Difference Between Similar Terms and Objects

Difference Between Ability and Capability

Ability vs Capability

The difference in meaning between the words ability and capability is pretty thin. You really can’t blame the majority of the public using the words interchangeably. Although they seem to have close definitions, it is important to note that using one in place of the other is sometimes inappropriate.

By definition, capability is usually defined as the feature of being capable of something. In short, it is practical ability. This is probably where the confusion sets in because the definition of the word capability makes use of the word ability. Conversely, ability is a word that pertains to being able. This means that when one is considered to have the ability then he is able to do or has the means to do something may it be mental or physical. Ability also connotes one’s skill, talent and level of expertise.

In common practice, ability is much nearer to describe talents of people whereas capability is more applicable in reflecting the worth of being capable of an organization, group or company, and not humans. But in the event when the word capability is used to describe people, then it will not mean talents but a form of limitation. This distinction is clearly shown in the following examples.

In this first example, ‘His wife’s capability to cook does not include preparing desserts and baking’, the word capability is more appropriate. Next, in this second example ‘Her ability to memorize an entire book within two consecutive readings seems to be a superhuman feat’, ability is more applicable. The reason for such is because in the first example the ‘thing’ being tackled is not a talent or expertise but a limitation. In the second sentence example, ability is more appropriate because it’s more of a skill or talent that a person possessed.

Unlike ability, capability also has a more future oriented meaning ‘“ it has the feature or potential of being developed. Hence ,ability is likened to the actual level of something while capability is the potential level. This can be shown in the sentence, ‘An early school-aged child can only multiply simple numbers so he has the ability to do such and, at the same time, he has the capability to multiply more complex numbers as he grows older.’

Overall, both words (ability and capability) can be used synonymously in informal English but one is more appropriate for use than the other in particular situations because:

1. Capability is more inclined if used to describe organizations, groups or companies while ability is more applicable if the one to be described is a person or an individual.

2. Capability is synonymous to a person, group or firms practical ability while ability is more of one’s talents, skills or level of expertise.

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  1. Not a comment. Want to say thanks. Brilliant explanation & exemplification.

  2. It’s a lot simpler than this…

  3. Employee and team performance is critical to customer satisfaction and the company’s financial performance.

    There is a lot of debate on ways to get the best performance from team members.

    One critical aspect is learning to distinguish between Effort and Ability, and being able to pinpoint root cause on why an individual or team is not delivering.

  4. Capability tends to be used more for learned or social abilities as opposed to mental or physical abilities. I’d say it is a subset of ability having to do more with getting things done (ends) as opposed to doing things (means).

  5. I think this is why in HR articles, some writers prefer to use capabilities instead of abilities since the capabilities term offers HR practitioners a more objective and measurable approach of performance rather than abilities which cannot be measured.

  6. I consider the following examples:
    1.Two persons have both a violin, so both have the capability to play the violin. But if only one knows how to play it, then only one has the ability to play the violin.
    2.An eagle chick has the capability to fly (he has wings), but he doesn’t yet have the ability to fly.
    3.An electronic system (HW+SW) may have the capability to perform a function (e.g: WiFi antenna + HW), but may not have the ability to perform WiFi connections, because the function is disabled from SW.

    I tend to use the following definition for “ability”:
    “Ability connotes one’s skill, talent and level of expertise.”
    Whereas “capability” gives you permissions to do something (the rights, complete setup and enable conditions), but doesn’t mean you are proficient in performing that action.

  7. Capability enables you to do something (provides rights and setup), but doesn’t require any skills in doing it.

    Ability involves proficiency (skills) in performing an action (so it implies capability, but not the other way around)

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