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I've just thought of this sentence and am thinking whether it could be correct.

Of course, it should be incorrect if we already know that "could" does not express a specific past ability, am I right? I've made up a possible context below.



They were fighting, and I tried to calm them down. I did what I could to stop the fight, but they wouldn't listen.

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Hi, Lucas,

@Former Member posted:

They were fighting, and I tried to calm them down. I did what I could to stop the fight, but they wouldn't listen.

Yes, the structure in bold is correct, the meaning being: I had the ability to stop the fight, and I exercised that ability.

Similarly, you can say in the present:

- I do / am doing what I can.

Last edited by Gustavo, Co-Moderator

Hmmm, so it means that "could" is capable of expressing a specific past ability, unless it's about a general ability...

I think a reasonable question now is what is coded in the "could" - is it "I did what I could do" or "I did what I could have done?"

Hmmm, it seems like if it's a past equivalent of "I do what I can," it would be about a general ability, whereas if it's a past equivalent of "I am doing what I can," then it would be about a specific ability. Hmmm, interesting... what do you think?

Lucas, be careful with the use of "hmmm," as it may be understood as questioning what the other person said.

I meant to indicate that I was processing what you'd said and trying to conclude something based on it.



My understanding is that "could" expresses general ability (i.e., an ability extended through time): I did what I could do (= what I was capable of doing under the circumstances).

I wonder what David might think about it because it seems to me that both options are possible depending on the context.

Last edited by Former Member
@Former Member posted:

I meant to indicate that I was processing what you'd said and trying to conclude something based on it.

I know. I just wanted to point out that the other interpretation was also possible.

@Former Member posted:

I wonder what David might think about it because it seems to me that both options are possible depending on the context.

Lucas, "could" does not express past ability AND specific performance unless it is in the negative. If it did, the two clauses in your sentence would be mutually redundant:

? I did what I succeeded in doing / what I managed to do.

Last edited by Gustavo, Co-Moderator
@Former Member posted:

I wonder what David might think about it because it seems to me that both options are possible depending on the context.

I understood that by "both options" you mean that the sentence:

- I did what I could.

can mean:

1. I did what I was capable of doing (could: general past ability)

or

2. I did what I managed to do (could: specific past ability, i.e., ability + performance)

My claim is that interpretation (2) is not possible because it would be redundant to say that you did (past performance) what you managed to do (past ability + past performance).

Last edited by Gustavo, Co-Moderator

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