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  1. jutfrank's Avatar
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    #11

    Re: You can do worse than ...

    Quote Originally Posted by raymondaliasapollyon View Post
    We want to test whether the general vs. specific difference determies the use of "can" in "can do worse than V."
    Who wants to test that?

    I can already tell you that it does.

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    #12

    Re: You can do worse than ...

    Quote Originally Posted by jutfrank View Post
    Who wants to test that?

    I can already tell you that it does.

    If the use of "can" in "can do worse than V" really calls for general possibility, we'd expect "Henry can do worse than marry Sarah" to be unacceptable. If the sentence is acceptable, then this use of "can" does not hinge on general possibility. That's why it is necessary to find a speaker who accepts (and uses) "can do worse than V" in principle, to test the hypothesis.

    Edit: I seem to have found an instance where "can do worse than V" does not hinge on general possibility:

    They'll have to work hard not to vanish amid the morass of similar bands, though, and for that they can do worse than look at the main act.

    https://www.bournemouthecho.co.uk/ne...ure-beautiful/


    Last edited by raymondaliasapollyon; 13-May-2020 at 05:05.

  3. jutfrank's Avatar
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    #13

    Re: You can do worse than ...

    Quote Originally Posted by raymondaliasapollyon View Post
    If the use of "can" in "can do worse than V" really calls for general possibility, we'd expect "Henry can do worse than marry Sarah" to be unacceptable.
    Not necessarily. How would you know that the speaker of that sentence was not using can in the general possibility sense? My view is that the use of can there is evidence that the speaker is thinking in terms of general possibility.

    Edit: I seem to have found an instance where "can do worse than V" does not hinge on general possibility:

    They'll have to work hard not to vanish amid the morass of similar bands, though, and for that they can do worse than look at the main act.
    I agree that that is an unusual word choice (one would expect could) but I don't think it reveals much.

  4. Charlie Bernstein's Avatar
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    #14

    Re: You can do worse than ...

    Good comments above. Could (and can) it be a matter of context?:

    - You're marrying him? Come on. You can do better than that!
    Last edited by Charlie Bernstein; 13-May-2020 at 16:14.
    I'm not a teacher. I speak American English. I've tutored writing at the University of Southern Maine and have done a good deal of copy editing and writing, occasionally for publication.

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    #15

    Re: You can do worse than ...

    Quote Originally Posted by jutfrank View Post
    Not necessarily. How would you know that the speaker of that sentence was not using can in the general possibility sense? My view is that the use of can there is evidence that the speaker is thinking in terms of general possibility.
    The fact that "Henry" does not have generic reference like "you" (which can be rephrased as "one") " and marrying someone is typically not something that recurs shows that sentence cannot be about general possibility.

    "Wars can cause casualties" is a statement of general possibility. It is true of wars in the past, present, and future.

    "John can get really angry sometimes," despite the definite NP "John," is also a statement of general possibility. He has gotten really angry in the past, and might do so in the future.

    Maybe you have a different conception of general possibility?
    Last edited by raymondaliasapollyon; 14-May-2020 at 04:19.

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    #16

    Re: You can do worse than ...

    Quote Originally Posted by Charlie Bernstein View Post
    Good comments above. Could (and can) it be a matter of context?:

    - You're marrying him? Come on. You can do better than that!
    This context shows "can" is not necessarily tied to general possibility. Here, it refers to a particular scenario about a particular interlocutor. But in your example, could "can" refer to ability?

  7. Charlie Bernstein's Avatar
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    #17

    Re: You can do worse than ...

    Quote Originally Posted by raymondaliasapollyon View Post
    This context shows "can" is not necessarily tied to general possibility. Here, it refers to a particular scenario about a particular interlocutor. But in your example, could "can" refer to ability?
    It does refer to ability. But so would could — the opposite of couldn't, which refers to inability.
    I'm not a teacher. I speak American English. I've tutored writing at the University of Southern Maine and have done a good deal of copy editing and writing, occasionally for publication.

  8. jutfrank's Avatar
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    #18

    Re: You can do worse than ...

    Quote Originally Posted by raymondaliasapollyon View Post
    The fact that "Henry" does not have generic reference like "you" (which can be rephrased as "one") " and marrying someone is typically not something that recurs shows that sentence cannot be about general possibility.
    Well, I don't think you can say that it 'cannot' be about general possibility. But I agree that it would be (very) odd for a speaker to be thinking of general possibility in a case like this. Where did you get this 'Henry' sentence from?

    "Wars can cause casualties" is a statement of general possibility. It is true of wars in the past, present, and future.
    Yes, that's a decent example of can for general possibility.

    "John can get really angry sometimes," despite the definite NP "John," is also a statement of general possibility. He has gotten really angry in the past, and might do so in the future.
    Yes, that's an even better example.

    Maybe you have a different conception of general possibility?
    No, I don't think so.

    It seems that what we're disagreeing on is whether can can be used with the sense of specific possibility rather than its 'normal' sense of general possibility. Is that right?

    My response would be that you can find all sorts of irregular uses by native speakers if you look hard enough, so in that sense you're right that it can be used like that, but at the same time, such a use would have to count as irregular, or unusual, or incorrect, or however you want to describe it, because that's simply not what it normally means.

  9. jutfrank's Avatar
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    #19

    Re: You can do worse than ...

    Quote Originally Posted by raymondaliasapollyon View Post
    This context shows "can" is not necessarily tied to general possibility. Here, it refers to a particular scenario about a particular interlocutor. But in your example, could "can" refer to ability?
    Yes, I'd say that in this example (Come on! You can do better than that!), can is better understood as having a sense of ability.

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    #20

    Re: You can do worse than ...

    Quote Originally Posted by jutfrank View Post
    Well, I don't think you can say that it 'cannot' be about general possibility. But I agree that it would be (very) odd for a speaker to be thinking of general possibility in a case like this. Where did you get this 'Henry' sentence from?
    It is modeled on "He could do worse than marry Eleanor" in Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. Somone told me "can do worse than V" and "could do worse than V" are freely interchangeable.

    Quote Originally Posted by jutfrank View Post

    My response would be that you can find all sorts of irregular uses by native speakers if you look hard enough, so in that sense you're right that it can be used like that, but at the same time, such a use would have to count as irregular, or unusual, or incorrect, or however you want to describe it, because that's simply not what it normally means.
    Could "can do worse than V" be an imitation of "can do better than V"? (Does the latter make more sense than the former?)

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