ENGLISCH/843: Questions to Mrs Gobbledygook (162) Able or capable? (SB)


162. Capable, competent or able?

Dear Mrs Gobbledygook

...I just came home from a short sight-seeing-tour to Bath in the West of England, which is in my opinion one of the most beautiful cities I've ever been to. I've listened to our guide, who told us, that the palaces you find in Bath really are groups of individual homes unified behind the elegant facades, which are the major achievements of John Woods new stile of architecture which he created in 1725. Today you can also see how pollution has begun to damage the famous Bath-stone, and as our guide told us, it takes time, skill and money to keep these old buildings in their original condition. While he was explaining all these skills, I started wondering about some expressions he used quite a lot... I'm not sure how to put this, but what I'm trying to say is: What exactly is the difference between the words: "capable, competent and able" ? ...

Yours sincerely,

Marion F. (from Cuxhaven, Germany)


Dear Mrs F

Thank you for writing these very descriptive impressions of Bath. For centuries people came here for the sake of their healths attracted by the famous hot springs and the comfort of early underfloor central heating, due to the work of a very "competent" architect.

Now, to come to your question, lets start with the word "competent". If someone is competent of doing something it means that he knows how to do it. It doesn't mean that he does it wonderfully, but he does it well. Here is an example of everyday English. Just imagine two colleges chatting in the office:

"So, who do you think is going to be the new project manager?" / "I don't know." / "What about Henry? He is very competent at his job" / "He hasn't got much imagination." / "What about June?" / "Oh, yes, she is just as competent and she is full of ideas."

So that is the word competent. The other words you were pointing at, able and capable, can also be used in a similar way. So we can say "she is a very competent swimmer" or "she is a very capable swimmer" or "she is a very able swimmer". There is just a slight difference in meaning. If you say that people are "able" it implies that they have a talent or a gift for doing something. Whereas if you say they are capable or competent, it implies simply that they have learned what to do, and know how to do it. So a very able painter or an able politician or an able architect as the former Mr. Wood has more natural talent than those who are merely capable or competent. The words "able" and "capable" have other usages. If you are capable of doing something, it means, that you are good enough or experienced enough to do it. Imagine this conversation of two people at a football-match, for example:

"Do you think we'll beat them?" / "Well, we are capable of beating them if we play well, but I don't think, we'll beat them today."

You can use the word "capable" for people and things, like this:

"He is capable of jumping more than two meters."

"The car is capable of doing 160 miles an hour"

The word "able" is mainly used with people. "Able" also has another use, it goes with the word "can". "Can" is what we call a defective verb. That means, it doesn't have all its forms. In the case of the verb "to can" there are only the forms "can" (present tense) and "could" (the preterite). If you want to use other tenses, you have to use the word "able". For example:

"Did you got to the sales meeting" / "No, I wasn't able to." / "Why not?" / "Well, if I had gone to the meeting, I wouldn't have been able to go to the meeting with the bank manager, and I thought that was more important."

"He/She wasn't able to go to the meeting". You couldn't use the word capable there. To find out the difference between the meaning of the two words lets get back to our two colleges chatting in the office:

"June is not capable of chairing next weeks meeting". / "Why not?" / "She is not experienced enough and the meeting is too important".

Compare this with the next bit of conversation:

"What about Henry?" / "Henry's not able to chair next weeks meeting" / "Why not?" / "He is going on holiday!"

"To chair a meeting" means "to be in charge of a meeting, to run a meeting". June isn't capable of chairing next weeks meeting, because she isn't experienced enough. To say "Henry is not able to chair the meeting" could mean the same thing or even that he hasn't got the talent for such a thing. But it would usually mean, what it said in this example, that Henry is just not available, that he is not free to take charge of the meeting.

There is one final difference that you should have noticed, and that is just a difference in structure. We say: "He is capable 'of doing' it" but "He is able 'to do' it".

Now, I hope I have answered your questions competently and that you are now able to understand the slightly different meanings, next time you get back into the capable hands of your touring guide in Bath.


Mrs Gobbledygook

27. April 2009