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Looking up dictionaries I don't see a easy rule when to use ability vs. faculty in sense of a describing attribute . For example, "cognitive faculty" or "faculty of speech" seem to be standard terms, but then "learning or mental ability" seems more common than "learning faculty". The only pattern I see is that abilities are kind of innate(?).

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It's not a distinction of meaning as such - just that certain combinations are more idiomatically established. The net result being that the more academic/clinical faculty tends to refer "innate, raw" potential (which you always had, and which can't be improved). Whereas ability, often refers to current skill level - which can improve or deteriorate. Depending on whether you practice, or allow skills to atrophy through disuse, for example. – FumbleFingers Jul 5 '12 at 23:29
Quick answer: 'faculty' is kind of general, referring to the ability in a species the possibility of X. 'Ability' means you can do X now. Also, 'faculty' has many very specific connotations (like with the individuals who teach at an institution) – Mitch Jul 6 '12 at 3:28
up vote 3 down vote accepted

To me, and I don't think there's a Chicago or AP reference on this so YMMV:

  • Ability - what degree of capability exists
  • Faculty - is any capability present whatsoever

So, an infant has no faculty of speech, and a toddler has faculty but limited ability.

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