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Salam,

This isn't very complicated but just a small doubt. Eg: He was not able to understand it anymore; but he was not able to ignore it either.

I find repeating 'was not able to' tedious. Is it okay to use 'could not' instead of 'was not able to' without causing any confusion in tense (i wish to maintain past tense, as in the original example)?

Second Eg: Is there a difference between 'he could shrug' and 'he could only shrug'? I am assuming the first one is tentative (that is, the man may or may not shrug), but the second one is simple past due to the word 'only'? So just one word changes it? Is my understanding on the right track?
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AnonymousI find repeating 'was not able to' tedious. Is it okay to use 'could not' instead of 'was not able to'
Yes. That's OK.
AnonymousIs there a difference between 'he could shrug' and 'he could only shrug'?
Yes. There is a big difference.

He could shrug. = He was able to shrug.
He could only shrug. = He was not able to do anything except to shrug.

(Neither of these has anything to do with being tentative.)

CJ
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CalifJim(Neither of these has anything to do with being tentative.)
What i mean is, without only, it appears as if a person is telling is him: hey, you could shrug. With only, the whole tense itself changes and it appears as if he did that act in the past.
AnonymousWhat i I mean is, without only, it appears as if a person is telling is him: hey, you could shrug. With only, the whole tense itself changes and it appears as if he did that act in the past.
In that case you are taking could as would be able to, and you can do that whether only is present or not.

He could shrug. = He would be able to shrug. = He has the option of shrugging.
He could only shrug. = He would be able to choose to do nothing except shrug. He would not need to do anything else.

You're right if you mean that the interpretation shown above for the second sentence is less likely than the interpretation given earlier in this thread; however, you can make it more likely if you substitute just for only.

He could just shrug. = He would be able to choose to do nothing except shrug. He would not need to do anything else.

The effects of omitting or changing just one word are sometimes very subtle.

CJ
Thanks again, CJ, for your detailed explanation.
CalifJimHe could shrug. = He would be able to shrug. = He has the option of shrugging.
He could only shrug. = He would be able to choose to do nothing except shrug. He would not need to do anything else.
As you've rightly understood, this is my problem. The same sentence feels like both past and present tense because could could be interpreted as both 'was able to' and 'would be able to.' In our own examples, would it be okay to write 'he could only shrug' etc. if I intend past tense assuming that context would determine it? Or, would such lines be misinterpreted as present tense?
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