Past ability

Past ability

Do you know how to use could, was able to and managed to to talk about past abilities? Test what you know with interactive exercises and read the explanation to help you.

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

Average: 4.6 (21 votes)
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Submitted by oyo on Tue, 19/09/2023 - 13:30



Submitted by mohammad51 on Fri, 01/09/2023 - 11:32


Please could anyone tell me why could is not uses to tell about specific event ?
I have read in more than one book of grammar that ( could ) positive form is not used to tell about particular situation
Here is from Oxford Guide to English Grammar - Page 125 >>
But we use was/were able to to talk about an action in a particular situation, when someone had the ability to do something and did it.
The injured man was able to walk to a phone box.
NOT The injured man could walk to a phone box.
Examples from another book:
I was able to finish the work this afternoon, because there was nobody to disturb me.
not I could finish
I was able to finish the work yesterday. Not I could finish

Hello mohammad51,

I'm not sure that anyone can really answer why we use 'could' and 'be able to' this way. If I knew the answer, I would gladly explain it to you, but it's most likely just the way people have come to use English over the years.

I'm sorry not to have an answer for you.

All the best,
LearnEnglish team

Submitted by howtosay_ on Fri, 21/07/2023 - 00:07


Hello, dear teachers and team!

Could you please help me with the following:

I've seen the following sentence: "I’m so glad that you could come". As far as I can see, it describes one-time event. Is that sentences in which there is "that" (like "that you could come", "that I could help" etc. that we can also use "could" with?

And one more question, please: Is it correct to say "I'm glad that you were able to come".

Struggling finding some information on my own, I'm very very grateful for your help and thank you very much indeed for answering this comment in advance!

Hello howtosay_,

You're correct that this sentence describes a particular action. It's something we might say when someone arrives at a party, event, meeting etc.

There are many similar sentences, such as the ones that you mention.

You can replace 'could' with 'were able to' in all of these sentences, as in your last example.



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by howtosay_ on Wed, 01/02/2023 - 03:12



Could you please help me with the following:

I could/was able to go there without an invitation. Is any of them (could and was able) possible here? The meaning is that I had an opportunity to go there without invitation. So, it's neither about a person's ability nor successful or not successful finished action. Has it to be just "I had an opportunity to go there?"

Thank you so much for your precious help and thank you for answering this post beforehand!

Hello howtosay_,

Generally, 'was able to' implies that you went unless the context says otherwise. If you did not go then we would usually add that information (e.g. ...but in the end I stayed at home).

'Could' with past time reference means ability rather than possibility; you could use 'could have gone' here instead, but this implies that you did not go.


If you want to say that you had the possibility but not given any indication as to whether or not you actually went, then a formulation such as 'I had the chance/the opportunity...' would indeed be the most natural choice, I think.



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Faii on Thu, 21/07/2022 - 06:40


This lesson is helpful.But in questions ,Can we use could and was/were able to interchangeably?
Like 1.Were you able to describe the person to the police ?If we use could here does the meaning still the same ?Plus we also use could instead of can to make it less direct .So is there any possibility if i use could here,it will refer to can,I mean a present situation rather than a past situation ?

Hi Faii,

No, they aren't interchangeable. "Could" indicates a general ability, and "be able to" indicates an ability on a particular occasion. So, "Were you able to describe the person to the police?" is correct because this refers to one particular occasion, not a general ability to describe people. "Could" is not right, for that reason. (Note though that the negative form "couldn't" may be used for particular occasions, unlike the positive form "could".)

About your second question, yes! It is possible. If you say "Could you describe the person to the police?", it will be understood as asking someone to do that right now (i.e. a present action).


The LearnEnglish Team

Hello. My question concerns to Test 1, question 5. He _____ attend the last meeting due to his daughter's illness. Why we put couldn't and not weren't able to?