Enablement and possibility

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We need a better explanation of the differences in meaning and use between <i>can</i> and <i>may</i>. This paper proposes that the underlying semantics of all uses of <i>can</i> is <i>enablement</i>, in a precise sense derived from the philosophy of action, while <i>may</i> expresses metalinguistic possibility, linking a proposition with another domain of propositions. The widespread belief among linguists that modality involves possible worlds is wrong: neither &#8220;modality&#8221; nor &#8220;possible worlds&#8221; play a part in the analysis. Semantically, sentences containing <i>can</i> and <i>may</i> are typically incomplete, but the missing information is different in each case. Both involve <i>impliciture</i> (n.b. not <i>implicature</i>), a pervasive pragmatic process. The two words <i>can</i> and <i>may</i> thus have complex but divergent semantic properties, yet there is nothing unusual about their pragmatics. The analysis draws on Kent Bach&#8217;s work on semantics and pragmatics, which assumes a sharp conceptual divide between meaning and use.


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