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Ok, This site says:

When we talk about ability, we mean two things.

First, we mean general ability. This is something that once you have learned you can do any time you want, like being able to read or swim or speak a language, for example.

The other kind of ability is specific ability. This mean something that you can or can't do in one particular situation. For example, being able to lift something heavy, or find somewhere you are looking for.

Present:

can / can't (for both general and specific ability)

I can play the piano.

She can speak English.

He can't drive he's too tired.

We can't come now.

Past:

could / couldn't (for general ability)

I could read when I was four.

She could speak French when she was a child, but now she has forgotten it.

He couldn't dance at all until he took lessons.

My grandfather couldn't swim.

was able to / couldn't (for specific ability)

When the computer crashed yesterday, I was able to fix it.(not 'I could fix it')

She was able to pass the exam, even though she hadn't studied much.(not 'she could pass')

He called us because he couldn't find the house.

I couldn't open the window.

See this conversation from an English TextBook-Solutions 2ndEd

A: Where were you last weekend?

B: You weren’t at Sam’s party

A: No, I couldn’t go. I was with my parents. We were in London all weekend.

B: Really? Was it fun?

A: Yes, it was. Look at my photo of the London Eye.

B: It’s great. I really want to go on that. Was it good? What could you see?

A: It was fantastic. We could see the whole of London.

There is 1 expression in the above conversation "We could see the whole of London.". It sounds wrong to me because it is a specific ability & therefore we need to use "was able to"

So, It is better to say "We were able to see the whole of London"

Is "We could see the whole of London." wrong?

Note: Even Oxford expert says it is wrong to use "could" for specific ability. See this video

closed as off-topic by AndyT, David, Cascabel, NVZ, Davo Jul 6 '17 at 13:45

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    It seems to me a perfectly natural thing to say. I agree with the examples given, but I'm not sure that it's always wrong to use 'could' when speaking of a particular situation. – Kate Bunting Jul 5 '17 at 8:47
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    Please don't crosspost. Pick a site, ELU or ELL, and post the question on one or the other. You should only post on different sites if you have different aspects which are relevant to different sites, in which case the questions should differ from each other in what they are focussed on. This is a just a word-for-word copy of ell.stackexchange.com/questions/134523/…. – AndyT Jul 5 '17 at 10:41
  • Why do you think "could" means something different from "were able to"? – Barmar Jul 5 '17 at 21:06
  • @Barmar, Even Oxford expert says it is wrong to use "could" for specific ability oxfordonlineenglish.com/video-modal-verbs-ability – Tom Jul 6 '17 at 0:02
  • It says "specific ability at a specific time". But in this case there isn't a specific time, it's the whole time that he was in London. – Barmar Jul 6 '17 at 0:13
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Looking at the resource you're working off of, I think the specific/general ability refers not to just whether it's a specific situation, but whether the outcome of what happened matters in a meaningful sense.

Compare "We could catch the train." vs. "We were able to catch the train." Usage here matters, since the use of "could" implies that you didn't catch the train, and "able to" implies that you did.

In the sentence "We could see the whole of London", the specific outcome of whether you actually did examine the whole of London isn't generally meaningful to anyone, as the statement is more about the ability to see the whole of London than it is about actually doing it.


Alternatively, there's this answer on a similar question:

There are exceptions to this common avoidance of could when referring to single past occasions.

Exception 1: with verbs of the perception and mental activities:

I could hear a faint noise.

I could understand very little.

  • Thanks, I forgot that we can use "could" for mental verbs – Tom Jul 6 '17 at 3:04
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There is 1 expression in the above conversation "We could see the whole of London.". It sounds wrong to me because it is a specific ability & therefore we need to use "was able to"

So, It is better to say "We were able to see the whole of London"

Is "We could see the whole of London." wrong?

Both of these are acceptable in English. I believe the site you referred to is trying to lean to a very strict form for English learners so they don't mess up with other sentences which could turn out very wrong if certain rules are not followed.

In common use and with virtually any native speaker in the world either sentence you proposed are valid.

  • Even Oxford expert says it is wrong to use "could" for specific ability oxfordonlineenglish.com/video-modal-verbs-ability – Tom Jul 6 '17 at 0:01
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    @Tom Well, good for the damn expert. I doubt there are any English speakers who wouldn't understand the phrase, and it doesn't strike me as the slightest bit odd. Oxford doesn't define the language. – Andy Jul 6 '17 at 0:28
  • @Andy, Do you feel it's odd when you hear "I could fix my computer yesterday"? – Tom Jul 6 '17 at 4:27
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    @Tom, The reason your version is odd (I agree with you) is because you added yesterday at the end. You see, this was my point about English learners getting into sticky situations. It's actually fine if you modify it to, "I could have fixed my computer yesterday.". The problem is you added the adverb yesterday and you also used the present participle "fix" versus the past participle "fixed" which needed a present perfect "have". The sentence structure is completely changed. I get your point. But both sentences as shown are fine for any native speaker. – Kace36 Jul 6 '17 at 6:18

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