If I'm trying to describe a situation in the past in which I wasn't able to find a specific pair of shoes, should I say:

  1. I couldn't find those ones.


  1. I wasn't able to find those ones.
  • 1
    Same thing. They mean the same in practical terms. – Lambie Mar 10 '18 at 21:18
  • Not really. See this answer if you want something a bit more exhaustive. (You asked a fairly specific question, but perhaps you could generalize some of its aspects to get a more reference-like answer.) – user3395 Mar 10 '18 at 22:20

In this specific case, "can" and "be able to" are interchangeable. But be careful, because there are subtle differences.

For example, your question start with "Can I use..." - this is an example of using "can" with the meaning "is allowed to". Consequently, "can you do it?" may have a very different meaning from "are you able to do it?", and sometimes you should choose your words carefully.


You can use either.

I could not find something.
I was not able to find something.

"Can" means ability.


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