Can vs be able to (para abilidades del presente)

Discussion in 'Spanish-English Grammar / Gramática Español-Inglés' started by Polyta, Aug 30, 2008.

  1. Polyta Junior Member

    Argentina - español
    Hola a Todos!

    Tengo una gran duda, en mi libro de ingles dice que tanto CAN como BE ABLE TO pueden ser usados para expresar habilidades del presente y tengo los siguientes ejemplos:

    Para CAN:
    She can type very fast.

    Para BE ABLE TO:

    She is able to play both the violin and the piano.


    Tengo un ejercicio en la siguiente oración:He can\is able to cook very well, donde tengo elegir una de las dos alternativas y mi duda es cuando uso CAN y cuando uso BE ABLE TO porque no logro entender la diferencia.

    Espero que alguien me pueda aclarar esta duda ya que tengo un examen la proxima semana.

    Muchas Gracias!!
     
  2. Milton Sand

    Milton Sand Modómano, 'mano

    Bucaramanga, Colombia
    Español (Colombia)
    Hi,
    Well, as no English native has answered, let me tell you what it seems to me:
    Can —> This one refers to the subject's faculty, strength or capacity of performing an action.
    Be able to —> This one has to do with the subject's availability, possibility or conditions to perform an action.

    But, please, somebody, clarify this for us! I'm eager to know the actual senses of "can" and "be able to".

    Bye ;)
     
  3. Bookworm123 Senior Member

    USA English
    This is very tricky, and I can offer some advice, but this will become clearer once you read and familiarize yourself with English more.

    Can and to be able to are almost always interchangeable. Unfortunately, there is still that "almost" that lingers. Sometimes "can" is the only option, and other times "to be able to" is the only appropriate choice.

    Examples:

    1. When they mean the same thing:

    He can consume three sandwiches in one sitting.
    He is able to consume three sandwiches in one sitting.

    Here "can" is probably more common, just because it is less formal and is significantly shorter. Nevertheless, both options are perfectly correct. They both imply the ability to do something.


    2. When "to be able to" is the only correct option:

    Although he suffered an extremely traumatizing childhood, he was able to live a normal life.

    Here can, or better said, could, is not an option. The reason is that here "was able to" takes on a meaning that is more similar to managed to, a definition that does fall under "can."

    3. When only "can" may be used:

    If you take the dog's food dish away from him, he can get angry.

    Here "can" does not suggest that the dog is able to get angry, but rather that there is a possiblity that the dog will get upset. That is to say that here "can" means something along the lines of may. This case is probably the hardest to explain, but the fact remains that instead of emphasizing the dog's ability to do something, "can" here is doing something "to be able to" can't, which is stressing the possibility of an outcome or reaction.

    I hope this helps.
     
    Last edited: Aug 30, 2008
  4. califlor New Member

    Thousand Oaks, CA
    US English
    Hola Polyta,
    Do not feel bad that these seem the same to you, in those sentences they mean the same to me and if you switched them I don't think they would mean anything much different. (she is able to type very fast, she can play both the violin and the piano)

    I thought about it a bit and I would say these are the differences:

    1)
    - 'is able to' is more formal than can. I would not generally use 'is able to' in conversation. I might use 'able to' in a resume, for example. Your second sentence has a more formal tone and might be used in resume or a person's biography.

    2)
    - 'able to' refers to nothing more than someone's ability or skill.
    - 'can' might have some additional subtle implications of willingness to do something in addition to ability

    Example: I can't go in there, I saw my ex-husband with his new wife. (physically able to walk in the room but doesn't want to)

    Superman: able to leap tall buildings in a single bound (simple statement that he has the skill/ability to do this)

    Clerk: I can help the next person in line (I am able and it's my job)

    I'm sure someone could make an argument against what I have said, I'm interested to hear if others have a similar perspective.
    (seeing that I have used "can" in my above sentence: to me it implies that someone is able to think of an argument and would do so. I would not use 'someone is able to make' in that sentence)

    I'm not sure this will help with your exam. :(

    Rose
     
  5. Milton Sand

    Milton Sand Modómano, 'mano

    Bucaramanga, Colombia
    Español (Colombia)
    Hi,
    So, let me know if I've learned my lesson well:
    Can —> To have the will/power/faculty to perform an action.
    Be able to —> To have the possibilities/means/availability to perform an action.
    (Either) —> To have the the will/power/faculty/possibilities/means/availability to perform an action.

    Am I right?
    Bye ;)
     
  6. Alazzne New Member

    Iurreta
    Basque, spanish
    In present can and be able to are the same, but CAN is more common.

    In past could means a general ability and was able to means a ability in a particular moment.

    Examples:

    When I was 12 I COULD swim.
    Although I broke my leg I WAS ABLE TO walk some metres.

    WAS ABLE TO can be replaced by MANAGED TO or SUCCEEDED IN.

    In negative sentences only COULDN'T is possible ( in both cases, a particular situation or a general ability)

    Examples:

    When I was 12 I COULDN'T swim.
    As I broke my leg I COULDN'T walk some metres. (i have change the although becouse the constrast didn't make now sense)
     
  7. Milton Sand

    Milton Sand Modómano, 'mano

    Bucaramanga, Colombia
    Español (Colombia)
    But... what about this?:
    1. I wasn't able to answer my phone, so I not even tried to reach it.
    2. I couldn't answer my phone even though I kept trying to reach it.

    Are any of those right or wrong?
     
  8. Silvinha New Member

    Spanish El Salvador
    Hello:
    I agree with:
    Can is related to the natural ability to do something, while be able is to acquired abilities after some training.
     
  9. Bookworm123 Senior Member

    USA English
    The use of could and wasn't able to in both these sentences is correct.
     
  10. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    Can (when 3rd pers. sing.) and is able to are usually interchangeable, though can is more common:

    She can type very fast. = She is able to type very fast.
    She is able to play both the violin and the piano.
    = She can play both the violin and the piano.
    He can cook very well. = He is able to cook very well.

    The usual (slight) difference is that able might be just the adjective.

    In the sentence about the dog, can seems to mean something between may and will and the dog's ability is not really relevant, so the adjective able does not fit:

    If you take the dog's food dish away from him, he can get angry. = If you take the dog's food dish away from him, he is not indisposed to getting angry. [no =] If you take the dog's food dish away from him, he is able to get angry.

    Could
    (1st or 3rd pers. sing.) and was able to are almost interchangeable:

    I couldn't answer my phone even though I kept trying to reach it. = Even though I kept trying to reach it, I wasn't able to answer my phone.
    I knew I wasn't able to answer my phone, so I didn't even try to reach it. = I knew I couldn't answer my phone, so I didn't even try to reach it.

    Could also interchanges with would be able to:

    If you didn't have legs, you couldn't run. = If you didn't have legs, you wouldn't be able to run.

    This creates ambiguities with mode (e.g. subjunctive, conditional) and aspect (perfect, continuous, etc.). Pude/pudo is better expressed by was able to than by could, which can mean podía or podría:

    Although he suffered an extremely traumatizing childhood, he could live a normal life. [¿podría? ¿podía?]
    Although he suffered an extremely traumatizing childhood, he was able to live a normal life. [Ah, pudo.]

    There is no form of the verb can corresponding to poder, pudiendo, or podido. The corresponding forms with able are (to) be able to, being able to, and been able to:

    - I can't do it yet. [no puedo]
    - Then when will you be able to? [¿cuándo podrás?]
     
  11. Polyta Junior Member

    Argentina - español
    Thanks a lot!!!
     

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