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  #1 (permalink)  
Unread May 28th, 2009, 04:04 am
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Default 'can' in the past tense - why not?

I've got some students here who have a problem with L1 transfer. In Japanese, my students would say 'I went to a conference last week and *I could make some friends.'

I need to make a lesson plan that shows them when they should just use the plain past and when to use 'was/were able to ~', but first I need to understand why we don't say *'I could make some friends.'

Is it just that it's confusing with the subjunctive?
- If I went, I could make some new friends, but I have other plans.'

Is that just the way it is?
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Unread May 28th, 2009, 05:36 am
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Clive Hawkins
 
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Default Re: 'can' in the past tense - why not?

Hi Mark;
Long time! Finally back after months of sleepless nights (and sadly i'm not exaggerating). In fact, let's use sleepless nights and newborn babies as an example :-)

When using the past of can ie could, we can only use it in positive sentences when it refers to a general situation, rather than a specific one-off.
Here are two specific situations:
Last night I was able to make my son sleep :-) - correct.
Last night I could make my son sleep :-) - incorrect, because it's a specific situation.

Here are two general situations:
When I lived in London I was able to get around very easily - correct.
When I lived in London I could get around very easily - correct.

For negative sentences, you can use be able to or could for both specific and general situations:
Last night I wasn't able to sleep because my son has a cold - correct.
Last night I couldn't sleep because my son has a cold - correct.

When I was a child I wasn't able to swim - correct.
When I was a child I couldn't swim - correct.

I hope that helps.
Speak soon
Clive
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Unread May 28th, 2009, 09:01 am
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Default Re: 'can' in the past tense - why not?

Hi!
I've found some examples that show the difference between could and was able to.

- We use could have to say we were able to do sth, but in fact we didn't.
He could have helped me, if he'd tried. (= but he didn't)

- For general ability in the past we also use was able to, though could is more common.
I could/was able to swim when I was five years old.

- For a specific event showing success after trying, we use was able to, managed to, or succeeded in, but not could.
I was able to/managed to solve her problems for her.

- We use couldn't have to say we were not able to do sth so we didn't.
He couldn't have helped me anyway. (= he didn't)

I hope this will help you. Good luck!
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Unread May 28th, 2009, 07:00 pm
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Default Re: 'can' in the past tense - why not?

Clive and ordeal, thanks. That ought to get me rolling.

And Clive, welcome back!
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Unread May 29th, 2009, 06:26 am
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Clive Hawkins
 
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Default Re: 'can' in the past tense - why not?

Thanks Mark - it seems like years. It's nice to be back. Heaven knows I'm in need of some fresh input !! All well in Japan with family and work?
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  #6 (permalink)  
Unread May 30th, 2009, 08:33 am
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Default Re: 'can' in the past tense - why not?

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Quote clivehawkins View Post
Thanks Mark - it seems like years. It's nice to be back. Heaven knows I'm in need of some fresh input !! All well in Japan with family and work?
All's better than great! Only thing that would make it better is more time to enjoy it.

Kids and wife are good, and I'm still busier than I want to be. Not much has changed ...

Looking at those pictures makes me think I need to go visit you for a few weeks and another TEFL certificate
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