Wednesday, March 14, 2012

get to do, be able to do, and can do something

Getting to do something is a phrasal verb that has the same meaning as being able to do something. Both talk about the ability to accomplish a task.  However, getting to do something is more commonly used in informal speech, while being able to do something tends to be more formal.

Each pair of sentences below mean the same, but the a sentences are more conversational and less formal.
1. a. We got to meet the President.
    b. We were able to meet the President.
2. a. I didn't get to eat breakfast this morning. 
    b. I wasn't able to eat breakfast this morning.
3. a. Do you get to study a little at work?
    b. Are you able to study a little at work?

Please note that both get to and be able to are followed by the simple form of the verb. In addition, both get to and be able to are also similar to the modal verbs can and could. However, can and could are usually used in general terms and focus on one's own ability.
1. I can swim. (general ability)
2. He could ride a horse when he was 10. (general ability)
3. She couldn't cook when she first moved to New York. (general ability)

On the other hand, get to do and be able to do are usually used when talking about a specific situation and when a person's ability is affected by circumstances.
1. I got to swim when I was in Miami. (Perhaps there was a pool in his hotel.)
2. I was able to work out after school. (Perhaps he didn't have a lot of homework and had extra time.)
3. He didn't get to call us when he was traveling. (Perhaps there was no phone signal where he was.)

Incidentally, you could also use could on these last three sentences, but the focus would be less on the circumstances and more on the person's ability. 

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