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3. Ability: can, could and be able to

FORM 9

1 Can and can't

Vicky: How many instruments can you play, Natasha?
Natasha: Three - the violin, the clarinet and the piano.
Vicky: That's terrific. You haven't got a piano here, though.
Natasha: No, but I can go to the music room in college and play the one in there.
Vicky: I'm not musical at all. I can't even sing.

We use can to say that something is possible: that someone has an ability (Natasha can play the piano) or an opportunity (She can go to the music room).
The negative is cannot or can't [ka:nt].

2 Can and be able to

In the present tense, be able to is a little more formal and less usual than can.
Emma is good with computers. She can write/is able to write programs.

But in some structures we always use be able to, not can.
To-infinitive: It's nice to be able to go to the opera. (NOT to can go)
After a modal verb: Melanie might be able to help us.
Present Perfect: It's been quiet today. I've been able to get some work done.

For the future we use can or will be able to but NOT will can.
If we earn some money, we can go/we'll be able to go on holiday next summer.
I'm afraid I can't come/I won't be able to come to the disco on Friday.

But to suggest a possible future action, we normally use can.
Let's have lunch together. We can go to that new restaurant.

3 Could and was/were able to

For ability or opportunity in the past, we use could or was/were able to.
Natasha could play (OR was able to play) the piano when she was four.
In those days we had a car, so we could travel (OR were able to travel) very easily.

To say that the ability or opportunity resulted in a particular action, something that really happened, we use was/were able to but not could.
The plane was able to take off at eleven o'clock, after the fog had lifted.
Luckily Mark was able to get (OR succeeded in getting) the work done in time.
The drivers were able to stop (OR managed to stop) before they crashed into each other.

Compare these two sentences.

In negative sentences and questions, we can use either form.
It was foggy, so the plane couldn't/wasn't able to take off
The pool was closed, so they couldn't/weren't able to have a swim.
Could you/Were you able to describe the man to the police?

We normally use could (not was/were able to) with verbs of seeing etc., and with verbs of thinking.
We could see the village in the distance.
As soon as Harriet opened the door, she could smell gas.
I couldn't understand what was happening.

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