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  1. #1
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    May - Certain or Uncertain?

    Thanks for viewing this top

    I'm completely lost after thinking about the use of may. When we say A may be true, what kind of message does it send? I can't decide between two kind of interpretation, as follows.

    1) I'm not sure if A is true. I don't have much knowledge of it, so I can't say with certainty if it is true or not.

    2) I'm pretty sure A can be true in certain circumstances. I have considerable knowledge on this matter, and I know that given the right circumstances, "A is true" can really happen.

    Which one is right? Complicating the matter is still another sentence: maybe A is true. What's the difference between them?


    I may not be able to play on Saturday.

    What could be this sentence's context? Suppose the speaker is asked by his friend to play on Saturday. Is he saying this because he doesn't know for sure if he will be able to play, or because he knows for sure he could be unable to play?

    [i]A vegetarian diet may not provide enough calories for a child's natural growth

    Is the speaker certain or uncertain? Is he/she saying that he knows with certainty that in some cases vegetarian diet can really harm child's health, or that he has no definite knowledge of this matter and is just making a casual guess?

    Any reply will be deeply appreciated.
    Last edited by peteryoung; 11-May-2005 at 09:49.

  2. #2
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    Re: May - Certain or Uncertain?

    'may', in both, expresses a possibility, and since the truth value of a possibility is dependent on circumstances, both 1) and 2) are correct.

    maybe A is true. What's the difference between them?
    'maybe' is an adverb, whereas 'may be' is a modal plus a verb. They differ in function, carry the same meaning, but it's expressed in a different way. In [2] the meaning carried by 'may/be' is expressed as an afterthough. In [1], it is expressed as the main verb. Both express, I don't know all the circumstances, so I'm unsure as to whether that's really true or not:

    That may be true.
    That is true, maybe.

    I may not be able to play on Saturday. What could be th[at] sentence's context? Suppose the speaker is asked by his friend to play on Saturday. Is he saying this because he doesn't know for sure if he will be able to play, or because he knows for sure he could be unable to play?

    The speaker uses 'may' to express there's a possibility (i.e., that s/he doesn't know if s/he will be able to play on Saturday. Circumstances will determine whether s/he can make the game or not. Maybe s/he has to work or might not have the car that weekend or maybe s/he doesn't want to play at all, so s/he uses 'may', expressing a possibility, as a polite way of getting out of playing that weekend.

    A vegetarian diet may not provide enough calories for a child's natural growth.
    Here's your chance to tell us what you know. What do you think?

  3. #3
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    Re: May - Certain or Uncertain?

    Thanks for giving such a detailed and helpful explanation, Casiopea. I fully appreciate it

    A vegetarian diet may not provide enough calories for a child's natural growth.

    I guess this is saying: There is a possibility that a vegetarian diet doens't provide enough calories for child's growth, and whether or not this possibility becomes a reality depends on the circumstance. If, for example, the diet doesn't contain enough Vitamin A, or the child is allergic to vegetables, the problem will arise. Am I right?

    Still I wonder what type of tone the speaker is using. Suppose one of my friend is planning to give his child only vegetable to eat. I hear this news and I'm worried. Although I'm in no way a expert in nutrition, I express my concern to him, saying that I think it might not be 100% safe to eat only vegetables.

    And Suppose I'm a nutritionist writing a piece of academic writing. And my research have indicated that vegetarian diet without Vitamin A is almost certain to harm the child's growth, so I write down that sentence, warning people of this potential risk.

    In the first case, the sentence conveys the speaker's concern. And this concern may be little more than a tentative guess.
    In the second case, the sentence conveys a warning of the speaker. The speaker may be very serious and worried, and more importantly, he probably have hard evidence.

    ...
    So which tone is more likely to be used with that sentence? .. Or maybe they are both right? Um..

  4. #4
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    Re: May - Certain or Uncertain?

    Quote Originally Posted by peteryoung
    If, for example, the diet doesn't contain enough Vitamin A, or the child is allergic to vegetables, the problem will arise. Am I right?
    Yes.

    I express my concern to him, saying that I think it might not be 100% safe to eat only vegetables.
    Sounds good.

    And Suppose I'm a nutritionist writing a piece of academic writing. And my research have indicated that vegetarian diet without Vitamin A is almost certain to harm the child's growth, so I write down that sentence, warning people of this potential risk.
    You wouldn't use 'may' in that case. 'almost certain' is not a possibility. Moreover, the speaker knows the diet has the potential to harm the child's growth, so using 'may' in that context would be highly misleading.

  5. #5
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    Re: May - Certain or Uncertain?

    Now this sounds pretty clear to me. Thanks a lot!!

  6. #6
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    Re: May - Certain or Uncertain?

    You're welcome.

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