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"He was able to win the race." It means he won the race. Can it also mean he didn't win? - he didn't use the ability to win. If not, how to express the idea?

4 Answers 4

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"He was able to win the race." would usually be understood as "He won the race".

"He was capable of winning the race." or "He had the ability to win the race." would be more usual ways to convey that a person had the ability to win the race, but neither also conveys the meaning that he didn't win.

You would need to add another clause for that. "He was capable of winning the race, but didn't." or "He had the ability to win the race, but didn't."

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The answer is that it doesn't mean he lost the race. It means he was able to win. And that's all.
But it can be used to communicate that he lost, in the appropriate circumstances.

This is a matter of Gricean conversational implicatures. Here's how it works.

The first Quantity and Quality Maxims require one to say everything known to be true, if possible.
So, if he lost, and if the speaker knows this, and the speaker wants to say the most polite and complimentary thing possible, without lying,

  • He was able to win the race.

comes pretty close to ideal.

It's true, and it's complimentary, and it doesn't commit the speaker beyond that. Of course, if the addressee knows that the speaker is aware of who won, then the speaker's failure to say he won, although the speaker could have, is interpreted as implicating that he did not in fact win.

"Meaning" is not as simple a concept as one may believe;
there are many different ways to convey information.

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As JoAnne points out, "He was able to win the race." would usually be understood as "He won the race" (perhaps even implying that he did so in spite of some adversity or other reason for not winning).

The only thing that I would add to JoAnne's list of alternative ways to express what you are looking for would be:

"He could have won the race."

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I would use the following:

"He had the potential to win the race."

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