We use ‘could’, ‘was/were able to’ and ‘manage to’ (the past form) to talk about ability in the past: ‘she could finish the exam faster than anyone else’; ‘he wasn’t able to answer the police officer’s queries’; ‘he managed to finish the work on time’, etc. We use was/were able to (= had the ability to) and managed to (= succeeded in doing something difficult) when we talk about achieving something on a specific occasion in the past. In contrast, we usually don’t use could when we’re talking about ability at a specific moment in the past.
He was able to push his way through the crowd to reach the dais. √
He managed to push his way through the crowd to reach the dais. √
He could push his way through the crowd to reach the dais. ✗
Could = We usually use could or couldn’t to talk about general abilities in the past: ‘She could speak Japanese before she started school’; he couldn’t drive until he was thirty’; ‘when I lived next to the Nitehawk, I could go to cinema every day’.
Example sentences of could
He couldn’t touch the ceiling. It’s too high.
A lot of them couldn’t survive.
Isabella couldn’t finish her project last night.
I’m sure Liam could find out for you.
There’s no way you could reach the station by yourself.
Nobody could tell my clothes were dirty.
When he was young, he could easily get through this window.
Don’t use could to talk about single events that happened in the past.
I could buy a wonderful watch on his birthday. ✗
I was able to/managed to buy a wonderful watch on his birthday. (right)
She could surprise Father yesterday. ✗
She was able to surprise Father yesterday. √
However, with verbs of the senses (touch, see, smell, taste, hear, etc.) and mental processes (believe, think, understand, remember, etc.), we can use could:
The food served last night was awful. I could taste nothing but salt.
The officer came and asked for my identity, but I couldn’t see his name tag.
Notice that we also use could to talk about ability in the present, but in different context. If we say that someone could do something, we mean that they have the ability to do it, but they don’t necessarily do it: the governments could do much more to tackle the pandemic.
More example sentences of could
All that one could do at this point is stay back home and pray for others.
He couldn’t handle the situation all by himself, and called others to help him out.
Several make-shift hospitals were built so that the injured could get treatment.
Grandmother was stunned by the sheer volume of sound that two high volume speakers could make.
My brother and I wanted to sign up for the class so that we could take it together for sharing family car.
We could see nothing except for the dust as the truck disappeared just as quickly.
Was/were able to = When we talk about past ability, we use ‘could’ or ‘was/were able to’ to tell an ability that existed in the past for a long time, but no longer exists now: ‘when she was ten, she was able to speak French fluently’.
Example sentences of was/were able to
Only one person was able to clear the interview.
After several weeks in hospital, she was able to return to work.
The company was able to pay their employees’ wages after lockdown.
Williams would never be able to afford such a big house.
The vacation was relaxing and she was able to read a lot.
The police weren’t able to catch the speeding truck.
More example sentences of was/were able to
We were able to/managed to drive 800 miles in that old car in just a couple of days.
When the government adds in council tax and other bills, we wouldn’t be able to afford that.
The year 2020 has really been a hard year and we would have never been able to afford to pay for it.
People who have been displaced are worried they might not be able to afford to return to their homeland.
I hope you will be able to take a few moments to read the manual and follow the instructions.
It is unclear yet if any of the athletes will be able to compete at the international level.
It seems just wonderful to be able to write anything you want and post it on the internet.
Liam has just started to be able to walk but will never have full mobility again.
Manage to = When we talk about doing something difficult, especially after trying hard, we use ‘manage to’: ‘managed to get a travel pass’; ‘managed to see the President’; ‘managed to get into that crowded tram’.
Example sentences of manage to
How did you manage to persuade him?
Did you manage to get any drinks?
Atlanta United managed one goal in the last ten minutes.
I only just managed to arrive at the airport on time.
The patrolling squad had somehow managed to survive the terror attack.
Use a to-infinitive, not an –ing form, after manage. ‘How did you manage persuading him? (✗ )
In written English, we often use ‘succeed in doing something’ rather than ‘manage to do something’ because it sounds more formal: ‘At a time of pandemic, Prime Minister succeeded in restoring hope’.
More example sentences of manage to
The prisoners managed to escape from jail.
The burglar managed to break into our office downtown and stole cash.
They had been working on it for weeks but they didn’t manage to finish it on time.
They managed to get a really good price on the bungalow.
I managed to persuade Liam to volunteer for community service.
She studied for months but didn’t manage to pass the exam.