ability, capacity, capability are often confused in use.
Ability primarily denotes the quality or character of being able (as to do or perform) and is applied chiefly to human beings.
Capacity in its corresponding sense means the power or more especially the potentiality of receiving, holding, absorbing, or accomplishing something expressed or understood and is said of persons or things. Thus one may speak of a child’s ability to learn but not of the hall’s ability to seat 2000 persons; on the other hand, a child’s mental capacity and the hall has a seating capacity of 2000 are both acceptable. In general, ability suggests actual power, whether native or acquired, whether exercised or not

once more he had shown his ability to handle a delicate situation to the credit of his government and himself— W. C. Ford

Capacity on the other hand stresses receptiveness, or in reference to man’s intellectual, moral, or spiritual nature, more explicitly, responsiveness, susceptibility, or aptitude. Capacity therefore suggests potential, as distinguished from actual or, especially, manifest power. Thus, ability to weep, the ability to work, the ability to pay, are not respectively identical in meaning with the capacity for tears, the capacity for work, the capacity for payment. The phrases of the first group mean that one can weep (because his tear glands are normal), one can work (because strong or trained), one can pay (because he has the money): those of the second group indicate, in the first case, a special sensitiveness to what is pathetic; in the second case, a readiness to work as hard as is necessary on any or every
occasion; in the third case, the qualities of mind and character that promise earning power and imply a recognition of one’s obligations

if Peter had a capacity for friendship, these speechless years had made it dumb— Deland


we do not acquire the ability to do new deeds, but a new capacity for all deeds. My recent growth does not appear in any visible new talent— Thoread


the capacity of American idealism to survive a major disillusionment— MacLeishy

Capability is the character in a person (less often, a thing) arising from the possession of the qualities or qualifications necessary to the performance of a certain kind of work or the achievement of a given end

testing the capability of the ear to distinguish pitches


no applicant will be considered who does not offer proof of capability

As applied exclusively to persons, capability may mean competence, often special competence. This connotation is usually supplied or enforced by the context.
Analogous words: *power, strength, might, force, energy: proficiency, skill, adeptness (see corresponding adjectives at PROFICIENT): aptitude, talent, genius, faculty (see GIFT): competence, qualification (see corresponding adjectives at ABLE)
Antonyms: inability, incapacity
Contrasted words: impotence, powerlessness (see corresponding adjectives at POWERLESS): incompetence, incapability (see corresponding adjectives at INCAPABLE)

New Dictionary of Synonyms. 2014.

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