I’m wondering if the English grammar “rule” given below, which I have heard from numerous non-native speakers, has any validity.

“can” is used for people, animals, and inanimate objects.

“able to” is not used for inanimate objects, only for people and animals (animate objects).

Is this an accurate description of current usage? Was it maybe a prescriptive rule from long ago?

Just a quick Google search for “is able to” and “science” shows the following, and all from prestigious publications or institutions:

In this situation the neuron is able to form new connections.

The material is able to store the gas at a much higher concentration

The human brain is able to recognise a familiar object

The enzyme is able to go on chewing up

The new compound, Pentobra, is able to easily punch holes

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    There exists no such stricture in English grammar. Apart from that, this issue isn't even about grammar. I am able to discern no reason why this question can qualify for serious consideration. – Robusto Nov 14 '14 at 2:44
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    Where did you read this "rule" and those non-native speakers who told you this were probably teasing you. E.g., Last night, my car wasn't able to start, despite all the recent repairs I had done (Please ignore Google results, the figure is irrelevant and misleading, I just wanted to show that you can use able to with inanimate objects. – Mari-Lou A Nov 14 '14 at 10:32
  • The relevant "rule" doesn't involve a distinction between animate and inanimate subjects but between able and capable (or in negative form, unable and incapable). Please see the question What's wrong with 'Bananas are unable to grow in cold countries'? for a discussion of this old and extremely dubious distinction. – Sven Yargs Jan 20 '15 at 4:16
  • I don't think an inanimate object is "able" to do anything. For example: the recipe is able to prevent heart disease. The correct phrasing would be: the recipe can possibly prevent heart disease. – user166736 Mar 23 '16 at 0:25

As an American English speaker for almost 6 decades, I have never heard this rule, nor does it make much intuitive sense. The examples given all seem entirely appropriate current usage.

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