Past Ability: Could, Was Able To, Managed To


31 October, 2019

Imagine that you are interviewing for a job you really want. Most of the questions are in your native language, but the job will require you to use some English. So, the employer asks about your English skills. You might answer with the words, "I can speak English very well" or "I am able to speak English very well."

The two statements have the same meaning.

Both "can" and "be able to" are used to express ability. In a spoken exchange, "can" is far more common while "be able to" sounds less natural.

However, when we are talking about the past, the rules change a bit.

Today, I will show you how to express past abilities with "could" "was (or) were able to" and another phrase you may have heard before — "managed to."

The first thing to know is that, in the past tense, we express general abilities and abilities at specific times in different ways. That is important, as you will soon see.

Some people can imitate crow sounds. But crows are also good mimics. These birds can learn to imitate the sounds of other animals, including people.
Some people can imitate crow sounds. But crows are also good mimics. These birds can learn to imitate the sounds of other animals, including people.

General abilities

Let's start with general abilities. These are skills or talents a person once had. In the past tense, English speakers almost always use "could."

Listen to a few examples.

By the time he was four, Guillermo could read and write.

In high school, she could beat anyone in a running race.

I could mimic bird sounds when I was younger.

Again, we are talking about general skills or talents – not about a specific occasion.

Note that, in any of these examples, "was (or) were able to" is also possible but used less often. You could say, for example, "By the time he was four, Guillermo was able to read and write," and it would be fine. It also might sound a little formal in spoken English.

Specific occasions

Now, let's talk about specific occasions. Here is where the rules change a bit.

When we are talking about a specific situation or when noting a specific achievement, we must use "was (or) were able to" or "managed to." Their meanings are very close.

We do not use "could."

Listen to some examples:

We were able to get a really good price on the car.
We managed to get a really good price on the car.

I was able to persuade her to volunteer at the show.
I managed to persuade her to volunteer at the show.

Now let's talk more about the meanings. "Was (or) were able to" and "managed to" both suggest effort. They mean someone succeeded in doing something that was a challenge or took a special effort. However, the phrase "managed to" puts a little more emphasis on how hard the challenge was or how much effort it took.

Note that "managed to" is fairly common in spoken English. You will hear it used almost everywhere.

Exception to the rule

Now, let's take a few minutes to quickly explore an exception to the rules we just discussed.

Earlier, I told you that we use "could" for general abilities. But there are two kinds of verbs where we also use "could" for specific occasions.

With sense verbs, such as "smell" and "taste," and thought process verbs, such as "believe" "decide" and "understand," we usually use "could" even when talking about specific occasions.

Listen to two examples of what I mean:

I walked past a market today and could smell the freshly baked bread.

We couldn't decide what to get for his birthday so we bought a gift card.

Note that the second example uses the negative form -- "couldn't."

Using the negatives

So, now would be a good time to talk more about negative forms.

The good news is that we can use "couldn't," "wasn't (or) weren't able to," or "didn't manage to" to express the same thing – inability on a specific occasion in the past. Listen to how these are used for the same statement.

He studied for months but couldn't pass the bar exam.
He studied for months but wasn't able to pass the bar exam.
He studied for months but didn't manage to pass the bar exam.

All three sentences mean that a person was not capable of doing something on a specific occasion.

Note also that sometimes, for the negative form of "managed to," we say, "couldn't manage to" instead of "didn't manage to." They mean the same thing:

He studied for months but couldn't manage to pass the bar exam.

Well, that's all for now. Luckily, I did manage to do something today: teach you how to talk about past abilities!

I'm Alice Bryant.

Alice Bryant wrote this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

phrase – n. a group of two or more words that express an idea but do not usually form a complete sentence

specific – adj. precise or exact

mimic – v. to create the appearance or effect of (something)

formal – adj. suitable for serious or official speech and writing

achievement – n. something that has been done or achieved through effort

challenge – n. something that is hard to do

emphasis – n. special importance or attention given to something

baked – adj. cooked in an oven using dry heat

negative – adj. expressing denial or refusal

bar – n. the test that a person must pass in order to be a lawyer

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