2

I'm doubtful as to whether these two sentences are correct.

I wasn't able to ride a bike until I was 20.

I was able to ride a bike until I was 20.

My suspicion is that only the first sentence is correct, but I don't know why the second should be wrong. However, I feel that the second will be better with past perfect in place of simple past:

I had been able to ride a bike until I was 20.

  • 1
    A rule of the thumb — don't use the past perfect without special need. It bogs down the text with unnecessary modals. – Michael Login Dec 2 '17 at 23:51
6

All three of your sentences are grammatically well-formed, but they mean different things.

  1. I wasn't able to ride a bike until I was 20 means that you learned how to ride a bike when you were 20—before that you could not ride a bike.

  2. I was able to ride a bike until I was 20 means that before you were 20 you were able to ride a bike but at that age something happened—perhaps you lost a leg!—after which you were no longer able to ride a bike.

  3. I had been able to ride a bike until I was 20 describes the same sequence of events of facts as 2., but is used when your current topic is a past situation—some time before the present but after your 20th year. For instance:

    When I was in graduate school some years ago, a friend invited me to go on a bicycle trip. I had to decline; I had been able to ride a bike until I was 20, but in my junior year I was in an accident that messed up my ankle.

The preposition until designates a timespan lasting up to the timepoint named by its object, and ending at that point.

  • It seems that was able in your example would do as well without any damage to the meaning? The past perfect is superfluous when the sequence of events might be established without it and that appears to be the case. – Michael Login Dec 2 '17 at 23:32
  • @MvLog sure, but what's your point? It's not as if we should be mindful of the global shortage of the perfect tense and ought to conserve them until only when vitally important. In StoneyB's third example the past perfect is appropriate, even eloquent. – Andrew Dec 3 '17 at 0:59
  • @Andrew Note that in the but... clause StoneyB doesn't use it, though it would be as appropriate: I had to decline; I had been able to ride a bike until I was 20, but in my junior year I had been in an accident (or I had had an accident) that messed up my ankle. That's my point mentioned in my comment above—some texts are just riddled with the pluperfect without any proper justification. It's just a question of sparer, tidier style of writing. – Michael Login Dec 3 '17 at 8:52
  • @MvLog As I point out here, perfects are often used to effect a digression to prior events while maintaining an 'anchor' in the current Reference Time. – StoneyB on hiatus Dec 3 '17 at 19:50

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