Can Vs Be Able To
Both can and be able to can be used to talk about ability to do something. In some cases they are used interchangeably.
Use of can
Can is widely used in the present tense. It is used to talk about our ability to do things.
- I can sing.
- He can speak English well.
- I can eat a dozen bananas.
Be able to is also possible in these cases; however, it sounds a bit more official/formal here.
- I am able to knit. (Less natural than ‘I can knit.’)
- He is able to speak English well.
To talk about our past ability, we use could. Was/were able to is also possible.
Study the examples given below.
- He could read when he was three. OR He was able to read when he was three.
Again, in spoken English, we are less likely to use was able to.
As you can see in all of these sentences, we were talking about general ability. Things that we can or we could do at any time in the present or in the past.
To talk about things that we managed to do on specific occasions in the past, we cannot use could. Instead, we use was/were able to. The verb managed, succeeded (in…ing) are also possible in this case.
- She was able to get some really good bargains in the sale. (NOT She could get some really good bargains in the sale.)
- After climbing for several hours, they managed to get to the peak of the mountain. OR After climbing for several hours, they were able to get to the peak of the mountain. (NOT … we could get to the top of the mountain.)
Both could and be able to can be used to say that we were not capable of doing something on a specific occasion.
- In spite of climbing for hours, they couldn’t get to the peak of the mountain. OR In spite of climbing for hours, they weren’t able to get to the peak of the mountain.
Now after the above discussion, let’s check your understanding on the topic by a simple yet intriguing quiz below.
Can Vs. Be Able
Fill the following spaces using "can" for present, could for past and will be able for future. Don't forget to add "to" where necessary for infinitives!
You can try our other quizes here.
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