Past ability & possibility

In the present tense we use ‘can’ to talk about a general ability – e.g. I can swim – and also for ability at a particular moment – e.g. I can see you! The rules for talking about past abilities are different.

General ability

We use could to talk about general abilities in the past.

  • He could speak fluent French when he was 5.
  • I could read before I started school.

Ability on one occasion

However, when we talk about ability on one particular occasion, we can’t use could

  • The burglar was able to get in through the bathroom window.
  • The burglar managed to get in through the bathroom window.

We have to use was able to or managed to. We can’t use could.

  • The burglar could get in through the bathroom window.

Ability on one occasion – negative

When we talk about a particular occasion when something wasn’t possible, we can use wasn’t/weren’t able todidn’t manage to, or couldn’t

  • The burglar wasn’t able to get in through the window.
  • The burglar didn’t manage to get in through the window.
  • The burglar couldn’t get in through the window.

Hypothetical past ability

Sometimes things were possible in the past but didn’t happen.

  • I could have gone to university but I decided to get a job.
  • I would have been able to win the race but I fell over.

We use could have (+ past participle) or would have been able to to talk about these hypothetical events. They can be used in the positive and the negative.

  • I couldn’t have done it without your help.
  • I wouldn’t have been able to afford it even if it had been for sale.

موسسه فرهنگی و هنری پیام پرسا برگزار کننده دوره های تخصصی مکالمه زبان انگلیسی (تافل، آیلتس، تولیمو، GRE و …) و دوره های تخصصی مدیریت، جهانگردی و ترجمه

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