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Good day everyone. So I have Michael Swan's grammar book "Practical English Usage" and there's a couple of sections concerning to usage of "could".

So in 82.3 it says that we use could to talk about general ability in the past and they give an example

  1. It could be quite frightening if you were alone in our big old house.

As I understand this sentence, it's an open condition in the past and we can use when instead of if. But I don't quite understand why the authors of this book decided to give such an example in this section. Because there's another section 86 saing that we can use can, could, may and might to talk about typical behaviour and occurences. And they give this example:

  1. In the days of sailing ships, a voyage round the world could take years.

Do the first and the second sentences have the same meaning like "something sometimes happened"?

I'd like to thank everyone beforehand who will find time to answer my question :)

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Very good observation. You have discovered the two different meanings of "could".

One is conditional:

It could be quite frightening if you were alone in our big old house.

It has the condition to be quite scary, if I were alone in the big old house.

The other is the past tense use of the verb can.

In the days of sailing ships, a voyage round the world could take years.

In this sentence, you are saying that the length of the trip HAD the potential to last a long time.

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    Don't you think that sentence (1) is ambiguous? My impression is that "could" there can be interpreted as past or conditional: 1.a. In those days there were no neighbors around so it could be quite frightening if you were alone in our big old house. (PAST) - 1.b. I understand why you want company. It could be quite frightening if you were alone in our big old house. (CONDITIONAL)
    – Gustavson
    Jan 8 '19 at 22:24
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In line with my comment to Karlomanio, I think "could" can express past possibility (not past ability) in that sentence.

What I find confusing in Swan (notice I seem to have a different edition) is that under the heading ABILITY he provides different possible meanings for CAN (ability, typical behavior or occurrence, possibility) and then all those meanings (or at least ability and possibility) seem to be mixed up when the uses of COULD are explained under item (4):

could

could

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  • His book changes so much throughout editions... I've checked 2nd edition and explanation of could is a little different concerning this sentence.
    – Czup
    Jan 9 '19 at 16:39
  • @Czup Mine is the 3rd edition and supposedly should have improved on the previous one... It does not seem to be the case.
    – Gustavson
    Jan 9 '19 at 17:13
  • But can I change "if" to "when"? Supposing that the sentence is simply about what was typical/common. It could be quite frightening when you were alone in our big old house.
    – Czup
    Jan 10 '19 at 10:57

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