Thread: It can be dangerous to cycle in the city.

1. Re: It can be dangerous to cycle in the city.

Originally Posted by NAL123
But what if we try to generalize from a single observation in the past? Would that be a valid generalization?
I'd have to say no. By definition, that wouldn't be a generalisation.

In my last post, I tried to generalize from a single observation when I said, " an event that has happened only once, and there's a good chance that it will/may happen again", and then I went on to discuss a case under it, where I said,

"
In the past, John has attempted to rob the bank five times. He was successful four times and got into trouble once: Robbing the bank can get John into trouble."

Here the speaker takes into account five different occurrences of bank-robbing by John, of which one was unsuccessful. Then based on this single unsuccessful occurrence, he makes the general observation: Robbing the bank can get John into trouble.
Yes, I agree with that but my explanation is to say that there is not one single observation here but many, because all occurrences of bank-robbing, both successful and unsuccessful, must be considered for the generalisation to be made. In other words, the single case only makes sense in relation to the other cases. There just needs to be a minimum of one unsuccessful attempt for the generalisation to be valid.

Now, lets discuss something I'm still confused about.

So far we've talked about generalizations. Now, suppose the speaker is completely unaware of John/one/people having robbed the bank/banks in the past. Thus, no past observations imply no induction, which implies no generalization.

Q): Now if there is no generalization, can we use "can" in the following sentences? If so, what does using "can" mean in those sentences? Do they all refer to the future?

1) Robbing the bank can get John/people into trouble.

2) Robbing a bank/banks can get John/people into trouble.
Well, no. If they aren't meant as generalisations, then what are they? I'm not sure I properly understand your question.

Perhaps what you mean should be expressed with other modal verbs. Look:

Robbing the bank could get John into trouble.

The speaker here is probably thinking about a specific future event. That's what could does, in contrast to can—it places the action in a specific point in space/time. Depending on context, we'd either interpret the future event as a 'real' event where we imagine John really doing it, or as a purely theoretical one, where the whole thing is considered as kind of potentiality that can't be ruled out.

If the future event is imagined clearly to be 'real' in the sense I've outlined above, it would be better to use might in this case instead. Very generally speaking, I'd say the best way to differentiate between could and might is by using this real/theoretical distinction of possibility.

Robbing the bank might get John into trouble.

This is clearly not a generalisation and not a theory. There's a real person, a real bank, and probably a real plan in John's mind.

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Re: It can be dangerous to cycle in the city.

Originally Posted by jutfrank
I'd have to say no. By definition, that wouldn't be a generalisation.

Yes, I agree with that but my explanation is to say that there is not one single observation here but many, because all occurrences of bank-robbing, both successful and unsuccessful, must be considered for the generalisation to be made. In other words, the single case only makes sense in relation to the other cases. There just needs to be a minimum of one unsuccessful attempt for the generalisation to be valid.
Actually that's what I really wanted to mean. Now "can" for possibility is completely clear to me!

Originally Posted by jutfrank
Well, no. If they aren't meant as generalisations, then what are they? I'm not sure I properly understand your question.

Perhaps what you mean should be expressed with other modal verbs. Look:

Robbing the bank could get John into trouble.

The speaker here is probably thinking about a specific future event. That's what could does, in contrast to can—it places the action in a specific point in space/time. Depending on context, we'd either interpret the future event as a 'real' event where we imagine John really doing it, or as a purely theoretical one, where the whole thing is considered as kind of potentiality that can't be ruled out.

If the future event is imagined clearly to be 'real' in the sense I've outlined above, it would be better to use might in this case instead. Very generally speaking, I'd say the best way to differentiate between could and might is by using this real/theoretical distinction of possibility.

Robbing the bank might get John into trouble.

This is clearly not a generalisation and not a theory. There's a real person, a real bank, and probably a real plan in John's mind.
This is how I've always known and used "could" and "might" after I learned about them from you and other teachers here and elsewhere. The reason for the confusion was that I had seen people use "can" instead of "could" in the above sense and I would get really confused because I never understood whether they meant "can" for general or "can" for a specific future event, and if they meant "can" for specific, then why not "could". I'm not sure whether they were native speakers or not.

Anyway, a great great great explanation! Thanks for your time and helping me out of the confused state! I really appreciate it. Later tonight I will pose a question on the "ability" sense of "can". I hope you'll help me there. Thank you.

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Re: It can be dangerous to cycle in the city.

Originally Posted by Rover_KE
Yes I've asked there too, because I just want to know about these modal verbs. And the important things is: Not everyone can explain the same thing the right way it should be explained. People have different opinions and different ways of understanding/explaining things. I try to understand things in the best way.

5. Re: It can be dangerous to cycle in the city.

The reason for the confusion was that I had seen people use "can" instead of "could" in the above sense and I would get really confused because I never understood whether they meant "can" for general or "can" for a specific future event, and if they meant "can" for specific, then why not "could". I'm not sure whether they were native speakers or not.
I see. Well, it's possible that they were just wrong. I obviously can't comment further without seeing some real examples.

One piece of advice I would give you to help you understand the very difficult topic of modality expressed by modal verbs is this: Remember that what modal verbs do is help express what's in the speaker's mind. So you really need to have a very clear idea of speaker meaning as your starting point. Speaker meaning is what the speaker means, as opposed to sentence meaning, which is what the sentence, as a composite of the individual words, means. This is a very important distinction.

