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  1. #1
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    Default Can vs. May (subject oriented?)

    I read this theory about difference of 'CAN' and 'MAY', but I don't quite understand it. Could you please help me? I really appreciate it.

    The excerpt from the book:

    A further difference between dynamic/deontic CAN and deontic/dynamic MAY is that the former may be what Palmer calls 'subject-oriented' - i.e. it may 'relate semantically to some kind of activity, quality, status, etc. of the subject of the sentence', whereas MAY is never subject oriented. In the present account, this phenomenon may be represented as a contraint on the possible values of the C variable such that in the case of CAN, C may represent either some circumstance which originates within, but need not be under the concious control of, the referent of the subject of the sentence, as in:
    a)He can speak fourteen languages
    b)What can you contribute to the discussion?
    or else some circumstance which originates outside the referent of the subject, as in:
    c) You can go now, thank you.
    d) She can be the bus driver and I can be the ambulance driver.

    With MAY, on the other hand, the state of affairs represented by C is always external to the referent of the subject
    e) He may speak fourteen languages
    f) What may you contribute to the discussion?



    What puzzles me most is the difference between a)b) and e)f). I used to think 'may' here is a formal/polite version of 'can' and that's all. But it seems there is this orientation problem. What does the author mean by saying a) and b) are subject-oriented? Would appreciate any reply. Thank you.

  2. #2
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    Default Re: Can vs. May (subject oriented?)

    Here's my guess:

    a) He can speak fourteen languages.
    He has the ability. The ability to speak 14 languages belongs to him. It's related to him. It's in his control.

    b) What can you contribute to the discussion?
    You have the ability. The ability to contribute is related to you. It's in your control.


    e) He may speak fourteen languages.
    He has the opportunity. It's not related to him. It's related to something else, other circumstances e.g., If he was given the opportunity (by us) to speak one of the languages he knew, would he? Maybe. It depends on the circumstances.

    f) What may you contribute to the discussion?
    You have the opportunity. It's not related to you. It's related to something else, other circcumstances e.g., if you were given a chance (by us) to contribute, what would you say?

  3. #3
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    Default Re: Can vs. May (subject oriented?)

    Thank you very much, Casiopea! :)

  4. #4
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    Default Re: Can vs. May (subject oriented?)

    You're welcome.

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