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Ability or Capability?

Ability or Capability
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Hi there! This week on Ask a Teacher, we answer a question about the difference between the words “ability” and “capability.”


Hello VOA Ask a Teacher,

I am Lyla from China. I am confused about “ability” and “capability.” I looked them up in the dictionary, but I still can't tell them apart.

Can you explain the difference?

Thanks, and best regards,



Thanks for your question, Lyla. The words are so similar that their use can even trouble native English speakers! Generally, ability describes special skills and qualities now in use. “Capability” speaks more to the possible power or use of those skills and qualities.

Let’s take a closer look at each.


“Ability” is a noun that comes from the adjective “able.” If you are “able,” you can do something. You can carry out an action. “Ability” means a quality, skill, or aptitude that you have that makes it possible for you to do something. Compare these sentences:

I have the ability to speak Russian and English.

Courtney’s disabilities are the result of a car accident.

Henry’s cooking abilities increased over years of practice in his own home.

Let’s move onto “capability.”


“Capability” is the quality or state of being capable. “To be capable” means having qualities or skills to successfully perform some future action. Your “capability” depends more on the situation, environment, or your desire to do something rather than just your ability to do it.

He has the capability of lifting very heavy weights, but he injured himself last year, so he chooses to lift light weights while he recovers.

“Capability” also can mean a skill set that can be further developed.

The new employees have strong capabilities in marketing. They just need more experience in the business world.

Finally, “capability” is the possibility to be affected by use or treatment.

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Cillian Murphy in a scene from "Oppenheimer." (Universal Pictures via AP)
This image released by Universal Pictures shows Cillian Murphy in a scene from "Oppenheimer." (Universal Pictures via AP)

The movie Oppenheimer is about the development of the United States’ nuclear capabilities and eventual use of those weapons.

Critics question the administration’s capability to compromise on a solution.

Please let us know if these explanations and examples have helped you, Lyla.

Do you have a question about American English? Send us an email at

And that’s Ask a Teacher.

I’m Faith Pirlo.

Faith Pirlo wrote this lesson for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

confused –adj. lost or unsure of something

aptitude — n. the ability to learn something

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