle for when it's about English, is more than perfect for me.

    Thank you very much for your answer. (I hope you are glad that you could/were able to help me. )

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    #10

    Re: "could" vs "was able to"

    [QUOTE=~Mav~;806376]I am aware of this rule (and I happen to have that excellent book on hand ), but I wonder then why we say (by "we", I mean that it seems to be rather common), "I'm glad that I could help you", when we usually mean that I was able to help you in a particular situation.


    ONLY A NON-TEACHER'S OPINION


    (1) Of course, I was fascinated by your fantastically intriguing discussion with Teacher Fivejedjon.

    (2) A thought has just come to my mind. May I throw it out for your consideration?

    (3) Mr. Murphy does write "If you mean that someone managed to do something in

    one particular situation." I am thinking that he is referring to some negative situation.

    One of his example sentences is: They didn't want to come with us at first, but we

    managed/ were able to persuade them.

    (4) Thus, when you say to someone "I'm glad that I could help you," that seems to

    stress a positive situation. (Something like "My pleasure!")

    What say you?

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