Modal Verbs of Ability
Modal verbs of ability are can/be able to, was able to, could,
Can / Be able to (ability in the present/future)
‘Can’ is more usual and less formal than ‘be able to’ when talking about the present or future. Ann can type fast.
I can pay you next week. (usual)
I will be able to pay you next week. (less usual)
Was able to (= managed to do) (ability in the past) is used for either repeated or single actions.
I was able to go on a trip around the city last week. (single action)
Could (ability in the past)
‘Could’ is more usual than ‘was able to.’ It is used in statements for repeated actions.
However, with the verbs see, hear, smell, understand, etc. we normally use ‘could’ for single actions.
She could / was able to play the violin when she was six. (repeated action)
I could smell something burning. (single action)
Could / Was able to can both be used in negations and questions for either repeated or single actions.
She couldn’t / wasn’t able to pass her driving test. (past single action)
Were you able to / Could you get to work every day’ last week? (past repeated action)
Can is used in the present.
Could is the past tense of can. We use be able to form for all the other tenses.
I will be able to get a job when I finish school.
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