Recently I`ve been revising my knowledge about the verb could. I know that could is used as the past form of can to describe a general ability in the past. E.g.

I could work 10 hours a day when I was younger.

For specific situations in the past "to be able to" is preffered, though. E.g.

I was able to get out of the car before it exploded.

Yet, there is another aspect of the modal verb could that got me puzzled, and that is could as the verb used to express permission in the past. I know it is fine to use the expression "to be allowed to" in that context. E.g.

Children were allowed to use calculators during the test.

My question is: Can I use could for expressing both: a general past permission and a specific past permission? For example:

(general permission)

Children could use their mobile phones only during breaks, not during lessons.

(specific permission)

Even though I was on the train, I could smoke.

  • Yup! Both of those sentences make sense! Commented Mar 15, 2016 at 22:38
  • 1
    "Even though I was on the train, I could smoke" -- This has a taste of being more about having the ability to smoke than permission.
    – user31501
    Commented Mar 15, 2016 at 23:14
  • @BaileyS Why is that? And what phrase/verb/expression would you use instead?
    – IGO
    Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 13:36
  • @BaileyS I disagree at least for colloquial English. the can vs may distinction (ability vs permission) is less rigid in informal forms of English. But yes, in formal/traditional English, "I could smoke" is ability and "I might smoke" could be permission. It's easy to see how those get blended
    – eques
    Commented Nov 11, 2016 at 13:18
  • "I was able to get out of the car before it exploded." With this sentence, using "was able to" specifically emphasizes not only that the speaker had the ability to get out of the car, but that they did. "I could get out of the car before it exploded" only really implies the ability existed, but less so that they actually did.
    – eques
    Commented Nov 11, 2016 at 13:20

1 Answer 1


Yes, could can indicate both ability and permission, just like can can.

He could leave the room

could indicate either past ability or permission, and it would take context to determine which.

All your example sentences are correct.

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