Able and Capable

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What is the difference in meaning between
Able and Capable?

Mr. Vyas K Srinivasan (New Jersey) wants to know the difference between
able and capable.

Both suggest the possession of some skill, knowledge, strength etc.

But their contexts of use are different. The meanings, too, diverge accordingly.

First of all
able is found in some phrases where capable can't replace it:

• Able-bodied seaman

• An able administrator / orator

In the first phrase capable is impossible. But in the other two phrases capable, if used at all, would suggest a lower degree of skill in the activity concerned.

He is capable of managing the situation but he is not really an able administrator.

Capable can be used in purely physical contexts.

• He is capable of lifting 50 lbs.

Able can't be used in a similar way here, but you can say :

• I found the box quite heavy but after some effort I was able to lift it.

Capable has a specific context in which able, can't be used at all.

• Shyam is quite capable of telling the Headmaster what he thinks of him.

• Don't be too sure of Vijay's support. He is quite capable of letting down his best friends.

These are situations which involve doing something which others would not do for reasons of decency, propriety or quite simply it is not the done thing.

Besides these differences in contexts of use, there are important structural differences. When it is not used as a qualifying adjective (an able administrator),
able is followed by an infinitive :

• able to do something

Capable is followed by the preposition of.

• Capable of lifting the box

• Capable of removing the dust in time

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