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Unit 2: English In A Minute
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Session 21

Do you have a minute to spare to learn some English? Watch Phil explain how to talk about past ability using 'could' and 'was able to'.

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    Activity 1

Activity 1

Could vs Was able to

What’s the difference between ‘could’ and ‘was able to’? Let Phil explain in this English In A Minute - our 60 second free English class.

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Phil

When do we use could and was able to to talk about past abilities?

If it's a positive sentence, ask yourself if it's a general ability - which uses could, or a specific achievement - which usually uses was able to.

I could run really fast when I was younger.

I was able to win a medal.

But we do use could for a specific event, if we use verbs related to senses or thought processes.

I could feel the wind in my face.

I could remember my coach's advice.

If the sentence is negative, it's much easier – we can use either.

I couldn't do much at school the next day. I wasn't able to concentrate at all!

Negative or positive? Specific or general? Are there any senses or thought processes?

What could you do when you were younger? What were you able to achieve? What could you see or hear while you were doing it?

Could vs Was able to

We normally use could to talk about a general past ability in positive sentences.

  • I could swim well as a child.
  • I could climb trees quickly.

We often use was able to to talk about a specific achievement in the past in positive sentences.

  • I was able to buy the car cheaply.
  • I was able to win the gold medal.

However, we can use could for a specific event if we use verbs related to senses or thought processes.

  • I could feel the water all around me.
  • I could hear my father's voice cheering me on.

If the sentence is negative, we can use either was able to or could.

  • I wasn't able to swim well.
  • I couldn't swim well.

 

 

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