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I am trying to edit the Statement of Purpose for graduate school of a friend who is a non-native English speaker. I saw the sentence:

As a result, I could be admitted to [a certain undergraduate school], and I chose to go there.

The intent of the sentence was to say he studied a lot in high school, and was able to get into a certain undergraduate school.

As we all know, could + [verb] can either be past tense

When I was a boy, I could eat a lot of food

or a hypothetical

I could get into my dream school if I ace the GRE

But for some reason, with his sentence I only interpret it as a hypothetical. As a native speaker, I have the strong urge to correct the sentence to

As a result, I was able to be admitted to [a certain undergraduate school], and I chose to go there.

Does anyone have an explanation why, or a different interpretation of the original sentence?

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  • Possibly because it sounds a lot like "As a result, I could have been admitted to [a certain undergraduate school], and I chose to go there." When I first read the sentence my brain actually inserted the missing "have been" until I realized he meant "was able to". – John Dec 15 '15 at 15:22
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This is one of the common errors made by learners. Perhaps, we already have a similar old question on our site, but because I can't remember one, I decide to post this answer.

You're right that was able to is more appropriate than could in the sentence. (I may go with managed to or perhaps simply write was admitted to ...) This grammar point in Practical English Usage by Michael Swan can explain this perfectly:

122 can and could (2): ability

5 past: could is not always possible

We use could for 'general ability' - for example to say that somebody could do something at any time, whenever he/she wanted.
​    When I was younger, I could run 10km in under 40 minutes.
We do not normally use could to say that somebody did something on one occasion. Instead, we use other expressions.
    I managed to run 10km yesterday in under an hour. (NOT I could run 10km yesterday ...)
    How many eggs were you able to get? (NOT ... could you get?)
    [...]
However, we use couldn't to say that something did not happen on one occasion.
    I managed to find the street, but I couldn't find her house.

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    But we can use could to indicate past possibility. It seems that it's past possibility that is being discussed in "As a result, I could be admitted to [a certain undergraduate school], and I chose to go there." – CowperKettle Dec 15 '15 at 10:53
  • @CopperKettle Hmm... that's interesting. It didn't occur to me when I read the sentence the first time. (The sentence is a little awkward to me either way.) It sounds to me like the grad student was trying to say that he or she applied for a bunch of colleges, and a certain college accepted him or her, and he or she chose to go there. I may be wrong about the intended meaning, though. – Damkerng T. Dec 15 '15 at 11:00
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I find these questions to be particularly easy to answer by finding a counterexample - think of the construction in a different context, and see if that construction makes sense.

So, let's try this in the context of...leg surgery!

In 1985, the doctors operated on my foot. As a result, I could walk again, and I chose to become a runner.

Success! This construction seems to work just fine in a different context as the past tense.

Now as to why you seemed to only read it as a hypothetical, I can't say for sure. I can guess however! Looking at the sentence:

As a result, I could be admitted to [a certain undergraduate school], and I chose to go there.

The thing that clarifies that this is in the past tense is the past tense use of "choose" at the end in, "I chose to go there." Maybe because the sentence is long-ish and busy before that point, you just weren't noticing the past tense use very clearly? Maybe you've heard "could be admitted" used as a hypothetical many more times than as past tense (which is likely to be the case) so your mind automatically thinks of it as a hypothetical? Maybe it's another reason. I really don't know.

Either way, both sentences are correct. Both require context, and both mean the same thing.

EDIT:

After thinking about it, I did find one difference between the two. I think your edited version makes a little bit more sense logically.

As a result, I was able to be admitted to [a certain undergraduate school], and I chose to go there.

In this case, you use "I was able to be admitted" - this implies that your friend not only could be admitted, but also that he WAS admitted, which makes more sense when you follow up with "I chose to go there."

"I could be admitted" doesn't have the implication that "I was able to be" carries with it, so the logical jump is bigger between "I could be admitted" and "I chose to go there."

However, I'll maintain that they are both correct, and this distinction is very nit-picky. In practice, both mean the same thing.

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  • Ah, I didn't event realize. Although syntax? wise "I was able to (eat an entire XL pizza)" is just past tense of "I am able to (eat an entire XL pizza)", it strongly implies the potential action actually happened. – Senjougahara Hitagi Dec 15 '15 at 8:50
  • @SenjougaharaHitagi yeah, that's correct. "Was able to" has the implication that this actually occurred, especially when following "as a result" – Alex K Dec 15 '15 at 17:32

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