“In what capacity”: Meaning & alternatives + 3 example sentences

English is one of the most complicated languages to learn, but it can be somewhat flexible and forgiving in a casual setting. The real challenge is when you enter a professional setting. Work emails, resumes and application forms can have wording that is overly formal and much more complicated, such as “In what capacity.”

What Does “In What Capacity” Mean?

“In what capacity” means in what position, almost exclusively in a formal business setting. The question-asker would like to know the role of the person being asked about. While the individual word “Capacity” mostly references how much room there is in a space (e.g., “The arena has a 200 person capacity”) there is an alternate meaning used much less frequently where it refers to the role or position a person holds.

3 Examples Using “In What Capacity”

Below are a few examples of “In What Capacity” being used properly.

Example 1:

Boss: “In what capacity did you know the applicant?”

Employee: “He was my manager at my previous job,”

Example 2:

Person 1: “I know you said you worked with her, but in what capacity?”

Person 2: “She and I were co-workers for 3 years.”

Example 3:

Boss: “If you want to recommend your friend for this company, I’ll need you to write a letter of recommendation explaining how long you’ve known them and in what capacity.”

5 Alternatives Using “In What Capacity”

It can be a lot easier to understand the meaning behind something when given alternative phrases. The examples given below are ways to rephrase “In what capacity” to help better understand, but they may not be in common use for this purpose.

Alternative 1: “In what professional role?”

Alternative 2: “How did you know each other?”

Alternative 3: “What position did they hold?”

Alternative 4: “What relationship did the two of you have to one another?”

Alternative 5: “What job title was held?”

How Common is the Phrase “In What Capacity?”

You won’t often see the phrase “In what capacity” used in a casual setting, but if you are filling out an application form or being interviewed for a job you will almost always come across it. It is most commonly used to specify references, whether you are the person applying for the position or you are the person referring someone for the position. Applying for a job would be the most common place to see this phrase by far, but you could also come across it when applying for scholarships or filling out forms.

Using the Phrase “In What Capacity” in a Casual Setting

“In what capacity” will almost never be used outside a professional setting. When it is used in a casual setting it is often misused. If used properly, it can be used among friends but it is very formal wording.

For example. if you were to be at a nice dinner party, one might say:

Speaker: “Did you know I once met the Dalai Lama?

Listener: “Oh really? In what capacity?”

Speaker: “I was studying at university and he came to give a speech.

In this example, the listener is asking under what position or role the speaker could have met such an influential figure. Despite the appropriate usage, the tone of the conversation feels stiff and formal. Many languages use more formal language for people they’re unfamiliar with and more casual language among friends, but English tends to be more casual in nature. People are unlikely to speak this formally in general, outside of official business meetings and documents.

How to Answer the Question “In What Capacity” if You Apply For a Job

If you have come across this phrase, it’s most likely in a job application letter. It’s probably in the references section, which means you’re either applying for a job yourself and listing your references, or you’re recommending someone else for a job and you are the reference. So how does one answer? You should always be truthful, but there can sometimes be various different answers that are all true. The best response takes into consideration what your goals are.

If you are applying for a job yourself and are discussing your own references, your potential employer wants to know that you are a good worker. The person you are using for a reference may have been your supervisor, but they may also be your friend. When a potential employer asks in what capacity you knew this person, responding that they were your supervisor tells this employer that your reference was in charge of overseeing your work, so their insight will be very useful when deciding if you would be a good employee. However, saying to this employer instead that they were your friend may communicate that this person is biased in your favor, so they will only give a pleasing review of you regardless of how well you actually did.

How to Answer the Question “In What Capacity” if You Refer Someone

Answering this question when you are the person referring someone is similar to answering if you are being referred. If you are referring a friend for a position but you were also co-workers, the reference is more likely to be taken seriously if you say you knew them in the capacity of co-workers, compared to saying you were friends. However, this doesn’t mean you can’t refer a friend. If you only knew each other in that capacity then you can be honest about that, as having strong friendships can also send a positive message about someone being referred. It’s better than having no reference at all.

The phrase “In what capacity” can be initially confusing, especially given how rarely it is used. It is confined almost exclusively to application forms and business dealings, and although it’s possible to use it outside of this setting, it’s usually used very formally. Despite its rarity and formal nature, the question “In what capacity” is easy to answer once properly understood, so when you do come across it you will always be prepared.