I'm not a native-speaker, so sometimes modal verbs are tricky for me.

Could is a modal verb that expresses general ability in the past tense.
'Was able to' is not a modal verb, and we can use 'was able to' to talk about an ability related to a single event or incident in the past.

So, I think like this:

He was rich. He could go to Europe.

In this case, he was rich, so, I don't know he actually had been to Europe or not, but he could go to Europe whenever he wanted to, because he was rich then. Am I thinking it right?

How about this:

He was rich, so when he married, he {could/was able to} go to Europe.

In this case 'could' or 'was able to'? 'When he married' is a single event, so, is 'was able to' right?

1 Answer 1


I know you're asking about grammar precision versus the overall sense. That said, I think all your examples are acceptable, but the way you use the phrasing comes with different shades of implication:

He was rich. He could go to Europe.

This construction has a nice literary flair to it and tells me that he both was able to and probably did go to Europe (although as you suggest, it doesn't really say that; if you want a pure sense of that ability alone you might need to be more explicit: "He was rich. Rich enough to go to Europe if he liked.")

He was rich, so when he married, he was able to go to Europe.

This is the clearest statement to my ears of what I think you're getting at. There's a direct causality here between being rich, marrying, and going to Europe as a result of both of those things.

He was rich, so when he married, he could go to Europe.

This also sounds OK to me but because it says "he" and not e.g. "they" I'm left a bit confused about whether he went there on a honeymoon trip, or whether the marriage somehow fulfilled another condition to enable an ability to go, or something else.

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