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Past ability

Do you know how to use could, was able to and managed to to talk about past abilities?

Look at these examples to see how could, was able to and managed to are used.

I could play the guitar when I was seven years old.
The police weren't able to catch the speeding car.
The bird managed to escape from its cage and fly away.

Try this exercise to test your grammar.

Grammar test 1

Past ability: Grammar test 1

Read the explanation to learn more.

Grammar explanation

General ability

We usually use could or couldn't to talk about general abilities in the past.

She could paint before she started school.
I couldn't cook until I went to university.
When I lived next to the pool, I could go swimming every day.

Ability on one occasion – successful

When we talk about achieving something on a specific occasion in the past, we use was/were able to (= had the ability to) and managed to (= succeeded in doing something difficult).

The burglar was able to get in through the bathroom window.
The burglar managed to get in through the bathroom window even though it was locked.

Could is not usually correct when we're talking about ability at a specific moment in the past.

Ability on one occasion – unsuccessful

When we talk about a specific occasion when someone didn't have the ability to do something, we can use wasn't/weren't able to, didn't manage to or couldn't.

The speaker wasn't able to attend the conference due to illness.
She couldn't watch the match because she was working.
They worked on it for months but they didn't manage to find a solution.

Note that wasn't/weren't able to is more formal than couldn't, while didn't manage to emphasises that the thing was difficult to do.

Do this exercise to test your grammar again.

Grammar test 2

Past ability: Grammar test 2

Language level

Intermediate: B1
Upper intermediate: B2


Can you explain this sentence to me? I'm still confused.
I _____ afford to buy a car so I borrowed money from the bank.
Answer: couldn’t
I think the answer is didn't manage to because it emphasizes that the thing was very difficult to do. Is it right?

Hello Loc Duc,

We use 'manage to' or 'didn't manage to' to speak about a relatively discrete action, i.e. an action that is relatively quick and does not extend over time. 'afford' describes a state more than a discrete action, and so it sounds unnatural to use 'manage' here.

If there was a specific context -- for example, if I were talking about the time in my life right after I graduated from university -- then it would be possible to say 'wasn't able to' here.

But since in this case there is not specific context, 'couldn't' is the best answer.

Does that make sense?

All the best,


The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks, Let's go on.

The journey went fine yesterday and we _____ find their house easily with GPS.

Here in this case, the journey is a specific occasion, then why the correct answer is ‘could’, not ‘were able to’?

Hi Chekytan,

Yes, it is a specific occasion so you're right – the correct answer is were able to. Task 1 question 8 shows this answer.

Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

Great help. Thank for the correction.

Is it correct?
I was not able to attend the driving course because it was very expensive.

Hi Salum Hilali,

Yes, it's correct! You could also use 'couldn't' instead of 'was not able to', and 'too expensive' instead of 'very expensive'.

Best wishes,

The LearnEnglish Team

What about this sentence? Is it correct?
"The customer called the salesman because he was unable to find the coat he saw day before".

Hello Priyesh,

Yes, you could say that, though you could also say 'the coat he had seen'. Also, 'day before' should be 'the day before'.

All the best,


The LearnEnglish Team