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Which modal verb do I use in the first blank? I know that “may” is for asking permission, but “can” is for showing capability. So throwing a peel is somewhat a capability.

Some people can/may throw banana peels on the ground. When a person who is walking briskly, steps on it, he will slip ending in a fractured bone or even some more dangerous eventualities.

Fill in the blanks.


MY ATTEMPT

  1. can

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    Why do you prefer "can"? – Henry Mar 21 at 20:41
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    Because May is for asking permission, but can is for showing capability. So throwing a peel is somewhat a capability – Kaushik Mar 21 at 20:52
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    Alas, that's not the only use. May and can are also used for possibility, especially in the negative. Either modal will do for (1), but (2) should be or, not and, because another possibility is being mentioned. – John Lawler Mar 21 at 22:09
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    Your inclusion of the second word choice is confusing the issue, making it appear as if you are asking two different things. It would be best to cut off the quotation after the first sentence and only ask about the difference between can and may. (However, barring more information, either word can be used in the first sentence.) – Jason Bassford Supports Monica Mar 23 at 17:15
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There is an additional meaning to "may" here. To explain:

  • Anyone possessing banana peels can cast them on the ground; anyone is capable of doing so.
  • The child may cast banana peels on the ground because the parent gave her permission to do so; this is the sense of receiving permission.
  • The adult may cast banana peels on the ground; let's watch and see. The more correct (less ambiguous) word in this sense is "might" rather than "may". This is the opposite of receiving permission; it's exercising personal choice.

I interpret the original sentence as carrying the third meaning. We know this because the second sentence explains the consequence of the person choosing to cast banana peels on the ground. The fact that anyone can (is capable of) is meaningless in light of the second sentence. The fact that anyone may (might choose to) is the thought leading to the second sentence.

If the original sentence were "The sign states that anyone may cast banana peels onto the ground here, so take care that you do not fall", "may" clearly means "has permission to". But that's not what it says! We are asking the person to choose to NOT cast banana peels out of consideration for the safety of others.

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Consider: "It may rain tomorrow."

Is this about permission? Surely not, unless the speaker is God. This sense of the word 'may' refers to possibility rather than permission.

Without further context, the sentence above is best interpreted as being similar to this sense, although technically your choice of "can" is not ungrammatical.


However, you could argue that your choice is equally valid given sufficient context. Take for example, a pair of pranksters discussing possible pranks:

"Somebody can drop a banana on the ground...."

In this case 'can' gives a stronger sense of potential than 'may', appropriate for suggesting a possible course of action.

Note how when I suggested that you "could argue" that your choice is equally valid that I used the past tense? That shows a higher degree of doubtfulness.

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