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  1. Yes, I can imagine a few situations where these words could be used. (= I am able to imagine...) (it is in response to the question: "Can you think of a context where...?")

  2. I can imagine going to Canada. (= I am able to imagine...)

In reported speech, these would become:

a) He said he could imagine a few situations where those words could be used.

b) He said he could imagine going to Canada.

Am I right? If so, Can I replace the "could"s with "was able to"?

a) He said he was able to imagine a few situations where those words could be used.

b) He said he was able to imagine going to Canada.

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Can and be able to are generally synonymous in English (with some caveats in terms of usage, but none that are relevant to the question). So in theory, you could use "was able to" in place of "could" in your example sentences, and none of them are incorrect.

However, "I'm able to imagine going to Canada" and other examples using be able to sound rather stiff and very literal to me. "I can imagine" is a somewhat idiomatic way of saying "I'm imagining it right now / I'm empathizing with your experiences", while "I'm able to imagine" doesn't carry much of that idiomatic meaning - it refers literally to having the ability to imagine something.

There are similar phrases where can isn't as literal, or carries more connotations than a more straightforward be able to. For example:

I can tell you're suffering. ( = "I've noticed that, and it seems to be happening now", and also implies some empathy)

I'm able to tell you're suffering ( = "I have the skill of noticing that you're suffering", and it makes the statement more about you and less empathizing).

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  • Thank you. You say: "However, "I'm able to imagine going to Canada" and other examples using be able to sound rather stiff and very literal to me."----Do you mean examples a) and b) using "was able to" as well?
    – Mr. X
    Sep 22 '20 at 20:33

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