of all, I have to tell you that I have been very happy since I saw
this wonderful and incredibly helpful page.
My question is: When should I use could, was able to and
managed to? Please help me.
Could can be used in many different ways, to ask for permission,
to make a request or to express ability when referring to the past.
Was able to is sometimes used as an alternative to could
when we are discussing ability or possibility. We
tend to use could when we are talking about abilitygenerally. Compare the following:
By the time she was seven, she could already speak
She started the viola at the age of eight and after only
six months she could play it quite well.
Her brother Jack was an excellent swimmer. He could
beat anybody in his class.
able to / managed to
We tend to use was able to or managed to if we are
talking about what happened in a particular situation or
are referring to a specific achievement:
Were you able to / Did you manage to speak
to him before he left home?
~ No, I'm sorry, I wasn't able to / didn't manage to
The fog came down and I wasn't able to / didn't manage
to get to the top of the mountain.
My brother wanted to carry on, but we managed to /
were able to talk him out of it.
However, with verbs that refer to the five senses, see, hear,
smell, feel, taste, and with verbs that refer to thought processes,
understand, believe, remember, decide, we normally use could,
even when we are talking about specific occasions:
He was standing very close to me and I could smell
the garlic on his breath.
He asked me when Julie's birthday was, but I couldn't
I couldn't decide whether to ask him for a lift or
I could see that he'd been running.
to / not succeed in
Note that unable to is an alternative negative form of not
able to and succeed in is a slightly more formal alternative
to manage to. But remember that succeed in is followed
by verb + ing, rather than verb + infinitive:
We were unable to leave the room until the locksmith
arrived and succeeded in unlocking the door.
I was unable to complete the report as several pieces
of information were missing.
Having obtained them, I succeeded in completing it
after a further two days.
be able to
Note that can has no infinitive form, no -ing form, no
perfect form and no future form. It cannot follow another
modal auxiliary verb. On all of these occasions, we have to use
be able to instead. Compare the following:
I'd like to be able to swim like Jack. He swims like
When I'm at the sea-side, I enjoy being able to take a swim
Unfortunately, Jack hasn't been able to swim since his
Lets' hope he'll be able to resume his daily swimming training
I'm not a member, but can I swim in this pool? ~ Why don't you
speak to the secretary? She may / might / should be able to
manage = succeed / cope
We use the verbs manage to and manage a great deal
in current English when we want to say that we are able to cope
with a difficult situation or find time for a particular task. Compare
It was very icy, but I managed to keep the car on
Veronica was very upset when Ben left her, but she managed
to smile nevertheless.
She didn't really want to go to Mexico, but Tony managed
to persuade her somehow.
Can you help me put up my new shed? ~ I can manage a few
hours in the morning, but I'm busy in the afternoon.
This is an ideal job for those who can only manage a few
hours each week.
Can I give you a hand with that? ~ No, it's all right. I'll
manage./ I can manage.
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