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a. I don't believe he's able to open any safe.

b. I don't believe he can open any safe.

Don't (a) and (b) have two meanings?

First meaning: I don't believe he's able to open just any safe.

Second meaning: I don't believe he's able to open a single safe.


c. He is unable to open any safe.

d. He can't open any safe.

Don't (c) and (d) have two meanings?

First meaning: He can't open just any safe. He can only open some of them.

Second meaning: He can open no safe.

  • 1
    It's not clear what your asking or why this is confusing. "Is able to" is synonymous with "can". "Is not able to" is synonymous with "can't". It doesn't matter which you use. – Andrew Jul 12 '18 at 5:21
  • Although there may be ways to interpret these sentences with some ambiguity, at first read, I'd interpret them all to mean the same thing: my jewels are in no danger with him around; they are safely in the safe. – J.R. Jul 12 '18 at 9:34
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The number 1 definition of 'can' in the OED on-line dictionary is:

1 Be able to.

When you are referring to someone having the skill and/or knowledge to accomplish a task, 'can' and 'able' are synonymous (as also pointed out by Andrew in a comment to your question). There are other meanings of both words that are not synonymous, but they do not apply to the sentences you provided.

Adding 'just' in your comments totally changes the original sentence, i.e.:

I don't believe he's able to open any safe.

does not mean the same as

I don't believe he's able to open just any safe.

The second implies that he can open some safes but not any safe. Presumably he can only open safes of a particular kind. And, exactly the same problem occurs if you add 'just' to your original second sentence.

I don't believe he can open any safe.

I don't believe he can open just any safe.

Both sentences without 'just' mean the same. Both sentences with 'just' mean the same.

The exact same logic applies to (c) and (d)

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I think this makes more sense when spoken. When written A and B have pretty much the same meaning. When spoken you could change the meaning by emphasizing certain words... "I don't believe he can open any safe" - You underestimated his abilities. "I don't believe he can open any safe" - He can only open a some safes. That's how I see it

  • I agree that various meanings can be attributed to all of these sentences by emphasising different words within them. However, the OP made no mention of doing this, so I have interpreted the words as being spoken without any additional emphasis. – James Jul 12 '18 at 14:53
  • Thank you all so much! I should have asked if a change in intonation could change the meaning. I'm sorry. That was essential. – azz Jul 12 '18 at 17:50
  • @azz Once you introduce intonation to a written sentences the complexity increases many fold. I can think of at least five different ways that you can emphasise different words in each of these sentences that could change their apparent meaning. An actor may be able to find even more. I do not think there is any case where applying the same intonation to each of either pair of sentences would cause those sentences to mean different things. But, if you apply different intonation to each sentence in a pair - well you are no longer comparing apples to apples. – James Jul 12 '18 at 22:36

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