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You use could for general ability, but if you want to say somebody did something in a specific situation, you use was/were able to, or managed to (not could).

I looked very carefully and I could/ managed to see somebody in the distance.

Having taken into account the explanations above, I think we couldn't use could, could we?-- because it's a specific situation, isn't it?

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SUPPLEMENTARY to TRomano's answer.

We use could for general ability. But if you want to say somebody did something in a specific situation, use was/were able to, or managed to (not could).

This does not accurately describe the use of these terms.

Both CAN and BE able to may be used in either present or past tense to designate ‘general ability’:

John {can / is able to} bench-press 300 pounds.
In his prime, John {could / was able to} bench-press 300 pounds.

And both may be used in either present or past tense to designate ability on a specific occasion either at the time you are speaking of or subsequent to that time:

You’re not very well hidden; I {can / am able to} see you! ... The construction with can is if anything a little more likely here.
She wasn’t very well hidden; I {could / was able to} see her.

Dr. Fisher {can / will be able to} see you this afternoon.
She said that Dr. Fisher {could / would be able to } see me that afternoon.

The difference between the two expressions CAN and BE able to arises when we are speaking not of the prospective (forward-looking) ability to do something but of the retrospective (backward-looking) fact of having successfully done something. A past achievement calls for BE able to:

Despite pitching on an ankle that was literally stitched together, Schilling was able to lead the Red Sox past the Yankees and Cardinals to Boston's first championship in 86 years.

As for manage to—this is used only to speak of achievement, not ability. As TRomano says, it emphasizes the fact of overcoming an obstacle.

  • How about "I'm glad you could come."? It's strange could here indicates both ability and acheivement on a specific occasion prior to the utterance. It's not in a sentence with negation or a question mark or a perception verb. How to explain it? @StoneyB – Kinzle B Jan 3 '15 at 16:11
  • @KinzleB A very good point. This is a borderline case, ambiguous because come here designates both the addressee's past and perfected arrival here AND their present and imperfective presence here. If both facts were perfected we would be more likely to say, e.g., "I'm so glad you were able to come last night". – StoneyB on hiatus Jan 3 '15 at 16:30
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The difference between could _VERB and managed to _VERB is that the former expresses the capability neutrally and the latter expresses the idea that some extra effort was taken to achieve the capability.

I did not like his soup but managed to eat all of it.
I did not like his soup but could eat all of it.

In the former, the person eating the soup has made a special effort not to leave any soup in the bowl.

In your example, the person who "managed to see" might have squinted, or peered, or moved his head, or shaded his eyes, i.e. done something to assist his vision, whereas the person who could see is simply able to see. That formulation doesn't say anything about extra effort; it is neutral.

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