Enablement and possibility
We need a better explanation of the differences in meaning and use between can and may. This paper proposes that the underlying semantics of all uses of can is enablement, in a precise sense derived from the philosophy of action, while may expresses metalinguistic possibility, linking a proposition with another domain of propositions. The widespread belief among linguists that modality involves possible worlds is wrong: neither “modality” nor “possible worlds” play a part in the analysis. Semantically, sentences containing can and may are typically incomplete, but the missing information is different in each case. Both involve impliciture (n.b. not implicature), a pervasive pragmatic process. The two words can and may thus have complex but divergent semantic properties, yet there is nothing unusual about their pragmatics. The analysis draws on Kent Bach’s work on semantics and pragmatics, which assumes a sharp conceptual divide between meaning and use.
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