Because of this, I don't think it's very productive to make up your own, may I say often unnatural sentences, and then attempt to work out what they could mean; in fact, I think that's getting things somewhat backwards. I suggest you work only with completely authentic examples of actual use, with sufficient context to show how the speaker wishes to use the utterance to express what he means.

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Re: It can be dangerous to cycle in the city.

Originally Posted by jutfrank
Because of this, I don't think it's very productive to make up your own, may I say often unnatural sentences, and then attempt to work out what they could mean; in fact, I think that's getting things somewhat backwards. I suggest you work only with completely authentic examples of actual use, with sufficient context to show how the speaker wishes to use the utterance to express what he means.
Since we have discussed the possibility sense of "can" here, I think it would be a good idea to discuss its ability sense here as well. But I no longer want to learn from example sentences. So I'm going to directly ask one or two questions on the ability sense of "can".

1) Since there is "general possibility", is there anything like "general ability", for which we only use "can"?

2) Since there is "specific possibility", is there anything like "specific ability", for which we only use "could"?

3) In other words, does "can" function the same way or differently in an "ability sentence" and "possibility sentence"?

I wrote about my opinion on it in post #6 of this thread, but I would like to know your point of view.
Last edited by NAL123; 02-May-2021 at 22:48.

7. Re: It can be dangerous to cycle in the city.

First of all, remember that all modal verbs are in some extrinsic way about possibility, so to differentiate them you need to understand there to be different kinds of possibility. The notion of ability is just one of these kinds of possibility. If you're able to do something, then of course it's possible for you to do it.

Similar to how we thought about general and specific possibility in the discussion above, we can also think about general and specific ability. The easiest way to see this difference is when we're talking about the past. Normally, when we want to talk about past ability we use could, but in cases where the ability relates to a specific event (i.e., located at one point in space/time), we use was able to. I think this shows that there is an important difference in how we think about what can be called general and specific ability, though it's by no means very clear, and you need some good examples to reveal it.

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Re: It can be dangerous to cycle in the city.

Last question:
Originally Posted by jutfrank
First of all, remember that all modal verbs are in some extrinsic way about possibility, so to differentiate them you need to understand there to be different kinds of possibility. The notion of ability is just one of these kinds of possibility. If you're able to do something, then of course it's possible for you to do it.

Similar to how we thought about general and specific possibility in the discussion above, we can also think about general and specific ability. The easiest way to see this difference is when we're talking about the past. Normally, when we want to talk about past ability we use could, but in cases where the ability relates to a specific event (i.e., located at one point in space/time), we use was able to. I think this shows that there is an important difference in how we think about what can be called general and specific ability, though it's by no means very clear, and you need some good examples to reveal it.
I know a little bit about the similarity and difference between "could" and "was able to" when referring to past ability. Here I'm more concerned about abilities in the future.
As we have discussed, we don't usually use "can" for specific future possibilities, we use "could" instead. Is it the same with "ability" as well? For example:

1) Boris Johnson can win the coming UK election.

Is this ability sentence correct with "can"?

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Re: It can be dangerous to cycle in the city.

Originally Posted by NAL123
Is it the same with "ability" as well? For example:

1) Boris Johnson can win the coming UK election.

Is this ability sentence correct with "can"?
It's grammatical but unlikely. Anyone who knows how British elections work knows it's possible for Johnson to win. Why would you need to say that?

With "could", you're expressing some level of probability: you wouldn't be tremendously surprised if he won.

10. Re: It can be dangerous to cycle in the city.

Originally Posted by NAL123
As we have discussed, we don't usually use "can" for specific future possibilities, we use "could" instead. Is it the same with "ability" as well?
No. Ability is different. When you want to focus on the idea that the ability applies to the future event, the it's better to use (will) be able to.

For example:

1) Boris Johnson can win the coming UK election.

Is this ability sentence correct with "can"?
Yes, it's correct. But there's a sense in which the ability in this case is more general than specific, even though the future event (winning the election) is very clearly a specific event. The way I understand this is hard to explain, but I'll try with the following two sentences:

These two sentences are not exactly the same. I want to suggest that all three cases of can/can't convey that the possibility of helping exists in what I'd call general time, not future time. In sentence 1, the difference between the blue and green parts is that the blue verb phrase relates to the present time and the green verb phrase relates to a future time. The blue helping is now and the green helping is in the future, but the possibility lies separately, as some abstracted idea that doesn't really exist in time at all. Another way of saying that is that it exists in all of time, all at once. It's similar to how we think of mathematical facts as being timeless; when we say two plus two equals four, we're not really saying anything about the present, past or future because two plus two equalled four a billion years ago, equals four right now, and will equal four in a billion years in the future. Generalisations similarly exist in this 'timeless' general time.

What sentence 2 does differently is place the focus of ability clearly in the future. It's truly a statement of future ability in a way that sentence 1 is not.

We could rephrase the sentences to get something like this:

1a) Helping you now is not possible now but helping you tomorrow is possible now.
2a) Helping you now is not possible now but helping you tomorrow will be possible tomorrow.

To apply this to context of use, you could imagine sentence 1 uttered by someone consulting their diary and seeing that tomorrow's page is blank. With sentence 2, the speaker is possibly seeing an image of himself in the future as he utters it, and seeing that the possibility exists there, at that particular future time, in his imagination.

I've no idea if that makes any sense to you. Let me know how much. It makes sense to me.

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