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Re: can-may

From:Herman Miller <hmiller@...>
Date:Tuesday, December 28, 2004, 4:59
Scotto Hlad wrote:

> The may/can debate is one of a number of pet peeves. > > "can" of course describes ability > "may" indicates conjecture. > "May I have a glass of water?" While polite, also lives that possibility > that one may not have a glass of water. Think in terms of subjuntive mood. > There is a element of unknown, we don't know the outcome of the condition.
I just noticed something interesting when I went to update the new Minza web page (to add a description of syllable structure). Here's what I'd written (see "At syllable boundaries, Minza words can have no more than two consonants (both voiced or both voiceless), although borrowed names may have more." After looking over this section and trying to figure out what distinction I was trying to make by using "can" vs. "may", it occurred to me that "may" is being used here to mean "optionally". "A syllable _may_ begin with a single consonant or certain combinations of two consonants" (but although not mentioned explicitly here, it may also begin with a vowel). On the other hand, "Minza words _can_ have no more than two consonants": this delimits the _possible_ forms of Minza words. Words with more than three consonants in a cluster can only be borrowed names, not Minza words. It may snow tomorrow. Then again, it might not. Actually there isn't any snow in the forecast _here_, but I'm sure it must be snowing _somewhere_. The highs are supposed to be around 35 tomorrow (a little under 2 Celsius); it's been getting warmer. Now if I had to come up with a reason why I used "may" in one sentence and "might" in the other, I'm not sure I'd be able to find a reasonable explanation. Still, although it would be unremarkable to say "it might snow tomorrow" or even "it could snow tomorrow", it doesn't seem right to say "it can snow tomorrow" for reasons I can't explain. (That is, I don't know what the reasons may be.) As far as asking permission goes, I'd probably use "could" rather than "can" or "may". I guess "may" in that sense always sounded artificial to me, as far as my own usage goes at any rate.