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Hi. In a thread named 'Modal question: "could" past of "can"?', the person named (although I am sure it isn't her real name) 'It is me' wrote this in her response to a post :

With the verbs of perception such as see, smell etc., it can be considered to be the past of "can" When I arrived home yesterday, I could smell something burning.

Can you tell me more about this? Can you confirm this? I always thought you couldn't use the modal 'could' to denote a success in/during a specific time like 'yesterday.'
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AnonymousCan you tell me more about this? Can you confirm this? I always thought you couldn't use the modal 'could' to denote a success in/during a specific time like 'yesterday.'
I can confirm it. This is not a case of success. It doesn't mean that, after trying -- after making the effort -- I succeeded in smelling something burning. Perception is so passive that it rarely, if ever, involves trying to do something and having success doing it.

In cases like the following, the modal can (could) really has little to add to the meaning, but it is idiomatic to include it anyway with verbs of perception.

I smell something burning. = I can smell something burning.
I smelled something burning. = I could smell something burning.
I tasted the corn starch in it. = I could taste the corn starch in it.
I hear strange noises in the wall. = I can hear strange noises in the wall.


This usage extends to a few other verbs.

I don't remember what she said. = I can't remember what she said.
Even after several months I still remembered what she said.
= Even after several months I could still remember what she said.


CJ
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I am not aware of the limitation to verbs of perception, but could can certainly denote an ability ('success'?) at a specific time in the past, i.e as the past of can.

I could read when I was three years old.
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Comments  
Thank you. Would you say this is correct? I think this is not correct.

I could eat three hamburgers yesterday when offered by my friend.
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Correct in what way? The meaning is clear-- you were able to eat them.
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AnonymousWould you say this is correct? I think this is not correct.

I could eat three hamburgers yesterday when offered by my friend.
I would say it's not correct. In my opinion it should be

I was able to eat three hamburgers yesterday.


It seems to me that it's a matter of trying and succeeding, so (to my ear) it's as anomalous (with could) as the oft-quoted example by Palmer: *He ran to catch the bus, and he could.

Completely different:

I'm so hungry that I could eat three hamburgers right this minute.

CJ

(It appears that Mr. M. and I have a different take on this one -- although I noticed that he changed (by instinct?) to were ablein his response! Emotion: smile )