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I could swim when I was five.

When "could" is used to indicate an ability in the past, does it mean the ability is no longer processed in the present? For example, does the above sentence mean "I forgot how to swim or lost the ability now"?

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    I could swim when I was five, but I am much better at that. I am competing in the Olympics. could expresses your ability at that particular moment and does not say anything about your ability, one way or another, now or at any other times. – JayHook Feb 6 '15 at 13:25
  • I think that this is just one of those cases where the English language is ambiguous. "I could swim when I was five" - presumably I can still swim. "I could fit through that hole in the fence when I was five" - probably I can't do it now. But there is no way to be certain other than by explaining exactly whether it it still true or not. – stangdon Feb 6 '15 at 14:19
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Everyone knows that some aptitudes once acquired are never forgotten. Swimming and riding a bike are just two of them.

So even though the action is finished somewhere in the past:

I could swim when I was five.

This doesn’t mean that now, you don’t have this ability anymore, that is, it is finished too. Generally speaking the finishing of an action in some point in the past doesn’t imply that there are no consequences of it, later on. It is just finished, that’s all.

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I could sing beautifully when I was five.

This doesn't really say anything about what you can do now. The ability to sing might be lost, or the ability to climb trees.

On the other hand:

I could cook when I was five.

We might assume you had not forgotten how to cook.


For example, does the above sentence mean "I forgot how to swim or lost the ability now"?

I don't think the sentence says anything about your current ability. You may or may not still have it.

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