could

English translation: was able to

13:32 May 29, 2018
English to English translations [PRO]
Linguistics / use of \"could\" versus \"was able\"
English term or phrase: could
Hi,
I know from school that “could” is generally used in the past to express ability (I could swim when I was young) and “able to” to refer to a specific event in the past (When I was at the seaside last summer, I was able to swim from Canary Beach to Nightingale Beach…) (sorry for my examples!!).
I have a doubt, though, about the use of “could” in the passage below: it is about a little girl, Alice, who was told by her parents that they have to move to another city. To cope with this difficult situation, she wrote a story and made a video. After the description of the girl’s story, the authors use “could” many times: so I guess they refer to a general ability of this little girl, don’t they? Or is “could” used here in the sense of “was able to”, because it seems to refer specifically to this event, above all in the sentence “Because she was aware of her own sadness and fear (and a little bit of excitement…”?
Thank you for your help!
*****************
(Alice's story)
Lightbulbs
Brains are important. They hold many feelings, like sad, mad, happy, playful. I think of feelings as a string of lightbulbs. When I’m happy, that string is on. When too many lightbulbs are on at once, I get confused and scared. I feel like that now because I am moving. I feel sad and scared about moving, but I also feel a little bit excited. If you ever feel like too many lightbulbs are on at once, sit quietly and take a deep breath. That feels good.

(authors' comment about the story)

This is what we mean when we talk about using insight to take charge of our emotions and the way we respond to circumstances. Because she was aware of her own sadness and fear (and a little bit of excitement), Alice ** could ** pay attention to those feelings and respond in a productive and healthy manner. Notice that this story is all from the perspective of Alice as spectator. Alice the player is the one who cried, the one who felt confused and scared. That’s an important aspect of herself, and she needed to remain aware of, and even embrace, that part of who she is. But because she ** could ** go to her spectator and view her situation as if from outside of herself, she ** could ** also achieve insight and perspective. This is how Alice was showing integration— she ** could ** embrace both the player and spectator part of her mind. That’s the essence of integration— linking different parts of our experiences and aspects of our selves. And integration is the core of a Yes Brain. Alice ** could ** even offer advice for others who are struggling, which you see in her recommendation about sitting quietly and taking a deep breath— which of course is essentially the pause between the stimulus and the response.
haribert
Local time: 14:05
English translation:was able to
Explanation:
You ask whether these were general abilities, or just referred to this specific event, but I don't think this is a meaningful distinction in English.

could
modal verb
You use could to indicate that someone had the ability to do something. You use could not or couldn't to say that someone was unable to do something.
I could see that something was terribly wrong.
When I left school at 16, I couldn't read or write.
http://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/could
Selected response from:

philgoddard
United States
Grading comment
Thank you so much, Phil, for your valuable help! A sincere thanks also to Terry: if I could, I would give the points to you, too!
Many thanks also to all other contributors, especially Charles and Herbalchemist in the Discussion for their precious tips. Have a nice weekend!
4 KudoZ points were awarded for this answer



Summary of answers provided
4 +3was able to
philgoddard
4 +1was able
Terry Richards


Discussion entries: 7





  

Answers


8 mins   confidence: Answerer confidence 4/5Answerer confidence 4/5 peer agreement (net): +3
was able to


Explanation:
You ask whether these were general abilities, or just referred to this specific event, but I don't think this is a meaningful distinction in English.

could
modal verb
You use could to indicate that someone had the ability to do something. You use could not or couldn't to say that someone was unable to do something.
I could see that something was terribly wrong.
When I left school at 16, I couldn't read or write.
http://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/could

philgoddard
United States
Native speaker of: Native in EnglishEnglish
PRO pts in category: 16
Grading comment
Thank you so much, Phil, for your valuable help! A sincere thanks also to Terry: if I could, I would give the points to you, too!
Many thanks also to all other contributors, especially Charles and Herbalchemist in the Discussion for their precious tips. Have a nice weekend!
Notes to answerer
Asker: Thank you, Phil! I've found this distinction here: https://www.englishclub.com/grammar/verbs-modals-can-could-able.htm

Asker: The examples are "my grandmother could speak Spanish" and "A man fell into the river yesterday. The police were able to save him."


Peer comments on this answer (and responses from the answerer)
agree  Terry Richards: Snap!
3 mins

agree  Oliveira Simões
2 hrs

agree  Tina Vonhof
4 hrs
Login to enter a peer comment (or grade)

11 mins   confidence: Answerer confidence 4/5Answerer confidence 4/5 peer agreement (net): +1
was able


Explanation:
The author is talking about an event that has already happened, therefore it is in the past tense and could is the past of can.

Note that "can/could" is used here in a strictly correct way, to mean "able". It is frequently used incorrectly instead of "may" for asking permission. "Can I go to the park?" instead of "May I go to the park?". The clue here is the question mark, if there is no question mark (as in your context) then it means "able".

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Note added at 1 hr (2018-05-29 14:33:38 GMT)
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There is a difference between can/could and "be able to" in that "be able to" can use more tenses that can/could. However, for the simple past, they are effectively identical.

Also, to my ear, can/could implies ability but not necessarily action. I can bark at dogs (but I generally don't). Whereas "The police were able to save him" more strongly implies that they actually did so. It's a subtle difference at best though.

Terry Richards
France
Local time: 14:05
Native speaker of: Native in EnglishEnglish
PRO pts in category: 12
Notes to answerer
Asker: Thank you Terry! Actually I've found here a distinction between "could" and "was able to" https://www.englishclub.com/grammar/verbs-modals-can-could-able.htm

Asker: The examples are "my grandmother could speak Spanish" and "A man fell into the river yesterday. The police were able to save him."

Asker: Thank you so much, Terry! Actually, the distinction you mention between ability (could) vs. action (was able to) was what I was wondering about. Probably, though, this distinction is more in grammar books than in actual usage. Thanks for your patience!

Asker: I'm sorry I can give the points only to one of you: if I could, I'd give them to you, too: thanks for your precious help and have a nice weekend!


Peer comments on this answer (and responses from the answerer)
agree  Robert Forstag
1 hr
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