I'm reading a book on modality where the author gives the following examples of possibility with "can":

  1. It can be cold in Stockholm in winter - okay
  2. It can be cold in Stockholm now - wrong
  3. It can be cold in Stockholm tomorrow - wrong

Why 2 and 3 are considered wrong? What picture would they bring to your mind if you heard them?

  • Interesting question! As a native speaker, I instantly know that examples 2 and 3 are very unlikely (there are some contexts where they're acceptable, but it's easier to just dismiss them as "invalid"). It may be useful to note that we can introduce an "adverb of frequency" into the sequence it can be X. And maybe the fact that your second two examples don't work is easier for some non-native speakers to see if we consider It can always be cold in Stockholm now, or It can sometimes be cold in Stockholm tomorrow (both "weird" to the native ear). – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Oct 29 '19 at 13:06
  • "...there are some contexts where they're acceptable...". This is exactly the purpose of my post, FumbleFingers, to see what pictures or thought forms arise inside a natives's mind when he/she hears "can". I've seen thousands of "correct" usages of "can", and they didn't really help the matter:( So I'm wondering what would 2 and 3 cause you to think of? Oftentimes to get a better idea of how somehing works you need to go beyond the correct usages and look into the incorrect ones to figure out what exactly makes them incorrect:) – Vsevolod IV Oct 29 '19 at 13:30
  • oic. It's not too hard to contrive a context for the now version. Long ago, the climate in Sweden was almost tropical, but it can be cold in Stockholm now. But I'm afraid I can't come up with something like that for the tomorrow version. The best I can do there is to imagine some "mad climate scientist" with a machine that allows him to choose which places will be hot, and which cold, on a day-to-day basis. And he's just considering the possibility of choosing Stockholm to be one of the cold places tomorrow. Semantically weak, I know, but at least it's syntactically credible. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Oct 29 '19 at 13:36
  • That's brilliant!:) Thank you! – Vsevolod IV Oct 29 '19 at 13:50
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    In a periodical "Modes if Modality" Raphael Salkie (University of Brighton) explains semantic properties of "can" in terms of what he refers to as "enablement": X enables S. X - a set of facilitating factors; S - the situation, expressed by the proposition; enables = provides a set of facilitating factors, enabling the proposition. The difference with "may" here is that X is supplied by the real-world facts/observations/circumstances, etc., while "may" expresses exactly the opposite - the lack of factual knowledge. – Vsevolod IV Oct 29 '19 at 15:12

The differences between modals is subtle

It can be cold in Stockholm in winter


It will certainly be cold in Stockholm at least some of the time

This is a statement about a general but not invariable state of affairs. You would say

Stockholm will get dark early in winter

because that is invariably the case

You would not say

It can be cold in Stockholm today

because what you mean is to assert a known fact

It is cold in Stockholm today

or else you mean to present what is no more than a probability

It may be cold in Stockholm today

If you want to make a prediction in which you have high confidence, you might say

It will be cold in Stockholm tomorrow

If you want to make a prediction in which you do not have high confidence or to provide a warning, you might say

It may be cold in Stockholm tomorrow

  • Thank you, Jeff. Could you please tell me what makes the 2 and 3 incorrect? If in a conversation someone says this, how would your mind parse it? Why exactly is it wrong? – Vsevolod IV Oct 29 '19 at 13:35
  • I don't think It can be cold in Stockholm in winter exactly means It will certainly be cold in Stockholm at least some of the time. I think it's more accurate to say that the meaning of it can be in such contexts is closer to In the past, it has been cold in Stockholm (so there's a reasonable chance it will be cold again, since history does have a tendency to repeat itself). – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Oct 29 '19 at 13:42
  • @Vsevoled My mind would not parse it because it is not idiomatic. I would end up asking "Do you mean that you know it definitely is cold today or you suspect that it may possibly be cold today?" As I said in my answer, "can" in the sense of possibility tends to relate to general but not invariable likelihoods rather than very specific possibilities that are either true or false. Those situations tend to take "may." Of course there are other distinctions between "can" and "may" that are not related to probabilities at all. – Jeff Morrow Oct 29 '19 at 16:37
  • @FF I continue to think "can" in that usage means "will but not always" and does not specify the basis for the limited assertion. For example, if I were to say anything about the weather in Stockholm, that assertion would not purport to say anything about my past experience there, which is nil. Maybe this is a subtle difference between British and American usage. – Jeff Morrow Oct 29 '19 at 16:41

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