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

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Submitted by Loc Duc on Mon, 04/01/2021 - 03:12

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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,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by emmanuelniyomugabo12 on Fri, 25/09/2020 - 21:12

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Thanks, Let's go on.

Submitted by CHÉKYTAN on Mon, 10/08/2020 - 14:03

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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,

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Salum Hilali on Fri, 24/07/2020 - 16:31

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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, Jonathan The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Priyesh on Sun, 19/07/2020 - 17:04

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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,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Yenn nguyen on Sat, 18/07/2020 - 17:26

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Hello teacher. I can't understand the use of the word "managed to", "was able to", And how these diference? Could you explain it to me? thank you very much.

Hello Yenn nguyen,

Was sble to (was not able to) tells us about whether or not an action was successful. Managed to (didn't manage to) also tells us that something was difficult. For example:

I was able to phone him yesterday. [my call was successful]

I managed to phone him yesterday. [it's not easy to call him, but my call was successful]

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Karan Narang on Thu, 16/07/2020 - 04:43

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I could not understand until use of these word for past ability but having understood these all things completely Now I can use these perfectly also manage to speak about past to some.

Submitted by Yerlan on Fri, 12/06/2020 - 10:06

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Hello my dear dear teacher!!! Pleaseee, could you tell me is the next sentence about past or possible future? "He couldn't conceive of a time when he would have no job". Thank you.

Hello Yerlan,

The sentence describes the person's thoughts in the present (couldn't conceive) about the future (when he would have no job).

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by ahmed hefny on Sun, 12/04/2020 - 00:06

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hello, why is the answer to this quiz? He _____ attend the last meeting due to his daughter's illness. Incorrect weren't able to couldn't

Submitted by Peter M. on Sun, 12/04/2020 - 06:54

In reply to by ahmed hefny

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Hello ahmed hefny,

After he you need a singular verb, so it would need to be wasn't able to not weren't able to.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team